McMURRAY – In a nondescript office building that once housed a hardware store on Route 19, John Coltrane gazes out over the proceedings.
The saxophone deity’s image is framed in a poster on a wall next to a control board, where announcers work and jazz flows forth on a 24-hour basis, with boxes of old vinyl records and compact discs sitting nearby.
And, like Coltrane himself, the poster comes with a venerable history. It used to cover a hole in the wall in the old studios of WDUQ-FM, the noncommercial radio station operated by Duquesne University that had a mostly jazz format. The Coltrane poster found pride of place when the station migrated to newer and better digs on Duquesne’s campus.
Then, in 2010, artists like Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and other jazz greats were left homeless on the region’s terrestrial airwaves when Duquesne University decided to sell off the station, which it had operated since 1949.
In response, some of WDUQ’s on-air personalities and employees formed the group Pittsburgh Public Media with the hope of purchasing the station. However, they were outbid by a group that operated another noncommercial radio station, WYEP-FM, and that group opted to do away with the jazz format, switch primarily to news and talk, and change the station’s call letters to WESA. The curtain came down for good on WDUQ in June 2011.
The station’s staff and devotees were, naturally, crestfallen. Many employees had spent years with WDUQ, which is no small feat in an ever-shifting radio and nonprofit landscape. “The spirit in that group of people, it’s unduplicated in anything I’ve ever been involved in,” said Bee Barnett, who worked in the station’s development department for 13 years. So rather than scattering to the winds and contenting themselves with WDUQ memories and listening to Art Blakey or Wynton Marsalis CDs at home, they launched the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel, an online jazz outlet featuring WDUQ veterans like Chuck Leavens, Tony Mowod and Scott Hanley, and put the Coltrane poster on the wall once again.
“We did start from absolute scratch,” Leavens said. “We are starting from absolute nothing. It’s a true labor of love based on the belief that there’s room for this kind of service.”
Then, last year, they purchased the license of WYZR-FM, the radio station of Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va. According to Bethany spokeswoman Rebecca Rose, the college opted not to renew the station’s FM license because of the presence students can have on the World Wide Web. The sale brought in revenue that “has allowed us to continue the extensive upgrades that have taken place while embracing new media and expanded forms of content delivery,” she explained.
The WYZR license in hand, the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel then moved its offices from South Park to McMurray and has started the slow, step-by-step process of upgrading WYZR’s transmitter and antenna. It can be found at 88.1 on the FM dial, but, as Leavens readily admits, reception can be spotty depending on the quality of your receiver, competing signals and, if you’re in your car, going up a hill or not.
The station, for now, is automated, but “we’re closer and closer every day to having live hosts,” according to Leavens.
Nonetheless, there are few cities nowadays that still have radio stations fully dedicated to jazz programming. WESA-FM plays jazz on Saturday nights, and WNJR-FM, Washington & Jefferson College’s radio station, plays jazz on weekday and Sunday mornings and on selected nights of the week amid an eclectic format that also includes rock, oldies, country and electronica. What makes the Pittsburgh region more receptive to jazz?
“Pittsburgh’s history in jazz is deep,” Leavens said, citing a roll call of innovators that includes Billy Eckstine, Errol Garner, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and Ahmad Jamal. “Some of the greats came from Pittsburgh. Some relatives of the greats are still living in Pittsburgh.” Barnett also cited an energetic club scene and venues like the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, which hosts regular appearances by jazz performers. “It transcends generational lines.”
And, of course, there are also those who would argue that broadcast radio itself is in its last days, soon to be edged aside by satellite radio, the Internet and iPods that can be loaded to the brim with our own personal preferences. Leavens counters that broadcast radio, in the here and now, is still the readiest means to reach the wide audience the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel hopes to find.
“It’s all about ease of access,” he said. “All you need is a $5 radio.”