The Jazzcat

Crying the Blues Over KKJZ's Future

by on May.17, 2006, under News

Crying the Blues Over KKJZ's Future
 By Martin Miller, Times Staff Writer
11:48 AM PDT, May 19, 2006

Is classic jazz radio — at least in the Los Angeles area — headed for oblivion?

That's what the jazz community fears now that KKJZ-FM's (88.1)

license-holder, the California State University Long Beach Foundation,

has launched a search for new management at the public radio station.

Five local radio companies, with roots in genres as diverse as

classical music and urban contemporary, have been asked to submit

proposals on how they would run the station that broadcasts to much of

Los Angeles, Orange County and the inland Empire. They include KCRW-FM

(89.9), KUSC-FM (91.5), Southern California Public Radio, Taxi

Productions and Pacific Public Radio, which now operates KKJZ.

“KKJZ is a very famous jazz station and there aren't many more

around like them,” said Frank Sinatra Jr., son of the singing legend,

and a professional musician who lives in West Los Angeles. “[Straight

ahead] jazz is the biggest music in the world, except in the country it

was created. It would be such a big loss if they stopped playing jazz.

That station is the last lighthouse in the fog.”

A move away from the station's 25-year-old format that features

classic or “straight ahead” jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Billie

Holiday and John Coltrane would mirror the national pattern. Former

classic jazz stations in Detroit and Chicago have recently scaled back

their classic offerings while introducing new musical genres in hopes

of attracting more listeners. The only other major market classic jazz

station with a professional staff is WBGO-FM in Newark, N.J.

While classic jazz's fan base is shrinking and aging, so-called

“smooth” jazz outlets, with a more contemporary saxophone-rich sound,

have enjoyed a steady rise in popularity and financial success at

commercial stations such as CBS Radio-owned KTWV-FM (94.7) of Southern


The search for a new operator for the 30,000-watt campus station

was prompted by the expiration of Pacific's contract in December, said

Toni Beron, assistant vice president of public affairs at Cal State

Long Beach. Beron said the university foundation is interested in a

company that can sustain a sound financial future.

“I want to make clear this is not an attempt to push out Pacific

Public Radio,” she said. “We want to make sure KKJZ continues its jazz

format and there is no intention of changing its roots in jazz. We're

trying to cover the costs that are related to running a premiere jazz

radio station.”

In judging potential station suitors, the university foundation

will review a company's ability to strengthen ties between the college

and the radio station, Beron said

In particular, the foundation wants to see more internships for

students, and better ways to integrate the college's arts and jazz

program into the station as well.

The contenders are among the region's highest-profile radio

operations. KCRW is the Santa Monica-based powerhouse, whose creative

mix of cutting-edge music and sophisticated political talk and satire

have made it one of the nation's most influential public radio

stations. KUSC, meanwhile, is one of the nation's largest and most

respected nonprofit classical music stations.

Southern California Public Radio operates KPCC-FM at Pasadena City

College, and helped that station climb atop the heap of local public

radio ratings with its smart mix of news and public affairs. Its also a

sister company to Minnesota Public Radio, which operates a regional

network of almost 40 public radio stations.

And Taxi Productions Inc. is singer Stevie Wonder's company, which runs KJLH-FM (102.3), an adult urban contemporary format.

Pacific is far from confident about its odds in this competition.

“We just don't have the dollars to match them,” said Jeff Adler,

Pacific Public Radio chairman. “Things are stacked against us. The

university has become bottom line, and they look at the station and

say, 'You should be a cash cow for us.'”

The station, which has about 40 full- and part-time employees and

300,000 listeners, struggles to break even each year with an annual

budget of about $3 million. Like other public radio stations, it relies

heavily on listeners for financial support — a recent pledge drive

brought in about $400,000, Adler said.

Another important source of funding for the station comes from the

annual Long Beach Blues Festival, an event that usually brings it about


“We're concerned that no matter what is said during this process

that jazz isn't going to be on the forefront of everyone's mind,” said

Sean Heitkemper, KKJZ's acting general manager. “We have one mission

and that is to be the beacon in the night for jazz and blues on the

public broadcast spectrum.”

Bids are due from the five radio companies Aug. 1, with a decision

expected at the end of September. (The university foundation has the

option of rejecting all the bids.) The winning bidder will have to

share revenues with the university foundation — an unusual requirement

for a public radio station. The percentage split between the parties

has yet to be determined, Beron said.

“It will be used to cover costs related to the station space and

related foundation expenses,” Beron said. “The bottom line of what

we're trying to do is not financial.”

Of those invited to participate in the bidding process, Southern

California Public Radio seems like the strongest candidate. But the

real question is whether the company is interested.

“We don't know yet whether we will respond,” said Bill Davis,

president of Southern California Public Radio. “But clearly god isn't

making more FM spectrum, so when a station comes available to manage,

you have to take a look at it.”

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