Quietly, without promotion or fanfare, the country’s original Smooth Jazz formatted station, the Wave in Los Angeles (KTWV 94.7FM), moved a big step closer to its musical roots last week. The station restored a number of instrumental tracks to their mix.* Many of these tracks had not been played on the Wave in several years.
For those of us who like to keep an eye on the industry, the significance of this decision can’t be overstated. By putting instrumentals back into the mix, it represents something of a concession by the owners of the station, CBS Radio. Apparently, their strategy of pushing the Wave toward a mainstream soft adult contemporary format in 2010 by sharply reducing the instrumental tracks on their playlist (and totally changing the complexion of the station in the process) didn’t work. It didn’t give them the sustained ratings boost they had hoped for. Media companies seldom admit in this way to having made a mistake. And they never acknowledge the possibility that old thinking might have been better than new thinking. The brass at CBS in Los Angeles did both with their latest change. They deserve a lot of credit for this.
I traded emails last week with the Music Director at the station, Paul Ciliano. He explained that a research project they commissioned last fall led them to conclude that, even in the world of Arbitron’s Portable People Meter, a station playing instrumentals could still perform favorably. I was shocked to hear him say that, because that notion runs counter to what has been the prevailing attitude within the industry since the advent of PPM, even among programmers for whom Smooth Jazz is both a passion and specialty. Paul concluded his email to me this way: “We’re back to having a unique product, and we’re gonna give it our best shot!”
For those of us who are fans of traditional Smooth Jazz, this is the most encouraging thing we have heard in quite some time. A major media company, CBS Radio, in a major market, Los Angeles, sees ratings and sales potential once again for a format featuring a fair amount of instrumental music.
Naturally, the artists who create the music of this genre are just as surprised and encouraged by the development. Here’s what Dave Koz said to me in an email:
“Yes, the Wave went back to its old format—which is awesome. They are doing a big concert next month [February 23, with Boney James, Norman Brown, Kirk Whalum, Mindi Abair, Vince Ingala and Spencer Day at the Nokia Theatre] to ingratiate themselves to the [super loyal] fans they abandoned over the last couple years of turning the Wave into a pop/adult contemporary station. This is all good news. Some very happy people here in Southern California.” Very lucky people too, I might add.
It was on February 14, 1987, that the Wave made its debut in Los Angeles. Just six months later, on August 3, 1987, we saw the launch of WNUA 95.5 here in Chicago. For the next 22 years the stations followed similar paths, overcoming growing pains and emerging as standard bearers for the Smooth Jazz format. They led the way in terms of ratings, revenue, industry-wide respect and influence. As we all know and painfully recall here in Chicago, 2009 was when the parallel trajectories of the two stations came to an end, when Clear Channel dropped Smooth Jazz in favor of Spanish on WNUA.
Now that we have seen a vote of confidence for Smooth Jazz in the second largest radio market in the country, can we assume there is a glimmer of hope for the format here in Chicago, the third largest radio market? To my way of thinking, the key to the future of Smooth Jazz in Chicago lies in what Mr. Ciliano said. I’ll share my thoughts about that in our next blog. (Part 2 is here.)
~Rick O’Dell (FmAm1@aol.com)
*I’ve been listening to their stream and, as far as I can tell, they’ve gone from one instrumental to three per hour during the daytime and from one to five in the evening and overnight.
Our Smooth Video of the Day: Marc Antoine takes us back to 1998, a time when KTWV and WNUA ruled the roost in Smooth Jazz.