Last night, Candidate Romney had no trouble at all promising to eliminate all Federal funding for public broadcasting. He didn't even blink as he looked at the debate moderator, whose paycheck comes from a public entity. Here's a link to the television side's response to Romney's comments. But this post is not intended to be political. I'm not trying to direct votes.
The intention of this post is to educate the Reader about the importance of locally programmed, public media. Especially those that program music like Jazz and Blues. And offer music education programs, marketing support to area cultural institutions, and opportunities to enjoy live performances and other special events, affordably.
The demand for locally-driven, public service radio broadcasting began in the 1940s, when college professors and engineering departments began using the relatively new technology to reach out to audiences, giving the public access to culture and information. At the same time, an independent radio pioneer began a small network of stations whose funding and talent came from the people who listened, rather than from advertisers.
30 years later, Congress, by adopting the Public Broadcasting Act to establish a national infrastructure that encourages professional broadcasting committed to the freedom of expression and listener sponsorship, unhampered by the heavy hand of advertising dollars. In the world of radio, NPR, Minnesota Public Broadcasting, PRI and other national entities developed as providers of quality programming that would allow stations to meet their commitment to broadcast in the service of the markets they serve.
Most of the nationally produced programming is in-depth news and information. Many individual stations augment this programming with locally produced material of the same nature. As a public entity, these stations can afford the production and the broadcast time to look seriously at issues that, at best, may get 90-seconds on the most-watched local TV news shows. And locally reported newspapers, well, we know what's happening to them.
But beyond public media that provides news and information, some stations program music. Or a mix of music and news. Or a blend of several different musical genres -- and news. KSDS, San Diego's Jazz 88.3, by choice, programs only Jazz and Blues. We are one of 35 stations across the United States that do that. Seriously. 35 Jazz stations out of 13,500. That's three thousandthsof all the terrestrially broadcast radio stations.
So, obviously, some public media provide a genuine service to their communities, simply based on the music they play. People in Southern California have two choices for Jazz programming, but people in Wyoming have none. Or they can listen to the web stream from San Diego. Why is this important? If there are only 35 stations playing this music, aren't they just beating a dead horse? Isn't Jazz a music that's past its prime?
The one word answer is a thundering "NO!"
Jazz is a true American Art Form. The history and development of Jazz and Blues are elemental in the American Spirit. The genre arose as the artistic expression of social, economic and scientific change. It celebrates the joy, denotes the suffering, and soothes the tragedies of Americans. The empathic voice of Jazz, and its cousin, Blues, is no less potent today than it was in the early hours of the twentieth century when the music combusted spontaneously from the spoils of war, Carpetbaggers, vestiges of the Victorian era and the birth of the Modern Age. Paraphrasing Louis Armstrong, Jazz is [American] Life.
The music took this country by surprise. The 19th century was expiring and the energy and bustle of the city replaced agrarian life. Historian Warren Susman says "By 1922", an exceptional and ever-growing number of Americans came to believe in a series of changes in the structure of their world, natural, technological, social, personal, and moral.” Vaudeville replaced traveling minstrel shows. The people singing and dancing in blackface actually had black faces. When "somebody" realized that Scott Joplin, and Jelly Roll Morton were people of color, the ambiguity caused as many people to feed the new genres as did condemn them.
Both Ragtime and the Blues underscore the racial and class issues inherent in the creation of Jazz. Gerald Early, historian and arts critic, addresses the paradox this way, "You had people who created a music that's really celebrating democratic possibilities: liberation, freedom of the spirit, a soaring above adversities - who really hadn't experienced [it]. Jazz is a kind of lyricism about the great American promise and our inability to live up to it."
As the music of New Orleans spread up the Mississippi, and out to Kansas City, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, true to the nature of the music, each new region added its own nuances, creating a multi-layered labyrinth of sound and soul.
Yes, Rock and Roll replaced Jazz in the 1960s, and since then, whole onslaughts of musical genres have taken over the pop charts. But Jazz continued to evolve, and sub-divide. While it may not be listed in the Top 10, Jazz is everywhere. Walk into a Pottery Barn and you'll hear Tony Bennett. Jazz. Watch Sesame Street, and you'll see plenty of Jazz guests, including Herbie Hancock. A critically-acclaimed movie this year is titled, "Blue as Jazz." Even the Jazz-Rap group us3 sampled a Jazz classic as the basis for their song, "Cantaloop."
Okay. So Jazz and Blues are important. Reflections of the social and political evolutions of the country as much as its musical growth and sophistication. Why does Jazz need to be on public radio?
Because it has grown so much. Because, with so many sub-genres, "purists" are turned off by a sound they don't favor. But imagine this: If we programmed Jazz 88.3 to play only the Top 100 Jazz Hits, how tired would the audience get? And besides, who would pick those one hundred songs? And what about new work? Where would anybody hear about it? Oh, and one more thing, the growth of the music would be stiffled. The very improvisation that is central to Jazz is one of the primary forces of its development. Limit that, and Jazz would die.
A commercial radio station has to attract enough listeners to prompt advertisers to pay for a piece of their broadcast time. A public radio station has to program enough good music for everyone to be able to hear some things that they like. Essentially, that's the difference, broken down.
Which version do you prefer?