D.C.-area public radio station WAMU (88.5 FM) announced the cancellation of the nearly 40-year-old program “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” earlier this month, prompting an online petition to save the show.
In a statement on June 2, WAMU announced that “Hot Jazz,” a program featuring music of the big-band era hosted by former congressional researcher Rob Bamberger, would be canceled “to better reflect a news-and-information format.” Its final show will be June 23.
“After 38 years and nearly 2,000 episodes, this original WAMU program has had an impressive run,” the statement said. “While it is sad to say goodbye to a legacy program, we know each generation of shows paves the way for the next, and all of those that have come before have made the station what it is today.”
With the cancellation, the station announced the addition of two new programs that will begin airing later this month: “The Daily,” a radio version of the New York Times daily news podcast, and “Live Wire,” a one-hour variety show based in Portland, Ore.
In an interview, Andi McDaniel, WAMU’s senior director of content and news, said the decision to cancel the show was “a good while in the making” as 88.5 moves away from music programming.
“Our research tells us the best way to serve the audience and region is a format that is predominantly news and smart talk,” she said. “Music just does not fit into the schedule. It’s not the best way to serve our audience.”
The online petition that was posted last week to save the show had more than 3,700 signatures Tuesday.
“Rob Bamberger’s programs, brilliantly researched and curated, are like a beacon in the night: presenting half a century of great music, along with illuminating and entertaining commentary in his inimitable style and voice,” the petition said. “. . . WAMU, PLEASE do not cancel this invaluable show. If you do, you will lose a lot of listeners and supporters and respect.”
McDaniel said the petition would not change the strategy behind WAMU’s decision. Even as the station has moved away from music, its audience has grown by 200,000 listeners, and its membership has grown to 80,000 people, she said. The station is also exploring other platforms, such as its relaunch Monday of the blog DCist.
“It’s always inspiring to see how engaged listeners can be,” she said. “ ‘Hot Jazz,’ even as listenership has declined, maintains an incredibly engaged listener base. Those are passionate listeners. That is what public service programming is all about.”
John Edward Hasse, an emeritus curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution who posted the petition on his own, said “Hot Jazz” was “one of a kind.”
“If this is done primarily to drive up listenership, it makes me wonder about whether that should be a fundamental purpose of a public radio station,” he said.
Bamberger did not return requests for comment. In 1996, he told The Washington Post that the show’s music “speaks to whatever sense of the infinite that I have.”
“Nostalgia gets a bad rap,” he said. “I’m not keen on nostalgia in a vacuum, because there are associations with the word ‘nostalgia’ that aren’t historical. So many listeners I’ve heard from, the passion of their associations in time and place are moving, are very moving.”
“Hot Jazz” is not the only jazz program that will go dark on WAMU. “Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired,” a national hour-long show that airs after “Hot Jazz,” will end the same day.
As WAMU increasingly moves away from music, it has met resistance from some listeners almost every step of the way.
Fans cried foul in 2016 when it announced plans to sell Bluegrass Country, its signature bluegrass music offshoot that began broadcasting in 1967. Last year, the station helped broker a deal with a nonprofit group that airs bluegrass on HD radio 88.5 FM Channel 2.
McDaniel said WAMU had “no immediate or medium-term plans to affect any other programming,” pointing out that it hired a new host for “The Big Broadcast,” its Sunday-evening vintage radio show, after the death of host Ed Walker in 2015.
She also said that Bamberger would remain a WAMU employee “at least through December” and that there were no plans to revive “Hot Jazz” in another format.
“Rob is an incredibly smart and talented host . . . a beloved part of this station,” she said. “We’re leaving it to him to consider any opportunities.”