By Kiarra Solomon
Philadelphia has been home to Jazz legends like Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It is a city that has played such a critical role in the evolution of Jazz music, and ultimately, music in general. Sadly, the city’s only Jazz radio station, WRTI, is largely disconnected from the Philadelphia Jazz scene, even during Jazz Appreciation Month.
WRTI is located on Temple University’s Main Campus and aired “as a service” of Temple University. In 1997, WRTI split its content to half jazz and half classical music. Just two years before the decision was made to split the format, WRTI was recognized as the top Jazz station in the country. Temple University students who worked at WRTI, (positions at the station are offered as practicum courses for Temple students) were able to learn from employees, community activists and musicians, all of whom had a huge stake in the station and the community.
Jazz aficionados believe the decision to split WRTI’s format between Jazz and Classical music in 1997 was done in an attempt to attract more “desirable” students to the University. Further examination of the strategic tactics taken by Temple University to attract students over the years, would lead one to agree.
Unfortunately, this split didn’t satisfy Jazz or Classical fans, but has ultimately proven to be detrimental to Jazz music in the city. And it seems that the half that’s designated for Jazz music is mostly during off peak hours, although you can stream either format on WRTI’s website or listen on HD radio at any time.
A large portion of the station’s content is syndicated, especially its Jazz programming. During the week from 6am to 6pm (normal business hours when prospective students and their families are most likely touring the campus), the FM station is dedicated to Classical music. Jazz fans without HD radios are giving the option of listening online. During those hours, however, the content that is streamed comes from Boise, Idaho and Pittsburgh. That’s 12 consecutive hours of programming outside of Philadelphia.
WRTI also has all-request hours, for both Jazz and Classical fans, during which listeners can call in and request their favorite songs. The Classical request hour is on Wednesday’s between noon and 3pm, but Jazz fans can call on Wednesdays from midnight to 3am to request their favorite songs. (I haven’t been able to come up with a slightly sarcastic sentence that appropriately expresses my feelings towards this obvious snub as of yet… sorry.)
During the month of April which was Jazz Appreciation Month, there was no mention of the many events that took place throughout the city on the stations website. No mention of The African American Museum’s “Paris ’til Sunday: Jazz Weekend”, or the Center City Jazz Fest. There was no discussion of local artists such or mention of programs that support or educate on the history of Jazz music.
The station’s website did mention, however, that it is a community supported organization, with a budget of $4.3 million a year, and over 75 percent of that coming from member donations. The remainder of the WRTI budget comes from underwriters, Temple University and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
And while it is undeniable that even public radio is a business, it is rather disappointing that a station that was once critically acclaimed for its work in the Jazz community is now so disconnected from that community. Located on the border of what is now one of the most deplorable neighborhoods in the city, a neighborhood that Temple University has been criticized for gentrifying, it’s somewhat saddening that there is no attempt to educate or give back to this neighborhood with the one thing that may keep them connected: Jazz music.
Quite frankly, it’s also rather disheartening that in a city that helped to birth Jazz music, the Jazz station now syndicates the music from Idaho. WRTI, could of course position itself as the community resource it once was, a station that focuses on the great music of Philadelphia. Station executives and hosts could devote their shows to educating, supporting, and spotlighting both the history of Jazz and contemporary Jazz music in Philadelphia. Because, the truth is the only way that we can save Jazz music is to support it.
Jazz music is, in essence, African American classical music. It is the music that mirrors so much of what it is to be an African American both today and historically. Jazz dates back to the 1800s, and for so long, has been our unofficial documentation of the life and times of African Americans. It is our responsibility to both the great musicians and our future generations to preserve the music that details our history. It is very unfortunate that WRTI’s current role in that preservation is disturbingly a very minimal one.
**Special thanks to Earle Brown of Jazz Journeys Educational Institute**