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Smokin’ signal

WGMC comes of age

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It's been on the radio dial for 30 years and it's been playing jazz for more than a decade. But WGMC has just recently found its groove. Station manager Jason Crane can tell you exactly when it happened.

            "The moment that brought tears to my eyes was when I was at the Sonny Rollins concert at the Eastman Theatre, and Tom Pethic was introducing Sonny. He said, 'I'm Tom Pethic from WGMC' and this cheer went up from the crowd. My wife and Steve Greene, the guitarist, we all just looked at each other. I personally felt we had just stepped on to the Rochester stage for the first time, literally and figuratively. Here we were in the most hallowed hall in Rochester and, introducing the lifeline back to what many people consider the golden days of jazz, is Tom, a guy who's been on the radio for 20 years, plugging away at music that's not popular on the radio. We, and everybody else there, seemed to be realizing for this moment that, 'Oh, yeah, there is a jazz station here.' That was just magical."

            Despite a broadcast tower that doesn't project very far and a staff dominated by volunteers, WGMC (90.1 and 105.1 FM) has built itself into a full-service jazz station broadcasting interviews with jazz stars, hosting Meet-the-Artist concerts and, most importantly, offering some of the last unpredictable radio to be found on the dial. All this from a station operating on the third floor of Greece Apollo Middle School.

A major force behind the station's success is Crane, a 28-year-old jazz lover who took over the top job at WGMC last year. Crane held a dozen jobs, from Japan-based business news reporting on National Public Radio's Morning Edition to playing saxophone in a Latin jazz band, before landing at WGMC.

            The station has been playing jazz since the early 1990s, when Lee Rust (who now runs WJZR 105.9 FM) took it in a smooth jazz direction. Eric Gruner became station manager in the mid-1990s and steered WGMC into a more straight-ahead direction. When Gruner took a job as station manager at CJRT 91.1 FM in Toronto, Crane was hired.

            WGMC is entirely member-supported. One tangible sign of the station's improvement is the fact that there are now 1,300 members, 270 more than last year.

            The largest group of listeners is in the 55-to-75 age range, the second largest is 45-to-55, and there's a large drop-off in listeners under 45.

            "Those are not just our demographics, those are jazz demographics," Crane says. "The jazz audience never goes away but it never grows because each group ages and dies and another group of exactly the same size ages into its place. That, to me, is unsupportable."

            Those demographics also make it difficult to sustain the station financially. WGMC has operated on the same budget since 1990: $90,000 per year.

            Crane sees the age demographic as a dilemma that perplexes jazz programmers around the country. Do you satisfy your base with comfortable music or reach out to younger listeners with more eclectic music?

            "OK, I know I have to reach out to a younger audience," Crane says. "But right now it's these older people who pay the bills. You have to have a little bit of courage there. The new Soulive record is not for the older fans but is a connection for younger listeners."

            Like the Kinko's employee Crane recently met.

            "The guy who was handling my order at Kinko's said, 'I've never been a jazz fan but one day after the 15th play of a Nickleback tune, I turned the dial and found WGMC and I haven't changed it since.' He's hearing music he's never heard before and the thing he really likes is he doesn't have to listen to two morning jocks talk about what they did over the weekend. He hears intelligent commentary on quality music."

            WGMC has recently added some younger DJs and new programs designed to reach a younger audience.

            "I grew up on jazz," says Toni Attardo, one of the station's newest DJs. "That was sort of my version of The Beatles. My dad always played jazz and I always loved it, especially the World War II era." Attardo, 19, studies acting at New York University. She's been a paid DJ since her vacation began in May. "It's definitely possible to reach my age group but it is harder. The whole hiphop thing came from jazz, which is important to remember."

            Perhaps the single most radical thing Crane has done since assuming his position is hand over a Friday daytime slot to Josh Rutner and Red Wierenga. (Show times tend to change, so check the station's website: wgmc.greeceny.org.) Both are Eastman School of Music students and excellent musicians who play in the Respect Sextet and the Dave Rivello Big Band.

