When I left WPFW (89.3 FM) as an on-air volunteer nearly two years ago, it was because I was dreading this day. The day that the station that long championed itself as “jazz and justice” radio would sell out and, in essence, gentrify the station.
Monday morning, a new strategy took effect that drastically cut the station’s local programming grid. The new lineup includes adding nationally syndicated programs such as Michel Martin’s and cutting the overall amount of music.
A part of WPFW died over the weekend. And you could hear it on the air.
On the “Super Funky Soul Power Hour Friday,” host Jared Ball explained the frustration with outsourcing shows. “If we redistribute the money we do have, we could produce a much better programming grid than hiring people to come and give us this watered down, non-Pacifica tradition, non-black radical tradition radio,” Ball said on the program. Pacifica Radio owns the station.
At Ben’s Next Door on Friday, it was a sad scene. Cleveland Spears, who goes by Bobby Rox on the air, was doing his final live broadcast from the restaurant in the 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. slot he held for eight years.
He isn’t as angry as some, though. The media landscape is not what it once was, and he respects that. “When they initially started the network [Pacifica]. the laurels that they rested on were pretty solid. They were trying to create something to where it was not a part of ‘the machine.’ But that was 30-something years ago,” Spears said. “You don’t wear the same clothes that you wore 15, 20, 25, 30 years ago. So, things change. Times change, and you have to change with it. I don’t think that we embraced the opportunity to be able to excel in a different form and different fashion.”
Navasha Daya, the former lead singer of Fertile Ground, now a solo artist, said she is going to miss the access that WPFW provided for artists like her.
“It affects us a lot, because these are programmers and DJs that play our music,” she said. “You don’t have to submit a form and try to compete with the majors.
“They are open to real music,” Daya said Friday after an appearance with Spears to promote her new album. “WPFW, to me, represented freedom, creatively. In what they shared, what they talked about on the radio and what they played.”
For about three years, I had the pleasure of being the newscaster for the now-defunct Wednesday morning drive-time jazz show, “Freedom Sounds,” hosted by the late Hodari Abdul-Ali. Brother Hodari, as he was known on the air, is a legend in his own right. The privilege of learning about his activist causes, experiences and desires firsthand is one that I solely owe to WPFW. After that, I briefly hosted the call-in program “Community Comment,” a feisty half-hour in which topics of the day were put to the public.
I made friends at the station and learned quite a bit in my short time there. Both of my parents have been member supporters at one point or another over the years dating back to when I was a kid. Point being, I’ve got love for WPFW.
But something had to change. The station is bleeding cash. The ratings are terrible. As reported by The Washington Post’s Paul Fahri, WPFW is ranked 28th among all area stations.
John Hughes, the station’s general manager, has become Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of many. The man who implemented the changes was given a vote of no confidence by volunteers in November 2011. The conspiracy theories fly fast and furiously at a station known for its distrust in authority figures.
There’s no doubt this is a desperation move, no matter whom it came from. That has been the biggest mistake so far. Beyond the crude dismissal of longtime volunteers and the abrupt cancellation of shows, did anyone ever ask the listeners what they wanted?
Marcus Johnson, a prominent jazz musician and one-time radio host at 105.9 FM in its smooth jazz days, isn’t so sure.
“I think that moving into a direction of news and talk is one that seems easy, but with all the other stations’ new technology, I don’t know. I think what is a lost art form is the refinement of a programming strategy,” Johnson said. “I think that there’s a missed opportunity here. It’s just like another homogenized FM station; I wonder how they’re going to go up against WAMU. I just wonder about the competitive landscape and whether or not the analysis was really done to see what we could do to make more in D.C. With Pacifica, I wonder what they were really vested, and how vested they were in this market and the level of engagement they could have had, in order to come up with another solution.”
WPFW needed an overhaul to get into the 21st century. The problem is, it doesn’t have the money to do that. But with more money, it’d be in a better position to improve. This chicken or egg quandary has kept tensions high at the Adams Morgan studios since Hughes’s arrival.
And with a building move imminent, getting something, anything that you think people will listen to is a start. I just don’t understand why the station couldn’t find programming that was live and local, and still in line with its mission. If you’re going to throw money at a problem, at least throw in the direction of something unique.
With all the young, smart people of all creeds in this area, it’s hard to imagine that the station couldn’t have found a way to seed two fresh drive time shows as a way to reboot its brand.
As one volunteer put it, WAMU (88.5 FM) is raking in cash partly because of old ladies living in Potomac, driving up and down River Road listening to Diane Rehm. But the old men driving up and down those same roads listening to WPFW are cabdrivers.
If WPFW can find a way to tap new innovative talents who represent something that the wealth of young people with disposable cash in this area are willing to support, it’s got a shot. But piping in a homogenized product is not the way to do it.
“If you choose the people, you’ll always go right,” Spears said. “That’s where the station set to be out then, and what it should be now: representing the people.”
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