The New Golden Age of Jazz Radio

The New Golden Age of Jazz Radio
Karl Ackermann By

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There was the Jazz Age, and later, the Golden Age of Radio. There was no golden age of jazz radio unless one considers the brief, ten-year reign of devolution when swing music dominated the airwaves. Think about this: New York City has not had a twenty-four-hour commercial jazz radio station in over ten years; decades longer depending on a listener's position on genre. CD 101.9 (WQCD FM), a long-running smooth jazz station, did not nourish serious jazz aficionados. Their lineup featured highly recognizable stars of the sub-genre such as Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Dave Grusin, Candy Dulfer, David Sanborn, Bob James, Mindy Abair , Chuck Mangione, Spyro Gyra, and Kenny G. Mixed into that heavily rotated group of performers was jazz-infused rhythm and blues jazzed up versions of pop songs, instrumental cross-over pop, and a lot of musical wallpaper like Yanni at The Acropolis, and at the Pyramids, Red Rocks, Taj Mahal, etc. CD 101.9 was a safe "jazz" station with little deference for tradition or inquisitiveness. Its call letters and format abruptly disappeared on February 5, 2008. New York jazz fans fortunate to be within range of Newark, New Jersey's public station, WBGO (88.3), had—and continue to have—an alternative in that very popular public station. More on that later. The history of jazz on the radio is not well documented before the swing era but we do know that early radio, especially smaller local stations, shunned pre-swing jazz. However, the major radio networks, aggressively buying up affiliates, provided a venue for live broadcasts from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and a few other metropolitan areas. When the Swing Era ended, radio had far less of an appetite for the next wave: bebop. The more costly alternatives of records and jukeboxes became the destinations for jazz fans but with the obvious demographic limitations.

Listeners in the jazz capital of the world have to look back to a church-owned commercial station for the likes of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, et al. The historic Riverside Church at 120th Street and Riverside Drive opened its doors in 1930 and introduced the classical and jazz station WRVR (106.7) in 1961. Before long the format switched to all-jazz with Just Jazz being the station's flagship program. The program was hosted by Ed Beach, a native of Winnipeg, Canada who came to Manhattan in 1957 and built a loyal following. Beach was a tireless researcher but let the music do most of the talking throughout his two-thousand-plus hours of programming. He often played music that linked jazz to its African roots, featuring artists like Randy Weston and Ahmed Abdul-Malik along with broadly popular talent such as Louis Armstrong. Just Jazz ran from 1961 to 1976 and WRVR itself vanished in the summer of 1980, with no advanced notice to its listeners. If there was a golden age of commercial jazz radio in New York, it would be linked to WRVR. The new millennium has quietly seen a proliferation of jazz outlets in the U.S. Though hard to quantify because of the many varieties of mixed formats, there may be more terrestrial and web-based programming of jazz as of 2018-2019, then there has been in the past. All About Jazz itself is now a significant contributor to such programming.


The early development of radio was distinctly not American. Sharing a common purpose with the early drums of Africa and Asia, its purpose was strategic and tactical communication and signaling, and not entertainment. The early experimentation with electromagnetic waves was conducted by late nineteenth-century scientists whose names became part of the technological lexicon: Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla, and Jagadish Bose. No pioneers were enthusiastic about the viability of radio waves, believing they would ultimately be limited to less than one-mile transmissions. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Guglielmo Marconi, generally credited as radio's inventor, successfully furthered the range of radio transmissions at the end of the 1800s. In 1900 Brazilian priest and inventor Father Roberto Landell successfully transmitted audio nearly five miles but the business sector continued to view radio as a point-to-point device. When David Sarnoff, a Russian immigrant, and protégé of Marconi, was rising through the ranks of the General Electric-owned Radio Corporation of America (RCA), he envisioned a broader application for radio. Sarnoff was a shrewd visionary; persistent and ruthless. In 1915, and again in 1920, he suggested the company develop a "radio music box" for the mass market, but the company delayed the project as a secondary priority. But Sarnoff, known to be indifferent to resistance, enlisted third parties to arrange the radio broadcast of a Jack Dempsey heavyweight boxing match in 1921. Three-hundred-thousand listeners tuned in and the success of the broadcast elevated Sarnoff's stature throughout the communications world, leading to meetings with Albert Einstein and other notable scientists. In 1922 he introduced the Radiola, a seventy-five-dollar home radio that would change the culture of the country.

