A Look at the End of Smooth Jazz Radio in Seattle

As many people now know, smooth jazz radio station 98.9 KWJZ recently changed formats, abandoning their smooth ways for what is now called Click 98.9, featuring what is being referred to as “modern music.”

For a variety of reasons, this might not be all that surprising. Smooth jazz radio stations around the country have been disappearing, and KWJZ was one of the few remaining. 98.9 was running on a skeleton staff, ratings were down, and many believed that a programming change might be right around the corner.

Additionally, two other factors were likely at play. The age of the average listener to KWJZ was getting older, which has a tendency to frighten away those who are purchasing advertising spots. While it might seem like Seattle has plenty of “modern music” stations already, those stations carry a younger demographic that businesses are much more comfortable spending advertising dollars on. No advertising dollars, no commercial radio station.

Also, KWJZ was a station owned by Sandusky, which also owns Warm 106.9 and Movin’ 92.5 in the Seattle area. Who did KWJZ compete with the most for listeners? Warm 106.9 and Movin’ 92.5. Having two stations fighting over the same listeners is a challenge, but having three stations fighting for the same listeners makes virtually no sense (which I’m sure is the conclusion Sandusky also came to).

What does surprise me however is the reaction that came from this change. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that virtually every radio station has loyal listeners, but listener loyalty is not exactly what I am referring to.

Let us start with the place I first heard about the programming change: The Big Blog from seattlepi.com, which highlights Seattle news, arts, and culture.

The title of the blog (from author Amy Rolph) starts with “No more jazz for Seattle?”. The opening paragraph described KWJZ as “the region’s long standing jazz station.”

With all due respect to KWJZ and the blog author, those two lines, to be polite, are misleading to say the least. Without letting my pride as a KPLU jazz host get in the way too much, I will remind everyone that KPLU broadcasts 100 hours of jazz every week, has been doing so for 25 years (versus the 19 that KWJZ was broadcasting smooth jazz), and can be heard clearly on a variety of signals as far north as Canada. And that is not to suggest that KPLU is the only station in the region that offers jazz.

But what is even more surprising to me is the reader responses, not only to the blog post but to other articles written about the change as well.

Generally speaking, there seems to be two primary sides in the responses. One side suggests that they will miss this programming and the station that they loved, and that Seattle is now void of a station that can offer this specific type of music and programming. Programming that many suggest as their source for jazz.

On the other side, you find many who might define themselves as “jazz purists.” More or less, these folks are happy to see the station go. Referring to smooth jazz as “Elevator” or “Dentist Office” music, many of these people make mention of being offended that anyone could even qualify this music as a sub-genre of jazz at all.

To be honest, after reading the articles and the reader responses, I took some time to think about how to best address this topic. For me, someone who would do everything I could to avoid listening to anything even resembling smooth jazz (or what I thought smooth jazz was), I would close my eyes, say the words “smooth jazz” in my head, and a big picture of Kenny G would appear (with his hair taking up most of the vision). Artists like Kenny G were the bread and butter of smooth jazz radio stations and record albums for many years. With that in mind, I tend to side with those who define this music as “instrumental pop” versus some form of jazz.

But then, a few weeks before Christmas, I was walking through the Tacoma Mall and saw a big advertisement banner for KWJZ. On it there were photos suggesting their primary artists: Norah Jones, Michael Buble, and John Legend.

No synthesizers. No soprano saxes. All vocalists. Three “crossover” artists. Legend is an R & B star. Buble is doing his best to be the Frank Sinatra of today. And Norah Jones, who seemingly can do whatever she wants, has still managed to avoid involving any sounds of “smooth jazz” in the George Winston sense of the phrase.

Vocalists were incorporated into smooth jazz programming in the 90’s as part of a reinvention of their programming, and it seemed to work until the early 2000’s. At that point it appears the smooth jazz radio stations needed another reinvention in order to keep listeners around and to attract new listeners, but it doesn’t appear that reinvention happened.

In talking to several colleagues who have been in the industry far longer than I have, there are a couple common thoughts that I can pretty much qualify as true.