            On the radio they turn into Abbott and Costello meet Stockhausen. They're genuinely funny the way only real people can be, and they are extremely knowledgeable about the music. Their taste is eclectic, to say the least. Reactions are predictable.

            "Josh and Red are very polarizing. There's a 'please remove them today' camp and there's a 'this is the hippest thing to happen to radio in this town in a long time' camp. The fact that they've created such passionate opinions means they're doing their job right. They sound like nothing else on jazz radio. To me, having three hours of that a week is like a shot of adrenalin for the station. They bring in some obscure stuff: Ken Vandermark, Watts Prophets. That kind of stuff would not be heard anywhere else and it would not be heard on this station, but it needs to be. They can do it intelligently enough to bring people along for the ride."

            (We should mention that avant-garde jazz can be heard on another local radio station, 88.5 WRUR FM, on shows run by Peter Badore (Saturdays), Talik Abdul Basheer (Sundays), Rick Petrie (Mondays), and others. Visit www.wrur.org/schedule for show times.)

WGMC has four DJs under the age of 30 and several more in their 30s. DJs under 40 are unusual for jazz stations. With demographics --- and, as always, music --- in mind, Crane has added Soul Jazz Spectrum with Chuck Ingersoll and is planning a Medeski, Martin and Wood-style jam band show for the Friday midnight slot. Judging by the 3,000 fans who showed up for the MMW concert at the Rochester International Jazz Festival, this should bring a substantial new audience to the station. And it might hang around for more.

            These are the kinds of decisions station managers must make if jazz is to survive, according to Crane.

            "In the average week we get 30 new records at this station. Twenty are titled with the name of a standard and feature some either long-established or new artist doing 10 standards and two originals on their instrument of choice, which is usually their voice. That's just so boring. That is not what is going to help jazz survive. Those are valuable history lessons and I'm a huge fan of that music. But I'm also a huge fan of people who have the guts to try and bring in two turntablists and a guy playing a Fender Rhodes and a rapper and three trumpet players and see what we can make. And if it stinks, they acknowledge that it's a failed experiment but keep trying in that direction. But if it succeeds, we've got a new thing."

            Still, Crane believes, there are limits to new forms.

            Verve Records, at one time a great jazz label, recently released an album, Verve Remixes, consisting of classic tracks by some of the greatest vocalists in jazz history --- Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan --- remixed by dance DJs. Even though it is almost impossible to imagine, one of the remixed cuts is Billy Holiday's haunting description of a lynching, "Strange Fruit."

            You won't hear Verve Remixes on WGMC.

            "You've got to have some intelligence and taste to make those things work," Crane says.

            Tony Gasparre, the station's music director, selects most of the music played. Choices are determined by the music he loves, not by what the record companies happen to be pushing.

            "If you are not a huge station receiving payola from an independent promoter to play these things, the difficulty of picking a rotation is that it's a judgment call," says Crane.

            He's alluding to a recently exposed practice rampant in the popular music industry. To avoid charges of payola (paying for a song to be played on the radio) recording companies routinely pay large sums of money to independent promoters, who, in turn, pay radio stations for the privilege of taking an early look at their playlist. These promoters also happen to have some songs to push. In other words, it's old-fashioned payola, like the kind that caused scandals in the 1950s, but this time it's legal because it's done through a middleman.

            There's not enough money in jazz sales to make any form of payola worthwhile, but the fact that this practice exists is the main reason why radio, in general, is so unimaginative.

About half of what's played on WGMC is new music; the other half is from the station's library. In any given week there are 50 CDs in the rotation and nine in heavy rotation. If this sounds like a Top 40 approach to jazz, Crane has an explanation.

            "One of the biggest problems in jazz is, if you go to a record store you can buy John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, or Miles Davis, or you can buy the newest CD by insert-new-artist-name-here. But the chances you're going to be able to insert a new artist's name are really small if you listen to most jazz stations. Most people listen to a radio station seven percent of their time. If you play a CD once a week there's no chance they're ever going to hear it again. So you'll hear something in our heavy rotation three times a day."

