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.