First, jazz is very much alive and well in Seattle. In addition to KPLU and other stations that continue to successfully program jazz, top jazz artists continue to make Seattle a destination point while on tour at a variety of Seattle jazz clubs and other venues.

Second, no matter what you define “smooth jazz” as, or if it is even jazz at all, is far less important than whether or not the music is actually enjoyable. That is what music is supposed to be – enjoyable. I find it just as wrong to criticize Spyro Gyra or The Yellowjackets for defining themselves as “jazz” as I do when someone tells me that I have to enjoy some obscure live 30-minute Coltrane solo because it is “important” rather than “enjoyable.”

Will I ever own a Kenny G album? No. Do I think that it is more appropriate to define what is called “smooth jazz” as instrumental pop rather than a form of jazz? Yes. But if YOU enjoy the stuff, then good for you. I’m glad that you are listening to music that you personally find enjoyable, versus feeling like you are supposed to for one reason or another.

And for everyone out there that feels like they have lost jazz because KWJZ went away, perhaps you could give KPLU a listen. Jazz is indeed still alive in Seattle.

33 comments on “A Look at the End of Smooth Jazz Radio in Seattle

  1. Bradley Smith

    I don’t recall ever hearing the Yellowjackets in an elevator, dentist office or on a “smooth jazz” format station. I have heard George Benson on **jz radio stations in Houston and Seattle…..a lot. I also hear George Benson’s “Moon River” on KPLU….a lot. It seems like it gets played every shift. It comes from an album by an artist I first heard on a “smooth jazz” radio station.

    I guess I am just a unsophisticated rube because I don’t draw any distinctions about music. If I like it-I like it regardless of whatever label some “sophisticated” elitist may wish to put on it.

    Perhaps you could reduce my ignorance by educating me as to how one knows the difference between “smooth jazz” and “pure jazz” without knowing the identity of the performer.

  2. Phil Bradford

    …our household is hard-pressed to agree on listening to KPLU. The tight rotation has drained passion and acceptable risk from your playlist. Trust the people again…

  3. Dave from Sylvania Township, OH

    I’m a regular listener to Jazz 24 and Jazz After Hours on the Internet. And I often hear the last hour of your show on KPLU each morning in the Eastern Time Zone.

    Whereas I do not listen to what smooth jazz radio that remains, what would be considered smooth jazz played a role from transitioning my musical tastes from rock and pop into the purer form of jazz in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It all comes down to tastes, I guess. Categories are meaningless as it is the music that matters. But to speak to people, whatelse is there? If one can grow the jazz genre through exposure to smooth jazz, like me; one should encourage such.

    BTW, I commented last year about Aja in the same light!!

  4. M. Nguyen

    Smooth jazz, jazz.. whatever. One of my friends made a comment about 98.9 jazz being elevator music.. That annoyed me, but I guess that just means I like elevator music. I was sad to learn that 98.9 jazz is no more and did not know what other Seattle stations out there that play the same type of music. But thanks for letting me know of KPLU. I will definitely give it a try!

  5. P. Donovan

    I really want to be loyal to KPLU, and I have continued to support them, but I agree with Phil Bradford. The repetitive “playlists”, as they are called, have become mind-numbing to me. It may as well be innocuous free jazz or elevator music. I rarely listen anymore although I love all of the on-air personalities. I have asked before and I’ll ask again. WHY CAN’T WE HAVE MORE VARIETY? I can understand that whoever makes decisions may not want to risk broadening the scope, though I wish they would. But, can’t we at least get some new tunes? Why can’t we hear different tracks from the many excellent albums that are in your music library? It makes no sense.

  6. Paul Beddows

    I live in Vancouver, BC. I listen to both KPLU & 98.9. I am not such a purest that I do not consider smooth jazz as real jazz, after all the same was said in the past about forms like bee bop which are now considered mainstream. The sad thing about this is the trend towards sameness on FM stations, as they all go after the same demographic audience. This is even more in evidence on Canadian stations. Vancouver lost both its traditional jazz station CJAZ to this and its (sort of) smooth jazz station, Clear FM. Recently even the CBC, the public broadcaster, flipped Radio 2 from Classical to a mixture of stuff. The big winner in all of this may be satellite radio which I find myself listening to more & more. I do thank god that KPLU is not commercially driven.

