The Sultans of Smooth

Radio station WSJZ-FM stands apart from most commercial radio by spotlighting local musicians on its playlists.



'From the city where jazz was born, we're New Orleans' smooth jazz," announces a DJ at radio station WSJZ-FM 94.9. Music from artists synonymous with the genre -- saxophonists Kirk Whalum and Grover Washington Jr. -- fill most of the next 25-minute set. But the surprise comes when a local listener can detect a decidedly New Orleans-style piano and recognize it to be Harry Connick Jr. playing "Avalon."

In this era of conglomerates, when faraway powers often dictate playlists, WSJZ has taken a unique position in the local market. By putting New Orleans artists such as violinist Michael Ward -- and even "non-smooth" artists such as trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, vocalist Leah Chase and the band Los Hombres Calientes -- on regular rotation, WSJZ stands apart from most of this city's commercial radio stations. Although community, public and university radio stations such as WWOZ, WWNO and WTUL stations regularly spotlight jazz programming, WSJZ, which began broadcasting last August, is the first regular commercial outlet for the music.

"New Orleans is the first place of jazz and we wanted to do something unique for the city," says Tom DiBacco, managing partner of Styles Broadcasting of Louisiana, which owns WSJZ as well as its sister station, the Northshore's WYLA-FM 94.7, which simulcasts WSJZ's broadcasts. "We wanted to do something that really nobody else was doing. The meat and potatoes of the format are a lot of the groups that are nationally known. What's unique is that we're mixing in a lot of local music as well."

Smooth jazz -- derided by some jazz aficionados but embraced by its many fans -- is usually considered to be mainly easy-listening, instrumental music, without the swing or edginess associated with modern jazz. Local smooth performers who are heard on WSJZ include violinist Ward, pianist Derrick Dabbs and saxophonist Lance Ellis. Some music that might also be considered contemporary R&B is also found in smooth jazz formats.

"Smooth jazz is either something that people really love or they don't want it," says DiBacco.

When deciding what to air, Operations Manager Mark Edwards, who is responsible for all of the station's programming, also takes into account this city's special flavor. "New Orleans is not a sleepy music kind of a town, so we are a little more upbeat than most smooth jazz stations around the country," he says. "We didn't think soft adult contemporary would fly here."

"We've really tailored the format to the market so it's not just a Xerox copy of other smooth jazz formats," adds DiBacco, who also owns stations in Alabama, Iowa and Florida. "New Orleans is a breeding ground for a lot of local musicians, more so than another market when it comes to jazz."

Native New Orleanian Cheryl Charles joined the WSJZ team as general manager last March. One of her first contributions was developing the show New Orleans Homegrown, which features all local music. "I like to think of it as my baby," says Charles of the program that airs from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday nights. While the show remains focused on jazz, it also integrates other styles from New Orleans artists.

The strong response to the station, which is also streamed over the Internet, even surpassed DiBacco's expectations. According to DiBacco, Arbitron's ratings show the station to be holding a roughly 2 share rating -- meaning that 2 percent of New Orleans is listening to the station -- with steady growth. "Some of the stations that have been [in New Orleans] for years and years are only at a 3 share," he notes.

This summer, WSJZ is boosting its visibility by presenting a Sunday afternoon concert series at the Popp Bandstand in City Park (shows start at 4 p.m.). Continuing through Aug. 26, when the station celebrates its anniversary with a grand finale, the free performances present a mix of national and local artists. In choosing the site, Charles is making a bow to the past, and the circa-late 1800s open-air concerts sponsored there in part by the Orleans Railroad.

Charles' penchant for the past is also reflected in her philosophy in running WSJZ. "I'm doing radio the old-fashioned way," says Charles, "where people can actually call up and say, 'Hey, what was that last song you played? Who was that by?'"

Indeed, it's readily apparent that WSJZ isn't an Anywhere, USA radio station. After all, there is no other smooth jazz station in the world that, at precisely noon each day, plays a version of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

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