Diversity: Who's zoomin' who?

Jazz radio was suffering before the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and according to Corbett, the last surviving commercial jazz-only radio format bit the dust in 1994 when KJAZ went off the air in the San Francisco Bay area. Public radio and college radio jazz formats, since the 1996 legislation, have been either sold and/or changed format to reach a wider audience. Classical fans, on the other hand, enjoy 36 commercial stations and 20-30 professionally run public stations nationwide that program their music, according to Tom Thomas, president of the Station Resource Group. It is true that both classical and jazz are hurting mightily in the current economic environment that gives primary leverage to rock, pop, rap and news; but classical is still on life support--jazz is not. Serious jazz is disappearing from the airwaves and giving way to commercial instrumental lite-jazz, commonly known as smooth jazz, an easy listening equivalent of Montovani-like covers of Strauss heard in dental offices. Some classical aficionados point to this type of smooth jazz as proof that jazz still survives on the airwaves, and that argument holds about as much weight as jazz buffs singling out the Boston Pops as an organization that represents the true classical tradition.

It's no wonder that while Temple's advertising jock Tom Maxey was trumpeting "diversity" as a rationale to include a classical format at WRTI that, in the context of the national demise of jazz radio, local musicians and fans were crying foul. Upon hearing of the format change at Temple, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., who had grown up listening to WRTI in West Philly, said,

This will have a terrible impact on jazz in Philadelphia. What about all of the existing artists who will have less of a chance to be heard? What about the new artists that are coming out?

Maxey's diversity code-speak didn't work too well with academia either. Molefi Kete Asante, a professor of African American studies at Temple said, "WRTI has been a symbol of Temple's commitment to the North Philadelphia community. What this fait accompli means is that they've already made the decision: Temple is seeking to lessen that symbolism." A North Philadelphia independent newspaper publisher said "Our music has been the driving force on the American musical scene...Nevertheless, we are not recognized as the innovators we are...we're always denied and ignored by corporate America and big institutions." And Gerry Givnish, the director of The Painted Bride Arts Center said that classical music sends a "coded message" that translates into "upscale" and usually, "white." "The new format is a way for Temple...to make the campus more attractive to people with money."

The jazz community was shocked at the blatant racism of Temple's decision and felt an acute sense of betrayal and pleaded at numerous times for Liacouras or Maxey to speak to the community, but they refused and instead sent a newly hired [and culturally shell shocked] program manager fresh from out of town to deal with the angry jazz fans at both the musician's rally and a raucous town meeting organized by director Helen Haynes at the Clef Club. Liacouras and Maxey did find the time to hobnob with the elegant crowd at the Opening Night Gala of the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sept. 16 according to society columnist David Iams in his story labeled "Party Time."

Not surprisingly, Sandy (Mrs. David) Marshall, chair of the [event]..."was delighted with the turnout"...particularly at the top-paying benefactor's level. It was 330, Mrs. Marshall said, "up almost 20 percent over last year's figure"....it was significant that the benefactor contingent included a conspicuous presence from Temple University, whose previously all jazz radio station..."took over ‘FLN's classical programming lock, stock and DJs"...Seated with the orchestra president Joseph Kluger and his wife...in the Academy of Music ballroom at dinner were Temple president Peter Liacouras and his wife, Anne, and Temple vice president Tom Maxey and his wife, Anne....Several guests noted that the audience for classical music, traditionally a well-heeled one, could substantially increase the financial resources of the station, which is publicly funded... "It's a chance for jazz lovers to learn about classical music" [Author's italics]...Mr. Maxey cited jazz great Duke Ellington's observation: "There are two kinds of music, good and bad."

As with his spin on the term "diversity," Maxey referenced jazz icon Duke Ellington to try and legitimize the decision by Temple to disenfranchise its jazz supporters. Using the same tactics of affirmative action opponents who twist Martin Luther King Jr.'s words about being judged by the "content of your character" rather than the "color of your skin" to justify continuing white privilege, Temple consistently acted the part of the smiling enabler to an ethically dysfunctional Philadelphia high society that might have had inner qualms about the cruel dislocation of a big part of the city's musical heritage. The flighty suggestion that jazz listeners don't know anything about classical music and that this appropriation of the airwaves was a chance for them to "learn something" smacked of patriarchy and condescension, not to mention the additional and "reasonable" logic that the people who are "traditionally well-heeled" should obviously have their wishes granted, that a "public" radio station should be bought by a better financed "public."

The double speak perfected by Temple didn't really fool anyone, but it complicated the discourse by drowning it in multiple meanings that inhibited healthy dialogue by opponents of the format change and pushed to the social margins the calls of obvious racism and opportunism. These terminology transformations and the flip-flopping of meaning caused some to second guess themselves. One middle-aged African-American woman involved in the "Save Jazz FM" group of which I was a member felt that maybe Temple had a point, that maybe the group should concentrate on cleaning up North Philly first and then ask for the station back. In her view, maybe Temple wasn't being racist, just realistic.

Temple's suppression of honest discourse resembled the old anecdote of the adulterous husband being caught with a lover saying to his wife: Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes? Fiction was defining the field of debate and the old empiricism of seeing is believing was being transformed into saying is believing. A fabrication of reality was created out of citational appearances being re-cited again and again in the media between the main actors and framed the focus of the discussion. A lot of the public, both black and white, lost the central ethical issue and zeroed in on familiar, but tangential value judgements about the music itself and they also seemed to have the prevailing attitude that important, well respected people were resigned to the format decision as an inevitability so what could the public do? What personal logic systems could possibly fight against a done deal? [More]

Next: Dear 'RTI: Letters to the Station
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