Frank Cody invented the Smooth Jazz format. For that, the many enthusiasts of the genre owe him a debt of gratitude. I owe him twice as much. He created a category of music I found I adored and into which I’ve happily poured my passion and dedication the past 25 years. And, by coming up with the Smooth Jazz format, he gave me the opportunity to enjoy a career in radio that has exceeded my grandest dreams. These are gifts so great I won’t ever be able to return the favor.
Legendary Chicago radio executive John Gehron likes to stress the importance of people with ideas. They are the ones who propel the industry forward and allow it to grow, he’s said to me on more than one occasion. Well, Frank Cody is the quintessential idea guy. But he is also the rare idea guy who can take an exciting new concept soaring at 30,000 feet and bring it down to the ground where it can then be implemented practically and successfully. The Smooth Jazz format is a textbook example of that.
In 1986, after a distinguished career as an executive at NBC and ABC radio, he set out to create a radio format from scratch. Going where no programmer had gone before, he decided to take a collection of artists who had traditionally gotten little airplay or none at all on commercial radio and turn them into the core of his new, largely instrumental format. He placed upon artists such as David Sanborn, Grover Washington Jr., Kenny G, Earl Klugh, Acoustic Alchemy and George Winston the burden of doing the heavy lifting for what would be dubbed the “New Adult Contemporary” format. Mr. Cody did the same thing in the vocal realm with Basia, Enya, Swing Out Sister and the like. By February of 1987 he was ready to launch “The Wave” at KTWV-FM in Los Angeles. Within months, KKSF in San Francisco and WNUA in Chicago debuted in their respective markets. He programmed or consulted all of them.
Then, working with his team at Broadcast Architecture, a broadcast media and entertainment research/consulting firm he co-founded, he set out to make the format palatable to the general market, not just contemporary jazz and New Age enthusiasts. He used a revolutionary digital-interactive music testing device his company created, the Mix-Master, to measure the appeal of every title on his extensive playlist. It didn’t take long for the rough edges of the format to be trimmed away through his music research, and Smooth Jazz began to gain a solid foothold in the three biggest radio markets in the country, thanks to a stronger music mix. Ratings, which were lukewarm at first, started to take off.
I remember Mr. Cody’s periodic visits to WNUA during the entire decade of the ‘90s. He’d supervise the music tests the station would do two or three times each year, moderate our focus groups with listeners and preside over many a brainstorming session with WNUA brass. I confess that, as an air talent, I found him to be both intimidating and inspiring. On the one hand, he had such a brilliant creative mind I wasn’t always sure I was living up to his standards on the air. On the other, he was constantly brimming with ideas I was dying to try, things I could never come up with in a million years. He also reminded us in each of our meetings that Smooth Jazz was a unique format because listeners used it in two very different ways. One group used the music for stress relief and relaxation. The other group came to the station for discovery, to be stimulated by new artists and new music. Therefore, it was our job to make WNUA fit into the comfort zone of both groups. By following his vision and building on the rock solid foundation he built for the format, we were able to turn WNUA into a powerhouse.
Today, Frank Cody lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico, about an hour north of Santa Fe. He is currently undergoing treatment for a serious illness. I ask Smooth Jazz fans everywhere to say a prayer for him and send positive thoughts his way. If you are on Facebook, you can send him a get well message there. It’s the least we can do for a man whose creative genius has brightened our lives for more than a quarter century.
~Rick O’Dell (FmAm1@aol.com)
Our Smooth Video of the Day: Would we even know about this group if Frank Cody hadn’t created a format for them on the radio?