  7. J. Sheehan

    Wow – you know, I sometimes switch over to KWJZ – or did – when KPLU is either playing a song I don’t like (or have heard too much – see other people’s comments), but I guess I had not tried that in the last 11 days. I am glad I read about this, rather than being surprised by another rendition of “Free Bird”! I have been listening to KPLU pretty consistently since 9/11/01, more sporadically before that. I love jazz, smooth, latin, bee-bop, traditional, Cuban, Brazilian – you name it. I am sad to see any option for Jazz go by the way side. And although I did not see the earlier comment regarding “Aja” – I love that your station recognizes that some rock artists were really on the edge between rock and jazz – Steely Dan being a perfect example. Keep playing the variety that makes jazz great. It is an ever evolving art form – Miles and Coltrane are not the only options.
    BTW Kevin – I love your program!

  8. Grant

    I try to be open-minded about “true jazz” (more so in the past) but I find many of the artists to be either too self-indulgent with their virtuosity (showing off without really being worth it in sound enjoyment) or too traditional and same sounding. Smooth jazz is a mixed bag too with better and worse but there are reasons it arose and why some people like it or even prefer it. Smooth “works” for many people in many situations (especially during the day or with others who may not be that interested in it) and some moods. I’d rather hear more smooth jazz mixed into your 100 hours a week. If there were I’d probably listen to more total jazz and more true jazz. For now, I’ll pop by occasionally and see if what’s on appeals to me then or not.

  9. Paul Rauch

    I am often offended when I tell someone I’m into jazz, and they mention Kenny G or Winston, etc. Jazz is alive and thriving here, as your station is a proof…..Jazz Alley, Tula’s, The Triple Door, Boxley’s, Lucid, egan’s, Origin, Earshot, the proof is in the quality of the artists not only passing through, but emanating from SEATTLE!

  10. gary

    Well there goes the hood, i really like listing to smooth jazz, now i have nothing, KPLU is ok but i dont hear them playing much of what i use to hear at smooth jazz. Money moves us all. So off to KPLU i go. Or u know what ipod 5000 songs an more movies. HEy no Radio YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

  11. Grant

    Flipped by KPLY about a dozen times last night and this morning. Never made it thru 2 straight and full songs. Some was mildly interesting but not enough to deeply hook me. I’d turn away from some smooth jazz too of course but I tended to stick with that more. Not necessarily thrilled with much of smooth jazz but not turned off quite as much or as quickly. Jazz piano especially bores me. And traditional quartets usually bore me. But whatever works for anyone else.

  12. cj shea

    . . . definitely disappointing to see the end of KWJZ . . . now 98.9 sounds like everything else . . . and I had to listen through scratchy airwaves here in Langley & Surrey outside Vancouver BC and it was still my favourite radio station . . . Jimmy Pattison (owner of 100.5 the PEAK FM) are you listening? . . . . start something new and come blow your horn ! . . . smooth jazz rocks . . . where will I hear Chris Botti now?

  13. Grant

    KWJZ’s flirtation with urban voices was a nervous hedge for awhile and then finally a desperate near last gasp move of desperation to try to hang on. Hang on to women who listen during the work day, who like “love songs”, who buy stuff, hang on especially to them for their advertisers. They seemed to back off at the very end, probably because that didn’t work well enough since the middle aged women were generally going even more modern and urban.

    Urban voices was the last thing I wanted to hear as a male instrumental jazz listener. I wanted clean, modern, cool, pretty easy to follow the mainline instrumental pieces. Mostly solo instruments or strong leads with light backing.

    It they wanted a broader and younger base maybe they could have tried adding even more popish instrumentals from farther outside of jazz, maybe especially guitar based. A Sunday acoustic brunch sound during the work week. Maybe they should have also tried a wider variety of jazz artists than they did. Instrumental over vocal, modern over traditonal, clean over complicated but still real “jazz” or “more real jazz” than some of the very “smooth” stuff.

