I'm learning a whole new way to argue, or as I prefer to put it, make up stuff. A recent letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette about the sale of WDUQ states that "jazz [is] inarguably the most influential cultural innovation of the 20th century." Hum. Inarguably. Well, that pretty much ends the conversation.
But I'll argue it anyway. I think the crown of cultural innovation should go to the civil rights movement, or rock and roll, or penicillin or Pee Wee Herman. What about Prince, or the Hula Hoop? What about Shirley Temple, or the Wizard of Oz? What about Elvis? I think we need an all-Elvis radio station here, and I also think it is my God-given right to have one. Porky Chedwick, where are you?
Jazz radio in Western Pennsylvania is unsustainable. Duquesne University was subsidizing WDUQ with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. How can jazz listeners actually believe they are entitled to that level of subsidy from a private university?
For those listeners who want to argue jazz is critical to our cultural fabric, I have a few points to make.
According to January 2010 Arbitron ratings (Arbitron is the company most used to monitor radio usage), WDUQ was ranked No. 5 among all local radio stations in the market during morning drive time, when NPR's Morning Edition is aired. During morning drive time, 90.5 is right up there with behemoths like WDVE and KDKA.
Now, what is WDUQ's ranking at 10 a.m., when jazz is in full swing? No. 15. You can practically hear radio receivers being turned off around Western Pennsylvania when jazz follows news and information.
Is jazz a great art form? Well, I'd say that's undeniable, er, inarguable. But figuring out how to pay for it is another matter.
Historically, single-format news and information public radio stations outperform mixed-format radio stations in every single major market in the United States. They outperform in the number of listeners, the amount raised from listeners and the amount raised from corporate underwriting. As of this writing, there is only one major market with a mixed-format NPR station and that station is in Atlanta. The format is classical and NPR.
A challenge: Name all the full-time jazz clubs in Pittsburgh. Go ahead, I'm waiting. Little E's, perhaps. That's about it. But there is, sadly, a very long list of jazz clubs that have opened and closed over the past 25 years. Why? For all the grumbling, not enough people go to jazz clubs. Oh, and these clubs came and went while WDUQ was programming a lot of jazz.
So from my perspective it's inarguable: If a listener is serious about jazz, and not just about complaining about the loss of it on terrestrial radio, then a little personal initiative is in order. A trip to a big-box retailer buys you 24/7 access to jazz (in the form of an HD receiver) for less than an annual pledge to a public radio station. There is all the jazz you can eat, and it isn't remotely hard to find.
Now, go find me a richer radio source for 24-hour, in-depth regional, national and international reporting on our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the environment, government, health care, culture and public safety.
On July 1, you will find only one of these cultural innovations in our region: the new 90.5 and National Public Radio.
Correction/Clarification: (Published June 29, 2011) Pittsburgh Filmmakers Executive Director Charlie Humphrey, whose op-ed column supporting the news format of the successor radio station to WDUQ was published Tuesday, is launching a nonprofit community journalism initiative that plans to provide news coverage to the new station. This affiliation was not included with the article.
Charlie Humphrey is executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).