The iPod and a growing need for local news have done the unthinkable: They have cost Chicago, one of America's great jazz cities, its last major source for jazz programming on local radio.
WBEZ, WBEZ's National Public Radio (NPR) member station and among the oldest public radio outlets in the United States, has decided to scrap scheduled music programming - the bulk of which was nightly jazz - and move to a 24-hour news and public affairs format.
The change - which has sparked a backlash from loyal fans - speaks volumes about the worries facing independent radio stations.
Downloadable music and streaming Webcasts are competing for their music listeners, and local news, threatened by consolidation in the commercial media, is taking on greater importance. In addition, WBEZ and many other public radio stations say their programming has not kept pace with a changing U.S. population.
Local news has simply been abandoned by the commercial broadcasters and sometimes even the commercial newspapers, Ken Stern, executive vice president of Washington-based National Public Radio, told Reuters.
What you see as a trend is stations like WBEZ investing heavily in local news and information, Stern said.
WBEZ and NPR's other so-called member stations raise their own operating funds - much of them from individual listeners - and pay providers such as NPR for syndicated shows such as the daily news program All Things Considered.
Around the United States, changes similar to WBEZ's are taking place. Connecticut Public Radio's WNPR-FM dropped most of its classical programming in favor of news and information early in June. WETA, another public FM station in Washington, D.C., made the switch to all-talk more than a year ago. Stations in New York, Boston and elsewhere have made similar moves.
To loyal listeners, the format changes don't go over easily. WBEZ's plan, which doesn't take effect until next year, has sparked a backlash from public radio patrons in the nation's third-largest city, once the country's jazz and blues hub and still home to a thriving alternative music scene.
We feel very empty, said Mike Widdell, co-founder of the Web site savethemusiconwbez.org, a grass-roots effort that has collected more than 3,500 names on a petition to veto WBEZ's plan. It seems like a decision that was made arbitrarily and without the input of listeners.
The frustration in a typically genteel jazz audience was evident one evening here in May, when Dan Bindert, a producer of WBEZ's jazz programming, walked onto the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's home stage to introduce acclaimed jazz bassist Christian McBride and was nearly booed off the platform.
Even so, Chicago Public Radio has held fast to its plans. Research shows that while music listeners may be vocal, they do not represent the most loyal base. Classical listeners are aging, and jazz lovers, for instance, tend to have widely divergent views on their musical genre; unlike news junkies, they tune in only sporadically.
They tend to hop around a lot on the radio dial, said Tom Thomas, co-chief executive of the Station Resource Group, a strategic consultancy whose research helps to guide U.S. public radio stations. The jazz audience itself is very fragmented.
A Station Research Group multiyear study from 1999 through 2004 showed that of public radio's primary formats, jazz stations had the lowest average loyalty and lowest average time spent listening. The same study showed that the most dramatic audience growth came from all-news stations.
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Chicago Public Radio said it also took a hard look at demographic trends before announcing in 2004 that WBEZ would shift to all talk. The station's audience has become increasingly homogeneous, yet public radio is compelled by a federal mandate to serve as broad a group as possible, station manager Torey Malatia told Reuters.
In any given week, about 600,000 people, or roughly 8 percent of the 7.6 million potential listeners in the greater Chicago area, tune into its channel at 91.5 on the FM band. Most are white, upper middle class and well-educated; many live on the tony suburban North Shore, he said.
Chicago Public Radio's new strategy calls for reaching a more diverse audience - putting mics in the hands of listeners, for instance, to let them produce their own shows, and adding satellite bureaus in the inner city. The station aims to go after untapped Hispanic, black and youth listeners, among others.
The problem is if you look at that slot of audience vs. the population we are meant to serve ... this is just a sliver, Malatia said. This is a major decision for us and we knew it would have a strong reaction from people.
Under the original plan, eclectic music programming, not just jazz, would have been expanded, but not on WBEZ. Instead, Chicago Public Radio intended to boost the signal of one of its affiliate stations - which now simulcast WBEZ's content - and broadcast music there.
In recent months, however, Chicago Public Radio abruptly abandoned the plan to preserve music, pressured by the popularity of the XM and Sirius satellite radio networks as well as consolidation of big media companies like Clear Channel Communications Inc., which have sacrificed local news.
A major tipping point was the growing popularity of Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod digital music player, Malatia told listeners at a public meeting on May 16. The portable devices spawned a culture of music lovers who dictate their own music choices.