As a jazz fan and former newspaper jazz critic, I read the news about the looming demise of broadcast jazz in Pittsburgh with sadness akin to losing an old friend. But as a journalist and media scholar/educator, I greeted the change to a virtually all-news format at WDUQ-FM with some eagerness.
Essential Public Media, owner of WYEP-FM, and its partner, Public Media Co., new owners of Pittsburgh's first and oldest public radio frequency, plan to limit on-air jazz broadcasting to six hours a week on Saturday nights while preserving the syndicated Jazz-Works and increasing jazz fare on the Internet and HD. That means about 90-plus weekly hours of on-air radio jazz will disappear July 1 -- quite a hit, especially in the context of this city's jazz history.
Popular news programming -- including National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," "All Things Considered" and "Fresh Air" -- will be kept on the revamped 90.5 FM frequency. Along with these mainstays -- and here's the exciting part -- the new broadcast menu is to include an emphasis on in-depth journalism on issues of importance to the region. Some of this will be reportage produced by Web-based PublicSource, created under the auspices of Pittsburgh Filmmakers with funding from the Pittsburgh Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
This undertaking will feature long-form journalism with a social justice flavor, using the national ProPublica format as a model, some PublicSource folks told me a few weeks ago. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit organization that specializes in investigative stories that its website describes as "moral force" journalism.
PublicSource plans to partner with other organizations, as well, and bring to the Pittsburgh region a new type of journalism now appearing in cities across the nation that emphasizes community-centered information presented through text, video, audio and photography, using both traditional print and broadcast platforms and the Internet.
This ambitious endeavor does raise a few questions, including what size reporting and editing staff will be involved, or if there will be a heavy reliance on freelancers and bloggers, a la the Huffington Post, that could detract from journalistic quality and integrity. Also, will there be money to maintain the flow of information once the startup grants are exhausted?
Still, considering the current state of commercial broadcasting -- news stories focused on quick-hit headlines; narrow-minded talk show formats dominated by conservative forces; news agendas centered on celebrities, entertainment and sports; radio frequencies amok with classic rock, religion and country/western -- this is certainly an intriguing enterprise. And plans to include issues-focused local journalism bode well for a democracy that relies on an informed citizenry.
The format change at WDUQ needn't mean the death of broadcast jazz in Pittsburgh. Loyal WDUQ listeners have vowed to maintain a jazz presence on the air in Pittsburgh.
Good. Any such effort merits support; jazz not only is an important part of Pittsburgh's history, it remains a vibrant part of Pittsburgh's present-day musical culture.
The recent news that the urban format of WAMO will be revived by the new owner of WPYT-AM offers hope that where there is an audience there will be a venue. As successful WDUQ fund-raising drives and letters to the editor have demonstrated, this city has an audience of jazzers willing to pitch in.
Meanwhile, the new owners of WDUQ are obtaining a broadcast treasure. And their responsibility is large. This opportunity to improve and deepen a journalistic community with its own strong broadcast legacy (think KDKA, the first commercial radio station) must not be squandered.
Steve Hallock , director of graduate studies for the School of Communication at Point Park University, is author of "Reporters Who Made History: Great American Journalists on the Issues and Crises of the Late 20th Century" ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).