            Playing all of those new releases is one way WGMC helps to keep jazz a living art form.

            "GMC is a rarity around the country," says Ed Trefzger, a WGMC DJ who is a 20-year veteran of radio. "KPLU in Seattle is the most popular jazz station on the Internet. It plays one new track an hour. GMC plays six." He knows how unique the station is because, along with Tony Gasparre, he runs Jazz Week (www.jazzweek.com), a service for jazz stations that tracks who's playing what.

            DJs usually adhere to the rotation during the day; at night things get looser. There are, of course, exceptions. Crane himself can't help breaking the rules.

            "During drive-time I'll occasionally throw on an Ornette [Coleman] tune. That invariably makes the phone ring."

            Crane tries to control himself. He realizes that just because people are stuck in a traffic jam and they're listening to his show, called "Traffic Jam," they don't necessarily want to hear music that sounds like a traffic jam. That may seem like an obvious call, but it's not easy for a man who attends every avant-garde jazz concert at the Bop Shop.

            "I clamp down on myself because I know I'm not programming for the hard-core jazz fan. The hard-core jazz fan has a better record collection than we do. They don't need us. I'm programming for everyone else. I want the people who think jazz is for elitist wankers to be able to listen to this station and say 'That's pretty cool.'"

At its best WGMC may remind you of the free-form radio that occupied the FM airwaves in the 1960s. Back then, you never knew what a DJ might play or say.

            "Today Toni [Attardo] played a Ray Vega tune. She said on the air that the tune reminded her of a Latin poet she'd heard in New York. I looked him up on the web, printed out one of his poems, found a Giovanni Hidalgo [Puerto Rican Conga player] track in the library where he's only playing conga. I brought that in, cued up the track and said, 'After this set ends, just open up the mike and read the poem over the conga track. Don't just tell them that it reminds you of that poet, let's show them. Let's make good radio.' So she did that. At the end she just turned the mic down and let the conga recording finish. It was four minutes of great radio."

            There are only five 24-hour jazz stations left in the United States. Most of the other jazz stations devote a large portion of their day to National Public Radio shows. Consequently, many people search the Internet for jazz radio. And when they type "jazz radio" into Google, the fifth choice on the list is WGMC. Just over the last few weeks, the station has received e-mails from Portugal, Hong Kong, and England. A DJ recently complained on the air that the station had no Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band CDs; a man listening through his computer in Wisconsin sent two.

            Building an international audience is nice, but Crane doesn't want to lose sight of the local listeners.

            "The thing I think that will keep radio alive in the face of large companies like Clear Channel Communications and XM and Sirius Satellite Radio is that we are a local station. We've got local people. We play a lot of good local musicians. And we invest ourselves in this community and do educational programs in the community."

            But Crane is painfully aware of how weak the station's signal is in much of the Rochester area. WGMC currently broadcasts at 2,050 watts. It has FCC permission to expand to a 15,000-watt signal. Everything is ready to go. The station has $50,000 in the bank and needs $70,000 more to buy a new radio tower. Crane can only imagine how many members the station would attract if the signal was significantly boosted.

            "Getting that tower is the difference between black-and-white and color for this station," says Crane.

            He's optimistic about acquiring the funding and ambitious when it comes to the station's future.

            "At heart what this is all about is this amazing music. I love this music. I love the radio as a medium. I have 25 of the greatest human beings I can ask for and we are going to turn this station into hands-down the premier jazz station in the United States. I have no doubt that we can do that."

            WGMC already has the talent. Just listen to Tom Pethic, who's now back to his original show, Artistry in Jazz, on Sunday mornings. Or Andy Heinze and William Middleton's excellent Thursday night show, Phil Dodd's big band show, or Dave Moskal's blues show.

            Crane and his wife are expecting their first child in November. Prenatal Mozart may be good enough for many children, but Crane's child is expected to come out well versed in Monk, Miles, and Trane. In the meantime, Crane is digging his job.

            "I'm a 28-year-old kid with the keys to one of the only 24-hour jazz stations on the face of the planet Earth. That's amazing."

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