“I was the first person to be laid off.” After 16 years as a Smooth Jazz host KIFM radio management handed William Tayari Howard his pink slip. That was in May of 2011. “After me, they laid off the rest of the house, so to speak, somewhere between 10 and 14 people.” He describes KIFM’s new format as something approaching mainstream pop. Indeed, a quick perusal of KIFM’s web site shows a play list that includes After 7, Kelly Clarkson, Steve Winwood, and Toni Braxton. The word ‘jazz’ has been expunged and is nowhere to be found.
Now, KIFM is just plain Smooth 98.1.
“To them, it’s about the money,” Howard says of parent company Lincoln Financial Media’s corporate decision to change formats. “To me, it’s about the music.”
To that end Howard has plans in the works to resurrect Smooth Jazz in San Diego via the web. “I’m starting from the ground up to build a commercial grade Internet station.” He’ll pick up right where KIFM left off, he says, by spinning Smooth Jazz along with jazzy R&B cuts and even some traditional jazz. “Things we can mix into the adult work place.” After all, that’s what most Smooth Jazz listeners are -- work day stiffs.
“I’ve met with bankers and business advisors. People who know the arithmetic.” The number he needs to get his Internet radio station up and running? $25,000 dollars. “If done correctly, it could generate $1.5 million within three years.”
But KIFM management, and possibly the rest of the broadcast facilities nationwide that have now abandoned Smooth Jazz would surely disagree with Howard.
In a letter posted March 3, 2011 on KIFM’s Facebook page, long-time Smooth Jazz program director and KIFM morning show host Mike Vasquez explained the changes about to come to his station:
“On March 1, we made the decision to make our station more familiar and accessible to a broader segment of the audience.” According to Vasquez, the driver behind the format change was simple: “Our ratings have dropped significantly over the past two years and we're currently ranked 23rd in the San Diego market.”
Just two years earlier Adweek had reported that even though Smooth Jazz was going the way of the dodo bird at most radio stations San Diego was an anomaly. KIFM was ranked at No. 2 overall.
But during that same year a new (and some say highly accurate) means of gathering radio listener data was deployed. And when the new numbers were tabulated, the results showed that that KIFM had in reality far fewer listeners than indicated by the old school diary-generated ratings.
Meet the Portable People Meter.
From Arbitron’s own web site: “The Portable People Meter is a small device that consumers wear throughout the day that works by detecting identification codes that can be embedded in the audio portion of any transmission.”
“It's really hard for all of us at 98.1 to stomach this reality,” Vasquez continued, “since we were consistently in the Top 5 before the ratings methodology changed in April of 2009.”
But Smooth Jazz fans had begun to abandon mood radio as early as 2007. That’s the year that many high profile conglomerate radio outfits in turn began to jump the Smooth Jazz shark. And by 2009, half of the Smooth Jazz stations in major markets were gone in favor of a new adult contemporary format: stuff like Boyz II Men, Kelly Clarkson, etc, etc, and with very little smoothness from now-exiled faux-jazz artists like Dave Koz or Chris Botti.
“We have added some new "flavors" to the mix,” Vasquez wrote, “but they're all still songs that are smooth, relaxing and cool. Don't you think that some Smooth Jazz is better than NO (sic) Smooth Jazz?”
Personally, I have a kind of a love-hate relationship with Smooth Jazz. Whenever I hear the term I immediately think of Kenny G who is both the richest and the worst sax player ever and I cringe a little bit. And then I remember Spyro Gyra and their utterly crappy song “Morning Dance,” an inescapable air headed sax ditty that became the Smooth Jazz club theme song.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I too worked at KIFM and spun those very records.
Today’s Smooth Jazz is said to have its roots in the 1960s beginning with some Wes Montgomery sides produced by an opportunistic record biz executive named Creed Taylor. But that was well before my time. I came into the Smooth Jazz fold some 20 years later when saxists Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanford were playing a kind of new music that retained at least a semblance of authentic jazz about it.
In the years to follow much of that fine jazz intellectualism would be stripped away from the music by producers leaving in its place a vanilla sludge of production line music trademarked by a slappy bass line, anguished strings, and saxophones treacly enough to induce a rash.
Many truly fine artists such as George Benson or Joe Sample also abandoned the straight-ahead jazz ship in favor of making a Smooth Jazz dollar and in a way, it’s hard to blame them. Trad jazz by then wasn’t even on life support. It had been seriously dead for a good 30 years. Even as Smooth jazz was ascending I recall seeing jazz gods like Miles Davis and Bill Evans in shithole clubs up in L.A. where the audiences numbered less than ten people, and that’s counting the bar help.
Smooth Jazz radio is another thing entirely. It was born of dreadful “beautiful music" formats, a dark and truly damnable era in radio broadcast history. Then, station managers ran pre-taped segments built from the meekest of B-sides supplied by the likes of Judy Collins and Neil Diamond and Rita Coolidge and Art Garfunkel. By contrast, this manner of radio programming made James Taylor sound like a rock star.
But some of these stations also began integrating jazzy new age tracks by Herb Alpert and Chuck Mangione and Pat Metheny into their play lists and this is where it gets interesting. The jazz material gained in popularity and eventually blossomed into stand-alone night-time and specialty programming.
This trend was not lost on a local bedroom-voiced disc jockey named Art Good (a friend but otherwise no relation) who kicked off Lights Out San Diego during one of KIFM’s many incarnations (98.1 has had several different owners over the years.) Lights Out went on to become a syndicated show that helped spread the gospel of the jazz- light that was to come.
William Tayari Howard worked at KIFM from 1995 to 2011. “Sixteen years.” In spite of the fact that he currently has no broadcast job on the horizon he says that San Diego has been good to him. He’s worked at local radio stations for 39 years running, names Jammin’ Z90, XHRM 92.5, 92 Star 5, and Jazz 88 at City College.
Howard has been off the air for going on a year now but he says this: “I don’t really think I’m out of broadcasting.” His mother was the first black woman to become a radio personality; Howard’s father was a black radio programmer. Both had jobs, he says that were generally not available to black Americans during the 1940s. This, he says, is his heritage. Howard’s daughters work in the broadcast business as well.
“So, I’m not really out of radio. In fact, I’m taking radio in a whole different direction.” But in an era where the “quiet storm” is winding down to something less than a drizzle, what makes Howard think he can sell Smooth Jazz on hometown web radio? The answer, he says, is to think locally, not globally.
“I will program from a local standpoint. I’ve always believed I had the pulse of San Diego” stemming from his years of community involvement. He says he’ll also promote local jazzers on his station. “I hosted the Lights Out Lounge at Humphrey’s for five years.” And, he was the host of locals-only Coffee and Tea with Tayari on KIFM. On top of all this, he’d also like to bring back the long-defunct Smooth Jazz Festivals.
But he needs a few angels to step in with the cash to back his utopian vision. In the past, Howard tried to raise $15,000 worth of seed money on Kickstarter in a campaign that was unsuccessful. That said, is he still optimistic about the future of Smooth Jazz on the Internet?
“There’s no doubt in my mind.”