    Personally I think that the jazz that men and women want to hear might be different and same for older and middle aged and there are other splits too. Smooth jazz probably leans toward women and middle aged more and traditional jazz stations lean older and maybe more toward men. For example Kenny G must appeal to or be tolerated by a lot of listeners but he seems pitched more at women than men. I can tolerate the “lovey” pop sax far more than urban voices (or any vocal jazz either) though I want variety too, especially right after the pop sax.

    Have your own target market and station identity but I think maybe both stations could usefully take or could have usefully taken some more of what the other did or tried to appeal to the other side or a broader base.

  14. Maxine

    Im in Vancouver, B.C. and have been away for a while. I was ASTOUNDED when I put on what my CD players is always programmed for – 98.9 Smooth Jazz Seattle. I’m gutted…my music tast is very eclectic – from Rock all the way to Opera….but I didn’t consider it “elevator music” at all – just a great group of artists and great background music. I’m just lost – can someone suggest something else in Seattle – Vancouver doesn’t have one like it. Guess it would have to be Seattle, might not be able to get one in another state from Canada. PLEASE HELP!

  15. Pingback:98.9 seattle playlist | blog

  16. deserie

    I have followed jazz since I was a young kid-and yes, I’m over. I like variety and bounced back from the only two stations in this state. Unfortunately, our society is geared for the young and so is the music. I have never donated to KPLU during the fund drive but if that is the only way to keep this station going I have decided to begin that process during the fall.

    Its a sad day in this state when we as a people that is over can’t groove to the oldies, jazz (contemporary or smooth) or R & B. What is this truly saying about us as connosuoiurs (excuse the spelling) of music. And no more JAZZ FESTIVALS in the summer. WOW! Its a sad day-we deserve better.

    1. cdnsmoothjazzfan

      Check amazon.com and/or ebay. I’ve bought a few back issues there. You may also like the samplers produced by KIFM “Smooth Jazz” in San Diego from 2002 to 2009. Some show up for sale online from time to time, and I’ve even seen them in used record stores. Try the “U” district shops in Seattle.

  17. Kristina

    KPLU is my favorite radio station, and Jazz music is highly appreciated in the Seattle area. However, I truly do miss KWJZ Smooth Jazz 98.9 FM. What a disappointment their new music format is. Yuck. No thanks.

    Long live KPLU! Amen.

    Thank you.

  18. Anonymous

    I think we can all see that this person is, literally, upset that people are giving more attention to the disappearance of KWJZ (which I am also sad about) and the fact that they are not paying nearly enough it to KPLU. Well, I can totally see that, since he stated that he IS a KPLU jazz host. Fair enough. However, what I don’t like about this article is the fact that he is trying to do everything in his power to tell us that, well, smooth jazz kind of sucked. We are SO sorry that KWJZ hasn’t been around nearly long enough as KPLU, yet smooth jazz seemed to be triumphant for nineteen years. It is understandable that you can call it “instrumental pop”, but it is not understandable that you think how loyal fans of smooth jazz are attempting to force people to listen to them, let alone follow along the boycott. For your information, pop is derived from “popular music”, which is directed more towards the younger audiences. Is this the case with smooth jazz? Maybe, but in a large sense no way. Most of the songs are from the early days, and maybe you didn’t know this, but smooth jazz is still being created today, thus there will almost never be that repetitive playlist, much like 106.9 and even CLICK 98.9. And calling it “elevator music” is just plainly being stereo-typical and very biased. Poor move on your part.

