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KPCC Change Leaves an On-Air Vacuum

August 11, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The recent sweeping change of format at Pasadena radio station KPCC-FM (89.3) has created what is essentially a shutout in Los Angeles for National Public Radio's jazz programs.

In replacing its musically diverse 8 to 11 weeknight block with a single local show dedicated to alternative music, KPCC dropped "JazzSet With Branford Marsalis," "Making the Music" with Wynton Marsalis, "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" and "Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center." Further compounding the sudden jazz vacuum at what had been one of Southern California's dependable sources for the music, KPCC's morning program "Classic American Music" was also dropped, replaced by a local talk show and NPR's rescheduled "Talk of the Nation."

KPCC General Manager Rod Foster says the station, pressured to increase ratings by emphasizing a new format or lose funding from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, felt that the station had few choices.

"Actually," Foster says, "given what we were currently programming and what everybody else was doing, we didn't see any other options, at all."

The jury is still out on whether ratings, in fact, have increased for KPCC since the changes. But the station has received far fewer complaint calls than expected--probably less than 100--and, Foster adds, the response to the new morning "Talk of the City" show has been "very good."

Regardless of the number of complaints, the net result of the change has been that the Los Angeles area, second only to New York in its concentration of jazz performers and listeners, has been left without access to some of the best-produced, most thoughtfully executed jazz programming in the country. (Thousand Oaks listeners can still hear "JazzSet" on KCLU-FM [88.3], Ventura County's only public radio station.)

The changes came as a surprise to Becka Pulliam, producer of "JazzSet."

"I'm really disturbed by this," she says. "We've been working hard on this show, and we've got some great programs coming up, including a live set featuring Branford and his father, Ellis Marsalis."

NPR spokeswoman Pat Lute expressed regret over the near absence of the high-profile jazz shows in Southern California but pointed out that the agency's policy has always been to "encourage local decision-making regarding programming."

"I'd love for those shows to be in Los Angeles," she says, "and I'll be happy to sell them to any NPR affiliate that wants to make them available to their listeners. Beyond that, there's not much more we can do."

Lute emphasizes, however, that NPR's commitment to quality jazz programming remains strong, with ample resources to continue creative exploration of the music.

"We've received a generous grant from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund," she notes, "and we're going to continue to move forward with jazz. You can count on that."

The logical outlet for the NPR programs would seem to be KLON-FM (88.1) in Long Beach, a full-time jazz station. But KLON is not a member of NPR.

"We can't afford it," explains General Manager Judy Jankowsky. "Fortunately, we just had a great pledge drive, but we still operate on a very tight budget and we don't have the funds to buy that kind of program or, for that matter, to maintain NPR membership."

The area's two other major NPR stations--KUSC-FM (91.5) and KCRW-FM (89.9)--have full schedules of locally oriented music and jazz programs. Both rely upon NPR primarily for news shows.

"We've got plenty of jazz throughout our schedule," says KUSC publicist Bob Brownson. "We generate it ourselves in programming throughout the day, some on Bonnie Grice's 'Wake Up, LA!' and Rene Engel's 'Afternoon Classics,' and on the weekends we've got 'Riverwalk,' with traditional jazz, and 'Worldwide Jazz,' with jazz from everywhere."

KCRW also features an array of self-generated programming, some of which includes jazz, including "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and "Cafe L.A."

There are two benefits to the kinds of local programs produced by KLON, KCRW and KUSC: The first is simply that they make good budgetary sense; KPCC's abandonment of the NPR jazz shows in favor of its own programs, for example, has lowered costs while making a move toward increased listenership.

The second benefit is the establishment of a station personality, which in and of itself can help draw listenership.

KUSC's change of format from classical to a broad range of music and talk provoked some complaints.

"But now," Brownson says, "we're pretty much where we want to be, with a bit of something for almost every taste."

KPCC's Foster agrees, pointing out that "we didn't want to have music that you had to make an appointment with to hear it, which is pretty much what we had with the discrete NPR music shows. And the alternative music format we've added tests real well with our NPR news talk programming. So we're expecting a definite trend upward in our listenership."

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