Radio riffs

Two stations serve up jazz year-round to Rochester listeners
Rob Linton
Photos by David Ditzel
WGMC General Manager Rob Linton hosts an afternoon show from the station’s Greece studios.

Over the past fifteen years, Rochesterians have become accustomed to hearing great jazz for ten days in June as the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival brings to town some of the genre’s biggest names and rising stars. But when the temporary venues have been dismantled and the last of the artists have headed for their next gigs, there is still no shortage of jazz. In fact, it’s available at two points on the local radio dial year-round.

Stations WGMC (Jazz 90.1 FM) and WJZR (North Coast 105.9 FM) make sure the quintessential American music is available for Rochester listeners twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Although both have been a part of the local radio scene for more than two decades, they differ in format, business model, and operational style.

WGMC, the older of the two, has been on the air since 1973 when it began as a student station in Greece. The school district still holds the license, and the station operates from a studio at Olympia High School, but it has been a community-operated, non-commercial station featuring a jazz format since the mid-1980s. WGMC is supported by members, business underwriting, revenue from leasing some air time on weekends for ethnic programming, and a couple of large fundraisers each year. The $200,000 annual budget doesn’t allow for many paid staff. About twenty-five volunteers behind the scenes and on the air keep the music playing.

General manager Rob Linton describes the station’s format as straight-ahead jazz, with a roughly-equal blend of classics—think Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis—and newer artists.  While there always will be an audience for the classics, Linton believes exposure for contemporary artists is important because “jazz is a living format,” he says. “There are new artists who are putting out fantastic stuff.”

Another important aspect for WGMC is those volunteers, who broadcast live and have fairly wide latitude to select their music. “Every show you hear has the DJ’s tastes in it,” Linton said.

That, and the local connection the live voice provides, are keys to the station’s success, the GM believes. “People like that interaction of calling in and talking to a DJ,” he says.

One thing you are not likely to hear on WGMC is “soft contemporary”—the so-called “smooth” jazz. “We toyed with the need and the want for smooth jazz,” Linton recalls, going so far as to survey listeners about it. He found himself in trouble when people misinterpreted the survey as a signal that the station was going all-in for that format. The listeners made it clear they didn’t want WGMC to go there.

The walls of Lee Rust's WJZR are lined with posters reflecting Rochester's rich jazz scene.

That’s where WJZR fills in nicely. “We touch on [traditional jazz] but we’re a broader-based kind of choice,” says station operator Lee Rust, who was responsible for changing WGMC to a jazz format in the 1980s when he was its station manager.

He has been the driving force behind WJZR since it went on the air in 1993. Like Linton, Rust says jazz fans tend to fundamentally disagree about traditional styles vs. the contemporary commercial “smooth” sound. And WJZR does offer some smooth in its format, including the syndicated JazzTrax featuring Art Good each Saturday morning.

In addition to traditional and smooth, “there’s a lot of space in between, and that’s the space that I occupy,” Rust says. He strives for a consistent sound that matches his personal tastes, but “I go by sound and song, not a category,” and he tries to make sure the station’s programming “reflects the breadth of the musical world out there.”

He also likes to feature recordings by local artists such as pianist Joe Santora and percussionist/vocalist Kristen Shiner McGuire. “That makes (the station) unique; that makes it Rochester,” Rust says. “It isn’t just some generic selection from the Internet.”

The stations differ in other ways as well. Unlike WGMC’s live DJ approach, WJZR is fully automated with Rust as station voice, programmer and chief technical operator. Also, in contrast with WGMC’s non-profit status, WJZR is a commercial station with Rust as majority stockholder in North Coast Radio, the corporation that owns it. The changing landscape for radio in the twenty years since WJZR went on the air—including ownership consolidation in the industry, more competition for music listening in the online environment, and a softer economy that makes it more difficult to find advertiser support for a niche format—is making the business far more challenging now, Rust says. 

However, he adds, “We make some money, we pay some bills” and that keeps the station on the air.

Rochester is definitely unusual—and may be unique—in having two stations devoted full-time to jazz. Linton believes fewer than ten such stations exist nationwide. Rust also isn’t aware of very many, and the ones he knows of are non-profits such as WGMC. Neither Rust nor Linton has a definitive answer for why the market supports two such stations, although both mentioned the active art and music scene and the area’s strong jazz heritage, such as the Clarissa Street clubs and famous players who got their start here but found fame elsewhere.

Nazareth College music professor Mark Zeigler, who also is co-coordinator of the college’s music business program, cites those same reasons and one other for why Rochester is such a jazz town. And that’s music education, from his own college and the Eastman School of Music, down through the secondary level. 

“These kids go through high school and they get turned on to jazz,” he says, “and they tend to stay here because it’s a nice place to live.”

Both station managers say having two stations, with somewhat different approaches, is beneficial for Rochester. “I do it because it seems like a good thing to do,” Rust says. “It makes the town a more interesting place to live for a certain type of person.”

Linton echoes him, commenting, “The jazz landscape in Rochester is great because you’ve got [outlets that appeal to] multiple tastes. I think it’s important to have that choice.” 

Jack Rosenberry is an associate professor of communication and journalism at St. John Fisher College. He spent twenty-five years as a newspaper journalist, including seventeen at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, before joining academia.

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