    I live in Bellevue, and I listen to KPLU. But with the “100 hours” that they put in, there isn’t much variety on that station. I can listen to a song the day before, but I would then hear it again the next day! Honestly, I find better jazz on YouTube and on the Internet than on KPLU. Furthermore, I do not believe that KWJZ has made its listeners so close-minded that they didn’t know that KPLU existed. In reality, they ALL know that KPLU exists. They KNOW they have a choice. It’s just that they prefer KWJZ more than KPLU. Why can’t you just accept that? Plus, fans of smooth jazz do NOT have Kenny G as the very first image that comes to mind. Well, maybe to you, since you don’t listen to smooth jazz that often. But, saying that your first impression of smooth jazz accounts for everyone else’s is also biased. From a realistic POV, I can say that the number of “jazz purists” is way lower than smooth jazz fans, and these “jazz purists” would rather support mainstream music on 106.9 than jazz. Although, I have found a pretty cool oldies station at 88.0 AM, and they play limited commercials and old, cheery songs literally 24/7, while on KPLU half the day is news, then commercials, then a little bit more news, then more commercials, and the FINALLY jazz with their limited playlist.

    With all due respect, I like KPLU for what it does, but please: next time when you want more people to come to your jazz station (I can imagine that most people have already…), I would highly encourage being a little more sympathetic to smooth jazz and the whole community who is grieving about this loss, rather than implying that their mourning is a waste of their time.

  19. Mark

    Radio stations better become more competitive or they will go the way of the boombox. Most of my friends listen to cd’s and mp3 players while driving, instead of the radio. Even the younger generation is starting to avoid fm radio because of the long commercial breaks and the convenience of mp3 players.

    I would love to turn on my fm radio, but I have nothing to enjoy since our smooth jazz station changed format. Some listeners are better than no listeners.

  20. Devane

    I don’t care what people say…I’m sad KWJZ smooth jazz is gone. Feels like someone close to me died and KPLU is there to pat me on the back.

  21. Luis Rodriguez

    I used to live in Victoria, B.C. Canada, working as a chef, as a smooth jazz listener I found this radio station by accident while driving down south to Mexico, right away I knew THAT WAS THE RADIO STATION I was looking for since I don´t know how many years, when I came back home to Canada I set my stereo on the digital and the web page in my laptop, the rest was history… I was happy and relaxed. Few years ago I left Canada temporaly and went to live to Mexico, but I was not alone, I had a piece of Seattle and Seattle´s best smooth jazz radio station with me. Long awesome summers, enjoying life and my wife becoming addicted to the radio station I couldn´t ask for anything better than that!!!I´ve been following this situation up to the end of it…and this is it, the only thing left to do in my case is to remember all those great years of great jazz from a great city…thank you Seattle!!!

  22. Mattie T

    It’s easy to see why smooth jazz is no longer on the radio airwaves of today. As music quality has declined in favor of the “no thought” brand of techno and simplistic pop and r&b, smooth jazz got left out and why?, because the music actually requires thought and skill. It takes a true musician to play the saxophone and keyboards and drums. It takes a true musician to produce a song. It takes time to produce a quality album. The current generation doesn’t care about this and is content with the thoughtless music and simplistic beats. They are content with mediocrity. I have abandoned the radio as many have, because it does not play the music that inspires me or that I want to hear. My tastes cover a broad range. Yet, I can never turn on the radio to hear “that song” for “that” moment because it no longer exists. I guess I will have to seek solace in itunes, or satrelite radio and pay for what I want to hear because I am sure that is what the industry wants. It is nothing more than greed, and makes me wish I had never thrown any of my old cassettes and CD’s away. So long radio, had you not succumbed to greed, you might have retained this listener…now, where’s my ipod?….

  23. Susan Blanton

    Anchorage’s smooth jazz station changed format about a year ago and instead started playing more classic jazz. Although classic jazz maybe fun if you are a player, in my opinion it is not always that easy to listen to. I think this article assumes that those who like smooth Jazz also like classic jazz. Once we lost the smooth jazz format in Anchorage, I went to Seattle for smooth jazz and now it is also gone. Unfortunately, there is a lot of Country, Pop or Rock stations all over the country. It is much more difficult to find smooth jazz or classical stations unless you go to some of the college radio stations. I really think of smooth jazz as fusion where it uses jazz chord structure with a rock beat, but I may be wrong. I just know that I like the relaxing nature of the genre and really miss it because so many smooth jazz stations around the country are vanishing. I no longer listen to the Anchorage radio station since they changed formats and my guess is they have lost many loyal listeners and may have gained a few, but lost more then they gained.

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