Jackson, Bobby Bobby.Jackson at ideastream.org
Fri Apr 21 12:22:29 EDT 2006


More BEZ thoughts from the features blog of the Chicago Tribune.

Bobby Jackson


Can you believe that WBEZ-FM 91.5 is dumping jazz, world music and
blues? Neither can I. 
I thought the city's public-radio station would never get around to
making this smart decision, a big improvement over its current
personality divide.

It's not that I hate jazz, blues or world music. A little of each goes a
long way for me, to be sure, but they are all fine, even splendid, at
certain times -- like during brunch and over tinny speakers in
college-town clothing stores. 
But even melodic jazz (as opposed to the numbingly virtuosic kind; I get
it, dude, you can play your horn) is no match for a lineup of first-rate
public-affairs programs, and the latter is just what WBEZ aims to put in
place of the nighttime and overnight music it now plays. 
Critics of the station's planned move -- and they have been vocal out of
all proportion to their representation in the ratings -- say the
airwaves are already stuffed with news and talk. But this is only true
if you take as adequately informative the news blips/traffic/commercials
treadmill of all-news radio or the partisan bloviations of the likes of
Rush Limbaugh.
Not only is news radio a woefully inefficient -- and insufficient --
format, there's only one such station left in Chicago. And the talk
that's out there, in places other than NPR outlets, ranges from
right-wing screeds to far-right-wing screeds to the occasional would-be
comic, even the best of whom (Steve Dahl, still, and Steve Cochran) are
only occasionally comical.
Even when the talk is relatively mature and moderate, as on Tribune
Co.'s WGN-AM 720, it's cluttered with more commercials than a TiVo owner
can stand. 
The extra NPR and BBC programs that WBEZ will be able to add are
commercial-free; they lean, by contrast, toward the intelligent, even
the high-toned; they are scrupulously reported and, often, lavishly
They increase our comprehension of and engagement in the world around
us, which is what good newspapers, good TV newsmagazines ("60 Minutes,"
"Frontline"), and good TV news reporting (most of the network stuff from
outside of Washington, D.C.)  still do. But this kind of work is not a
growth industry, and nobody in American broadcasting does it on so
consistently high a level as NPR. In terms of covering the world, the
BBC is even better.
More of both on the radio dial is a good thing, especially in this --
and here I follow the example of shamelessness set by certain political
leaders -- post-9/11 world. 
Where the plan falls down a bit is in WBEZ's relative dearth of local
reporting. The station's morning regional newsmagazine "Eight
Forty-Eight" is much improved since it's been shortened to an hour; it
deserves a nightly rebroadcast because of its keen eye on Chicago and a
new-found sense of whimsy. 
But beyond it, you don't get the feeling the station has the legions of
reporters needed to put the city in perspective. A station of its size
in a city of this size ought to be serving up at least 30 minutes of
local news nightly, and it should strive to hire more reporters and get
such a program together before the format change kicks in early next
It also should give a Chicago-focused show to the very sharp Gretchen
Helfrich, who's been underemployed since her intriguing talk show
"Odyssey" failed to catch fire in syndication. 
And it really needs to stop spending so much Chicago airtime,
proportionately speaking, on Indiana issues. I know WBEZ now has a
sister outlet in Northwest Indiana, but that doesn't mean I should have
to hear about every last thing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels does,
especially when those rare local moments could be spent on more
immediately relevant news. 
But these are quibbles compared to my excitement at the prospect of
turning on WBEZ at midnight and having it sound like public radio, not
college radio. 
As for jazz, even true believers have to admit it's already a niche
format, well served by the small stages of Internet  and satellite radio
outlets and devotee record stores. 
Let's not pretend the playing of prerecorded niche music continues to be
more deserving than freshly produced news of the huge auditorium that is
Chicago's lead public-radio station. Let's especially not pretend this
when there's a whole world out there to try to comprehend.

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