Jazz Music Finds A Home At Suburban WDCB-FM

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Posted by chicagomedia.org on April 05, 2009 at 18:46:03:

WDCB, jazz advocacy find a home in suburbia

By Howard Reich | Tribune critic

April 5, 2009

Welcome to Chicago's top jazz radio station -- in bucolic Glen Ellyn.

That's right, a music that long has epitomized the gritty urban experience finds its mightiest broadcast champion not in the Loop or on the South Side or in Uptown (spots where jazz has thrived for roughly a century) but deep in DuPage County, of all places.

For more than 20 years, and with rising prominence in the last few seasons, public radio WDCB-FM 90.9 has championed jazz over Chicago's airwaves. With 100-plus hours a week now devoted to the music and a signal that reaches past Lake Forest to the north, Joliet to the south and DeKalb to the west, WDCB looms large in a music not typically associated with life in suburbia.

Nevertheless, when Chicago Public Radio's WBEZ-FM 91.5 dropped most of its jazz programming two years ago, WDCB -- owned and operated by the College of DuPage -- instantly became top dog. Moreover, the station steadily has deepened its commitment to the music and watched its ratings surge, notwithstanding its remote ZIP code.

"Our geographic location has little to do with our love of jazz," says Ken Scott, WDCB marketing director and arguably its most visible public face (thanks to uncounted promotional appearances at jazz festivals, club sets and you name it).

"Ask listeners if they think less of us because of where we're located," adds Scott. "They're just happy to have the jazz."

That's putting it mildly.

"What would we do without it?" asks Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal, whose radio hums with the sounds of WDCB even as he's speaking.

"We listen all the time," says Geraldine de Haas, president of non-profit Jazz Unites Inc.

"They're it, baby," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago.

Though other stations -- such as Northwestern University's WNUR-FM 89.3 and the University of Chicago's WHPK-FM 88.5 -- also offer segments of jazz programming, neither devotes nearly so much air time to the music nor reaches as wide a geographical swath as WDCB.

As marketing director Scott unblinkingly puts it, "We are Chicago's jazz station."

Well, yes and no. Even if WDCB dominates locally in broadcasting jazz, a few issues prove difficult to overlook.

For starters, although the outlet gloriously saturates the airwaves with jazz from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, try tuning in on weeknights: You'll encounter folk, bluegrass, public-affairs programming -- practically every niche but jazz. On weekends, the lineup offers great heaps of jazz throughout Sunday but Chuck Schaden's "Those Were the Days" oldies-radio program from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays. For many jazz devotees, Fibber McGee and Molly ain't exactly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

In effect, WDCB offers three distinct and somewhat confusing identities: jazz, public affairs and a grab bag of the eclectic.

"Actually, it's only two identities," protests Scott, pointing out that public-radio stations usually have a news block.

Even so, the shifts between jazz and so many other musical genres blur the station's profile.

"Yes, there are separate audiences for the station," says WDCB program director Mary Pat LaRue. "But there are people who like folk music and know this station is one of the few places they can go to.

"What I like to think is that people who love jazz may also love blues, and their interests don't necessarily end there."

Adds station manager Scott Wager, "We want to be an alternative for listeners." That is, an alternative to the commercial sounds that otherwise overwhelm the radio dial.

Even if one concedes that WDCB nobly serves many constituencies by programming genres that thrive outside the mainstream, there's another problem: Though it's easy to receive the station's signal across much of suburbia, high-rises in the Loop and residences in portions of the Far South and North Sides of the city often have trouble tuning in.

At 5,000 watts, WDCB is no superstation.

"We've looked into trying to increase our power, but the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has not looked favorably on it," says Scott. With WMBI-FM 90.1 and WBEZ-FM 91.5 on either side of WDCB on the dial, says Scott, there's a risk of signals bumping up against one another were WDCB to boost its power.

Finally, some jazz aficionados complain about the nature of jazz programming at WDCB, which celebrates the mainstream but, alas, not the avant-garde. Don't expect to hear 8 Bold Souls or the Art Ensemble of Chicago blasting from Glen Ellyn very often.

Program director LaRue has heard the charge before.

"I spend a lot of time with people who call," she says. "I hear from people who say we don't play enough Dixieland, who say that vocals are not jazz, who say that a jazz version of a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is not jazz."

"I don't have enough time in the day" to play everything everyone wants to hear, she adds.

For all its flaws, WDCB long since became essential to jazz listeners here, especially after WBEZ turned its back on the music. Equally important, in recent years WDCB increasingly has become more than just a broadcaster, using its clout to help present jazz across the Chicago area. Events such as the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, Jazz Fest Glen Ellyn and the Jazz Salon recital series of the Pianoforte Foundation (which is broadcast on WDCB) have benefited enormously from WDCB's promotional muscle and programming expertise.

The station, in turn, has been rewarded with an audience that has more than doubled in less than a decade, from an average 79,300 in 2000 to an average 175,000 today, says Scott. With a budget of slightly more than $1 million, the station -- which was founded in 1977 and started focusing on jazz in 1988 -- receives 35 percent of its budget from the College of DuPage. The rest of its revenue comes from grants, special events, corporate underwriters and listener memberships (hence the just-concluded pledge drive, one of two per year).

Yet despite the station's obvious success, it stands at a potential turning point: Will WDCB live up to its claim to be "Chicago's jazz station," as Scott puts it, or will jazz forever share billing with every non-pop musical genre under the sun?

Though station executives have no intention of booting the non-jazz programming, they want to cater to jazz fans online. So in addition to streaming its signal, which it does now at wdcb.org, within a year the station may create new streams devoted to jazz and blues. That way, when Jack Benny and other relics come on the air, jazz listeners can switch to the Internet.

That's a far cry from a 24-hour jazz radio station, but, then again, the definition of radio is changing rapidly in the face of new technologies.

"Look -- Internet car radios are just starting, and you can now stream WDCB on your iPhone," says Scott, believing -- and hoping -- that listeners will follow the station's music programming through alternate platforms.

"Our goal is to be the first place people turn to for jazz," says program director LaRue.

Though not necessarily on the air.


The best jazz shows on WDCB-FM 90.9


April 5, 2009

The best jazz shows on WDCB

* "All Things Jazz," 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. The station has cornered the market for daytime listening, with an emphasis on the mainstream.

* "Swing Shift," 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. Deejay Bruce Oscar revels in music of the swing era, with an emphasis on big bands.

* "Victor Parra's Mambo Express," 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Parra leads a tour of Cuban music, past and present, in one of the most danceable shows on the radio.

* "Jazz Tropicale," 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays. Chicago pianist-bandleader Marshall Vente examines Afro-Caribbean sounds.

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