Jazz music – it has an “old” connotation, you have to admit. Even Rob Linton, station manager of Jazz 90.1 in Greece, agrees. So how has he not only kept radio alive for the past 13 years – in the age of smartphones, music streaming and getting what you want when you want, where you want – but kept jazz music going in a Top 40 world?
Jazz 90.1 is 44 years old this month, and is one of seven or eight jazz-only, non-commercial radio stations still up and running. Non-commercial radio stations rely solely on donations and fundraisers to stay afloat.
Linton started running Jazz 90.1 in 2003. He’d been working in radio for a couple of years, but had no idea what he was getting into as a station manager. He became involved right on the cusp of major changes to the radio game.
“When I first started in radio I was 18, and at that time it was just right before the business started to see massive changes. When I started, I actually started at a small little AM station interning out of high school, out in Henrietta,” Linton said. “But by the time I got to Clear Channel, what is now iHeartRadio, there were still live DJ’s. When you walked down the hall, you saw DJ’s in every one of the studios doing the shows; it was a busy, bustling place.”
But now, Linton says, radio is different. Rarely will you find a radio station that still produces local talent, or even has a live person on the air, and not syndicated programs taken from elsewhere and queued up for later in the day.
“The dawn of this corporate takeover, ‘Let’s try to save all the money we can,’ came in and slowly, all of those studios became dark. There was no one in there. It was all computer-automated. I’d say it was the early 2000s when stations like iHeart really gave stations the axe,” Linton explained.
“So now the business, in the commercial side of things, is all about the bottom line, it’s all about the dollar. How much can we do with hardly any people? Its very sad,” he continued. "Radio is not as local as it used to be, it’s not as community-focused as it used to be. There’s a lot of sharing of resources.”
Companies like Entercom, and radio stations like Jazz 90.1, though, are still doing it “the right way,” says Linton. He says there is a local focus, local morning TV shows and staff in the studios. It’s the lack of a personal connection with the audience that leads to the failure of radio stations, he noted.
“That’s why non-commercial stations like us are so important. We have live talent. We’re still community-driven. We’re not trying to make the corporate owner a lot of money, we’re not trying to keep the stockholders happy,” Linton said. “It’s about providing quality content to our listeners.”
But, of course, those commercial stations aren’t Jazz 90.1’s only competition. Since the dawn of satellite radio, and with the age of music-streaming apps, there are a lot more fish in the pond in terms of what non-commercial stations like Jazz 90.1 are up against.
But Linton believes that radio still remains a dominant medium, especially in the car, where a radio presence is felt the most. During the morning and afternoon drive, people will tune in to AM/FM radio. But it’s hard to find a station that provides local, unique and ad-less content.
That’s where Jazz 90.1 comes in, and thrives.
“It’s very sad to see what commercial companies like iHeart have done. They went out and bought every single radio station they could get their hands on, and it made them cookie-cutter. All the Kiss stations sound the same,” the station manager said. “It’s really changed, and listeners aren’t dumb. They know what they’re listening to.
“The days of being able to turn on the radio and being able to hear the DJ talk about what the weather is doing, give a time and a temperature check, simple things like that, you just don’t find as much anymore,” Linton said. “It’s sad, but when I landed here at a non-commercial station, this is radio how it should be done. Still local and live – when they go on mic, they’re here.”
All of this is done with hardly any paid staff. Including Linton, there are two full-time employees and two part-timers. The rest are all volunteers. The four employees are paid through the average $200,000-per-year budget – every cent of which has to be fund-raised so that the employees can be paid, and the show can go on.
Other non-commercial stations like WXXI have multi-million budgets, because they run and own multiple stations. They have millions, while 90.1 has a couple hundred thousand. But still, they manage.
Every year the station holds two pledge drives – one in the spring and one in the fall (some non-commercial statements are known to have even five a year). It also has a ton of business support, and regular donations from long-time listeners throughout the year. Sometimes it's enough, sometimes it isn’t.
The station could have more pledge drives during the year, but it’s not as easy as just saying, “Let’s tap our listeners for more money!”
“It’s hard, it really is," Linton said. "Rochester is only so big in terms of how many times can we go to our listeners and ask for dollars. How many times can we beg and plead? [More than two pledge drives] really interrupts programming, and it gets in the way of why we’re really here.”
While they don’t quite make their nut every year, they do get enough each year to squeak by, even if barely. Why? Because they give the people what they want.
“We’re community focused. We want to do and provide and make content that services our listeners, whether it be the music we’re playing or some of the community service items we have. Stuff like that. We are a Rochester-based community radio station,” Linton said.
But how do they still work? Jazz, as earlier stated, has an older association with it, but the station has existed for 44 years, meaning that somehow, they have kept thriving as younger people get older, and get more into jazz music. It also doesn't hurt that Rochester is a huge music hub. It seems like every week downtown Rochester is holding another music festival, bass-lines thumping through all the local businesses.
Jazz 90.1 has really found a niche, considering Rochester is, as Linton calls it, “an insanely huge jazz town.” The station saw a want and a need to have jazz on the radio and worked to fill that void. It provides not only entertainment, but things listeners want and need to know.
Since it runs out of the Greece Central School District (which provides a place to reside, heat and lighting, essentially), the station also broadcasts school board meetings, announces district events, and more. But it also provides information about community events, local news, and things people may not even know they want and need to know until they pop on a non-commercial station and realize there’s more to radio than Ryan Seacrest being taped a week ahead of time and being queued up on the air.
But despite being a great local service to those who listen, the station needs more. There’s a demographic that eventually has to grow up and into jazz fandom, but with the changes in the world, how do they get those people interested, especially when they can find music on their phones, and the concept of AM and FM seems like a foreign language?
“There’s no answer to that. .... As that 35-plus demographic we have starts to age, we need to make sure the audiences behind them are coming in as well,” Linton explained. “As we grew up, we grew up with the radio. We might have started in middle and high school listening to the Top 40 and we’d eventually, maybe grow into liking other music, but the problem is, now everyone can pull up their mobile device and get whatever music they want.”
So Jazz 90.1 is acclimating. The station has now launched its station’s app, and has immersed itself in social media as well, including Snapchat and Instagram. This wasn’t done without some side-eye from others, though, who thought Linton was crazy for even trying.
But Linton insisted, and it’s paying off.
“It’s all about mobile devices. Young people, and even people in their 30s, 40s, 50s love their technology. ... When I did it people looked at me a little funny,” Linton said. “They’d say, ‘Do you really think your listeners are going to want to download this?’ They assume there are ages of people not using technology, and that’s wrong.”
Hopefully, the transition into youth-oriented technology works, and people can get their jazz music on demand, even though … haven’t they always been able to do that?
“What people don’t seem to realize is, that choice has always been there on the dashboards of our car. ... But it’s almost like younger people see AM/FM as ‘older’ technology,” said Linton. “People are cutting the cord with television and don’t seem to care they’re losing ABC, NBC, CBS. Why? Because we have on-demand. We want it right now.
“The way we’ve fought back, we have the streams online, launched an online-only blues and big band station, we have the app, we have [social media],” listed Linton. “All of this is an appeal to that younger demographic. The question is, how do you turn those guys into AM/FM listeners and then to us, into donors?”
All the station can do is adapt to the changing times, while keeping jazz music in the minds and hearts of demographics old and new, as well as those who don’t even know they love jazz yet.
For more information, or to listen to some cool jazz, visit Jazz901.org.