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Rich Keith: Pure Jazz Radio

Chuck Anderson By

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As a jazz performer with a career spanning decades, I've seen the music industry and jazz scene continually evolve, embracing radio, television, the internet, and beyond to grow and interact with the audience.

Rich Keith, part time on-air host at WBGO and, since 2009, owner and general manager of Pure Jazz Radio, is a champion of jazz. Keith has been on the radio in the New York Metropolitan Area since 1977, most of that time featuring jazz and songs from the Great American Songbook.

Pure Jazz Radio has become one of the most popular internet Jazz Radio Stations in the world, not only playing music, but interviewing most of the artists on today's jazz scene, as well as giving—free of charge—airtime to jazz presenters from all over the globe who produce programs weekly, specifically for PJR.  

Pure Jazz Radio, started New Years Day 2009 with a few dozen listeners, has emerged as the "Internet Jazz Radio Station of Record." They not only play great jazz but are the home of some of the best jazz presenters in the world.  PJR also promotes the jazz scene worldwide and talks with some of the leading talent regarding their latest projects. If it is happening—and it's jazz—you'll hear it at Pure Jazz Radio.    

All About jazz:  Tell me about Pure Jazz Radio and its development over the last year.  

Rich Keith: Well, since we have spoken last, Pure Jazz Radio has grown tremendously both in listenership and participation of presenters from around the globe.  At this point we have a dozen presenters producing programs specifically for Pure Jazz Radio—all with a slightly different take on the genre.   

AAJ: I understand you're also involved in WBGO radio. WBGO radio is one of the great jazz radio stations in the country. How did you get involved with the station and what is your role there?  

RK: About 2 1/2 years ago, I was lucky enough to be hired as a fill in announcer at WBGO appearing on the air  75 to 100 times a year and can be on at any hour of the day or night.   You're right, WBGO is one of the great jazz radio stations in the world. With a broadcast tower in Times Square, it really is the "bulliest" of pulpits for a jazz broadcaster or artist. When you think about it, a single play of an artist performance on WBGO reaches more people than an artist may play to in a year of club dates.  

AAJ: Do you feel that the jazz market is growing and what signs do you see that contribute to that growth?  

RK: I certainly hope that it is, but sometimes I just don't know. The problem with growth, as I see it, is twofold:   First, a lot of the newer players are interested more in satisfying themselves than the audience. A good example is a group that I saw fairly recently (not mentioning the name of the artist or club) who played nothing but original material. Six selections on a 75 minute show (do the math on that) with long solos (including bass and drums) in each of the selections. I love this music... and I was bored to tears.   

Second, especially here in the New York Area, is the cost of a night at a jazz club.  Generally, a lot of the clubs have a cover charge of anywhere from $20 to $40.  On top of that some clubs will have a minimum of $15 to $30 per person. And, that is for one set! Again, add this up and you could be going for $150 bucks for an hour and a half  worth of music. Which is all well and good—I want the artists to get paid and I want the clubs to stay open but, if we are talking growth, this is, in my opinion (especially if you get a performance like I mentioned earlier) a problem.  

AAJ: What value do you place on developing mutual relationships with jazz artists?  

RK: From day one this has been our main priority. Aside from playing an artist's material, PJR goes to great lengths to promote club dates, jazz festivals and any other venues where artists may be performing, on our "jazz scene" on the Pure Jazz Radio website.  We charge nothing for this.  We also have a "Partners in Jazz" section on the website for anyone who wished to link Pure Jazz Radio on their website. Many artists take advantage of this to let visitors to their website know that their music is played at PJR.  

AAJ: What are some of your personal goals from your broadcast work?  

RK Aside from my earlier comments, a lot of the newer artists (and the older guys too) are putting out some really excellent new work. I like featuring them whenever I'm on the air hopefully prompting the audience to buy the CD or see the artist(s) live. Of course a big part of what I'm about is keeping the giants on the scene as well. So, whether I am on PJR or BGO, a good part of the broadcast will feature selections from Bird, Trane, Billie, Ella, Pops, Miles, Dizzy and the rest. It really is remarkable how well the classic material and the better newer selections  mix together seamlessly in a broadcast.  

AAJ: Besides broadcast work, are there any other projects on the horizon?  

RK: Not much....I'm just a radio guy!  

AAJ: How would you compare the significance of internet radio vs traditional radio as a contributor to the arts?  

RK: For the foreseeable future broadcast radio will be the dominant medium.  You don't have to download an app, be near a computer, gobble up data on your cell phone service or be near WIFI to listen to it.  A station like WBGO, and a few other great over air jazz stations around the country are invaluable in helping to promote Jazz.  Unfortunately, over air jazz radio stations are an endangered species —look at what happened in Boston not too long ago.   This leaves the door open for internet stations to fill the void.  Unfortunately, many of the internet stations are just automated music services with little or no live programming. My feeling is you can program a iPod to do that.  Pure Jazz Radio, over the years, has gotten to the point where we have presenters, from all over the world, talking about and playing the music almost 24/7.     

AAJ: Are there plans on Pure Jazz Radio and/or WBGO to feature live or pre-recorded artist interviews on air?  

RK: WBGO does a great job getting artist interviews and live music on the air, whether it is from clubs around the New York area or from the state of the art performance studios inside the WBGO building in Newark.    The one area of disappointment at PJR is that we haven't been able to put together performance studios or do live broadcasts. It's just a money thing.  But, who knows? If there is a dramatic change in financial fortunes, that could change on a dime!   PJR is working on the technology to do taped and live interviews.  Again, being on such a shoestring budget, putting together the equipment to have quality audio on a telephone interview is a challenge.  

AAJ: Where do you see your work going over the next five years?  

RK: Really is hard to say. WBGO, as far as jazz radio stations, is the top of the mountain. The on-air talent is, in my opinion, the best in the world and I am really proud to be part of this team. Obviously, I'd like to stay and maybe take a greater role, if the opportunity arises and they feel I fit.   There is still a long way to go with Pure Jazz Radio.  With technology moving so quickly, especially the idea of WIFI being everywhere—including automobiles, I can't imagine what the listenership numbers will look like in five years. Since January of 2009 to now we have gone from no listeners to 30,000 to 50,000 listening hours a month. If we continue with that type of growth, I  hope I'll be able to afford the bandwidth!  
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