Smaller, regional broadcasts predated Sarnoff's boxing broadcast. Westinghouse founded a radio station, KDKA, in 1920, and in 1921, it initiated broadcasts of sports events. The oldest continuously operating radio station in the U.S. is Detroit's WWJ, 950 kHz. Beginning as a regional amateur station in 1920, WWJ was not supported by advertising but funded by the newspaper Detroit News and formatted to support print content with the "Detroit News Radiophone." The early success of mass-market radio broadcasts led to major monopolies dominating the ownership of stations. In 1926, RCA established the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) as a subsidiary managing its network broadcasting business. In early 1927 only seven percent of the nation's seven-hundred radio stations were affiliated with NBC. The same year, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was formed. The Mutual Broadcasting System was formed in 1934 and owned more than one-hundred affiliates by 1938. American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) emerged in 1943 following a court-ordered breakup of NBC stations.

The Growth of Radio

Programming in the 1920s and 1930s was rarely single focused. The typical station broadcast news, sports, music, comedy, and drama series, and soap operas, so named because of soap company sponsorship. "Transcription Shows" were those featured local actors working a franchised script. The growth of radio in the 1920s and 1930s was rapid, especially when the Great Depression made the cost of recordings prohibitive. Data from the research firm Sterling and Kittross indicates there were five stations in the U.S. in 1921 and five-hundred, seventy-one in 1925. Similarly, advertising spend almost non-existent 1921, increased to almost five-million dollars in 1927 (the equivalent of over seventy million dollars in 2018) and the sales of home radio equipment, from less than fifty-million to more than four-hundred million dollars. A 1938 survey conducted by the Federal Communications Commission showed that of seven genres of radio programming, music accounted for over fifty-percent of broadcast hours.

The escalating number of stations presented a logistical problem as they jockeyed for limited dial space. In 1933 American engineer Edwin Armstrong invented frequency modulation (FM) technology to eliminate the noise on the amplitude modulation (AM) band. AM stations were assigned in narrow proximity and would interfere with each other. The development of wide-band FM was tainted. According to Armstrong, RCA, and NBC, under Sarnoff's leadership, infringed on his copyright and paid him no royalties. Armstrong sued but Sarnoff had the resources to drag the case out, and for eight years it languished in the courts. Armstrong had to sell many of his possessions to continue the suit and when RCA finally offered a settlement, it wasn't enough to cover Armstrong's legal bills. Shortly afterward, Armstrong took his own life. Sarnoff's reaction to the suicide was to callously deny any culpability. The Sarnoff-Armstrong patent infringement case was well-publicized at the time but it was only one of a number patent suits filed in the early days of radio.

Jazz on the Radio

As was true of the heartland's reaction to jazz in general, jazz on the radio was not universally welcomed. Derek Vailant, in the collection of dissertations titled Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio tells of Earl Terry's campaign to save listeners from jazz. In 1925 Terry was the broadcast chief of Madison, Wisconsin-based WHA radio and took it upon himself to openly criticize his listeners' tastes and the cultural direction in which music was heading. Terry had an eclectic background; he was a local farmer who became a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, a position he held concurrently with managing WHA. Appointing himself as station programmer, he vowed to shield listeners from "worthless music," even as he branded himself a "progressive." Terry was not an anomaly among the Midwest "reformers" who favored a regular diet of classical music. Jazz was tossed off as radio junk food, but more irritating to listeners was Terry's rejection of the popular songs of the reconstruction era. WHA, WWJ (Detroit), KDKA (Pittsburgh), KQW (San Jose), KNX (Los Angeles), KQV (Pittsburgh), and WRUC (Schenectady) are believed to be the oldest radio stations in the U.S. In most cases, news was the primary format for these early stations and though music programming came and went through the years, jazz was rarely a staple of programming.

The Swing Era was developing ten years before its official christening in 1935. It marked a move away from jazz, to jazz-flavored pop music. For the first—and only time—jazz, of this cheerfully watered-down variety, dominated radio play, occupying the middle years of the two-decade Golden Age of Radio. In the early part of the 1930s, the major networks voiced strong opposition to playing records on the air and the advent of disc jockeys was ten years away. If early jazz programming met with resistance on smaller radio stations in rural America, and in smaller cities, the major networks—NBC and CBS in particular—saw big band jazz as an economic opportunity. Through their hundreds of national affiliates, they fed a voracious public appetite for dance music that helped ease the psychological wounds of the Great Depression. In Music Radio: The Great Performers and Programs of the 1920s Through Early 1960s (McFarland & Company, 2005), author Jim Cox points to a specific radio event that launched radio's big band phenomena. In the summer of 1935, the U.S. economy had just begun a slow recovery and as cautious optimism took hold, CBS radio broadcast a Benny Goodman Orchestra performance from the famous Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles initiating a radio trend that would last through the next ten years. The Palomar itself became a base for such broadcasts as the groups of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and many others who were featured on evening radio broadcasts from the local station KFLJ. A number of concerts by Kid Ory's Sunshine Orchestra performed on a short series of remote broadcasts from the Plantation Club in Los Angeles in 1922.



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