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, 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'd run the station that broadcasts to much of Los Angeles, Orange County and the inland Empire, as well as to the nation at large via the Internet. They include KCRW-FM (89.9), KUSC-FM (91.5), Southern California Public Radio, Taxi Productions Inc. and Pacific Public Radio, which currently operates KKJZ.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
KKJZ-FM: In some copies of today's Calendar, an article about classic jazz station KKJZ-FM said that KCRW-FM was listed as one of five local radio operations bidding to run KKJZ. Executives at KCRW say the station was invited to bid, but it will not participate.
"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 like 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 like CBS Radio-owned KTWV-FM (94.7) of Southern California.
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 premier 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.
Those asked to compete are among the region's highest-profile radio operations.
KUSC is one of the nation's largest and most respected nonprofit classical music stations. Southern California Public Radio operates KPCC-FM (89.3) 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. It's also a sister company to Minnesota Public Radio, which operates a regional network of almost 40 public radio stations. And Taxi Productions Inc., singer Stevie Wonder's company, runs KJLH-FM (102.3), an adult urban contemporary format.
KCRW, the Santa Monica-based powerhouse, said it would not compete.
Meanwhile, 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 $500,000.
"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 on Aug. 1, with a final 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 revenue with the 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 its president, Bill Davis. "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."