WYZR swings on as a new voice of jazz

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Pittsburgh jazz fans felt a void in 2011 when Duquesne University sold radio station WDUQ and the format was dropped. Now, thanks to Chuck Leavens and other former WDUQ staffers, jazz has been back on the air for about six months.

Mr. Leavens, the former voice of the station and director of engineering and information technology at WDUQ, is now general manager of WYZR, 88.1 FM, with a studio at Donaldson’s Crossroads in Peters. As far as he’s concerned, it’s just the beginning.

“We’re doing things one step at a time, one piece at a time,” Mr. Leavens said.

That started almost immediately when the music stopped at the end of June 2011.

“Most people who worked at WDUQ worked there for a long time — we were a work family,” he said. “We felt victimized by the actions of the university as well as the new owners, so we picked ourselves up and [moved forward]. We were determined not to go away.”

Just a month later, the group formed PubMusic and went online with the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel — “our least expensive course of action,” Mr. Leavens said. Within two years, PubMusic has become a major distributor of jazz programming to public radio stations, he said.

It wasn’t long before the group began to look for a broadcast license and eventually located one at Bethany College in West Virginia. It bought the license in May of last year for about $135,000 and went on the air three months later.

Why Peters?

“The [Federal Communications Commission] says that we have to locate the radio station within 25 miles of the city of license, which is Bethany, W.Va. That’s an FCC rule that we couldn’t get around,” Mr. Leavens said. “Choosing a location that satisfied the requirement and [is] easy to access — Donaldson’s Crossroads was perfect.”

WYZR listeners will hear “a wide variety, from classic jazz artists and artists of today,” Mr. Leavens said. “We could play [Duke] Ellington followed by [trumpeter and Duquesne University professor] Sean Jones — we play the whole spectrum.” Well not the entire spectrum — “The idea of a Kenny G format is not what we’re about.”

It won’t be all jazz, all the time, however. Because PubMusic is now partnering with the New York-based African-American Public Radio Consortium, it has access to specialty shows. “The Roots of Smooth,” featuring personal journeys and artistic influences of noted musicians airs at 6 p.m. Fridays and 1 p.m. Saturdays. The late Bobby Jackson, originally with Pittsburgh Jazz Channel, recorded the programs before his death at Christmastime.

“Gospel Greats,” hosted by jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, will be broadcast at 8 a.m. the next two Sundays; “Mandela: An Audio History” will be heard at 9 a.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Feb. 22; and “Feeling Good: The Nina Simone Story,” hosted by the late pianist/​singer’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, can be heard at 2 p.m. Saturday. The station has plans to do more, but “We’re pretty busy people, allowing things to unfold in good time,” Mr. Leavens said.

While staff members are cautious, they’re also ambitious.

“We don’t consider the station to be the end,” Mr. Leavens said. “We considered it the start because we know the deep roots of jazz in this region.”

Correction, posted Feb. 13, 2014: The purchase price of the Bethany College has been corrected. Also, the name PubMedia has been corrected.

Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871.

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