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Jazz station 91.9/WCLK modernizes sound, adds more 'smooth' jazz

WCLK

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Jazz station 91.9/WCLK has gotten a bit smoother and a bit younger in its sound to try to gain a bigger audience.

Wendy Williams, the general manager, said membership (at 1,900) and listeners (at about 100,000) has been stagnant for the past 15  years.

"We've got to be more strategic if we want to win and stay in the game," said Williams, who has been with the station for nearly 20 years, or half its life span.

A donor gave the station $60,000 to do a music study with its existing and potential fan base. The results: the station's sound was stale and overly broad.

So its 900-song playlist has been trimmed to about 400 from Monday to Friday during the day. (Night time and weekends, for now, remain more open ended.)

"We're going to play what the listeners want," Williams said. "We're hoping to capture more listeners and more revenue." As a non-commercial station attached to Clark Atlanta University, the station relies mostly on donations from corporations and individuals. Clark Atlanta's share of the funding has shrunken over the years and represents only 25 percent of the total budget. That's unlikely to go up any time soon and may even get smaller.

Weekday daytime jocks no longer have the power to create their own playlists. On commercial radio, that power had gone away decades ago.

"We've had a very wide blend of music," said Williams. "We're narrowing it a bit."

Jazz 91.9 last year boosted its signal and was able to increase its coverage area 40 percent. And nearly five years ago, the last FM commercial smooth jazz station in town, Smooth Jazz 107.5 (WJZZ-FM) went away, providing 91.9 with an opportunity. 

Williams said they saw a modest bump after Smooth Jazz's departure but not much. That smooth jazz format, which blended R&B and light jazz, has died across the country, partly because it was considered background music and the listeners were not engaged to the music or the advertisers.

The station is now using three terms to market itself: "Classic. Cool. Contemporary."

This means songs from the 1950s and 1960s are shunted off to nights and weekends and there is a greater emphasis on tunes from the past 20 years.

Williams said artists such as Peter White, Jeff Lorber and Gerald Albright will get more love.  The station will continue to play crossover artists such as Ledisi, Anita Baker, Sade and KEM.

And the jocks will stay the same: Morris Baxter in mornings. Riva Blue mid-days, Jamal Ahmed late afternoons and Debb Moore in evenings.

The station is hamstrung by a modest marketing budget but it plans to try to get the word out about the changes via billboards, social media and traditionial ads. Williams said 50 percent of the city doesn't even know the station exists."We want to reach them," she said.

Some traditional fans of the station have expressed their dismay with the changes on their Facebook page.

Kym Pearson, for instance:

I am not against smooth jazz but this format is like tumbleweeds in a desert. I want my wclk that has personality. Bring back great music and lyrics...or else you just lost one. I am a member so no canned response needed.

Linda Brown, wrote:

I am dismayed and confused by the sudden change @WCLK. If you were to ask me if I liked jazz some 20 years ago, I would have quickly told you "no", frankly I just found it as boring. Back then, I viewed all Jazz as basically "Kenny G" type music. That all changed the day I discovered WCLK, truly a hidden "gem" in our city. Through the years, the WCLK DJ's have introduced me to so many very talented artist from around the world but most important, I discovered that there was a whole lot more to jazz than simply Kenny G. Please bring back the old WCLK not just for me and all of the other listeners but also for the future generations of listeners. Without the S.O.U.L., WCLK will become to another "run of the mill" station specializing in only one type of jazz.

And J. Scott Fugate responded thusly:

Something the station will soon learn - something I learned as a smooth jazz station manager - smooth jazz listeners are PASSIVE, they want background music, white noise that doesn't disturb them. They don't engage, don't pay attention to the music, don't know the artists . . . and they DON''T become members. They also don't listen to advertisements - that's why the format died, that's why labels stopped pushing the format.

WCLK is five years behind the curve.

Fans of the old format have already posted a Facebook page and it has drawn 241 followers as of 7:18 p.m. Tuesday, August 27, 2013. Check it out here.

You can sign the petition here.

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