What WESA gets right: 'Essential Pittsburgh'

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More than a year after the plug was pulled on WDUQ's jazz format, it is clear some folks will never make their peace with WESA.

Under new ownership and management, WDUQ was initially re-branded as Essential Public Radio, but abandoned that moniker in early August. Following the lead of public radio stations in other markets, WESA switched its format to news, talk and the BBC all night.

Contrary to the expectations of the station's new programmers, shifting jazz to a digital ghetto requiring special equipment didn't mollify 'DUQ's legion of jazz fans. It isn't that jazz aficionados are Luddites. They know how to access their favorite music and former WDUQ radio personalities via the Internet and other platforms. That appears to be what they're doing.

What must have come as a surprise to many was loyalty to WDUQ didn't automatically translate into listener support of whatever public radio entity arose in its place. A lot of jazz fans who swore they wouldn't support the new format kept their word and have migrated to other places and platforms, despite the fact that "Rhythm Sweet & Hot" and Bob Studebaker's jazz show are still on the air on Saturdays.

As a longtime fan of the station's old format, I wasn't crazy about the shift, either. Still, I was more willing than some to give it a spin. I was immediately mystified by the decision to program the Canadian show "Q," hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, every weekday at 9 p.m. I couldn't believe that instead of Tony Mowod's jazz show, I was getting unctuous interviews with what seemed like a succession of obscure Canadian indie rockers.

On the positive side, I was pleased when WESA programmed three dynamic news and interview shows -- "The Takeaway," "On Point" and "Tell Me More" -- for the mornings. But with the August reformatting, all three have been dropped in favor of an extra hour of "Morning Edition," followed by "The Diane Rehm Show." Nothing against Ms. Rehm, but two hours of conventional Washington Beltway punditry is a bit much given the loss of diversity represented by the programs it replaced.

On the weekends, old staples like "Car Talk," "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" and "This American Life" get slots on both Saturdays and Sundays. Maybe it's just me, but "The Splendid Table" always seems to be on whenever I randomly tune in.

WESA is at least trying to branch out with adventurous programming like "The Dinner Party," "Radiolab," "Joe Frank" and "WTF," and we have to thank them for keeping Harry Shearer's "Le Show," a Sunday-night staple that makes the world make sense.

Whatever we lost with the demise of WDUQ, we have to applaud the new station for creating "Essential Pittsburgh" hosted by Pittsburgh-native Paul Guggenheimer. Mr. Guggenheimer returned to Pittsburgh in January after a 25-year sojourn mostly in the Midwest, where he was most recently host of a public radio program in South Dakota.

"Essential Pittsburgh," a local news, feature and talk radio program, airs Monday through Friday at noon for an hour and is repeated at 8 p.m. Those are, alas, two of the worst times on the station's schedule, in my opinion. This is doubly ironic because there are few shows as relevant to Pittsburghers and the issues we care about as "Essential Pittsburgh."

It deserves a bigger audience than the one available at those times. Whether hosting an informative discussion about the Miles Jordan verdict with a police union lawyer and a civil rights leader, or wading into the high policy weeds of the UPMC/Highmark impasse, Mr. Guggenheimer demonstrates a consistent mastery of the subject.

He asks the questions we would all ask given the opportunity, along with a few that never would have occurred to us.

Because he's fair-minded and prepared, Mr. Guggenheimer can get the big names in local politics and culture to come on the show either in studio or by phone. The format of "Essential Pittsburgh" allows Mr. Guggenheimer enough time to delve into the subject without cutting his guests short.

On the rare occasion when there is an on-air shouting match, such as the recent show on voter ID between a Democratic state senator opposed to the rules restricting access and a defender of the legislation, Mr. Guggenheimer was able to referee their heated exchange without tamping down their passion or indignation.

In March, Mr. Guggenheimer famously survived an attempted on-air mauling by Andre Previn, the 82-year-old former Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director, after the legendary conductor took exception to questions about how his childhood in Germany affected his music.

"You ask questions that you couldn't ask, you know, a sick dog," Mr. Previn said at one point before apologizing.

If Mr. Guggenheimer was rattled, he didn't show it. That's a skill that will come in handy as WESA tries to find its footing in Pittsburgh radio.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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