Radio has enough talk: Save jazz on WBEZ

Opinion

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BOB SULLIVAN

The door swung open and there stood Dick Buckley in his living room. I hoisted a copy of an old Wednesday Journal newspaper featuring a Buckley interview, complete with splashy photo, and said, "Look! A picture of a good-looking guy!" He smiled, waved off the compliment and asked, "How long ago was that?" When told five years, he replied, "A lot's happened since then."

Ah, yes.

Among other happenings there was 9/11 and its aftermath; the illness of his wife, Margie; the White Sox bringing it all home; and the subject of this articleâ€"the doubtful status of the future of jazz on WBEZ.

Which could be terminated come February.

The love of jazz has been flowing through Buckley's veins since his young teens in Indiana. For nearly 70 years it's been jazz-jazz-jazz. The man is imbued with it. His knowledge of music (classical as well) runs deep and remains strong. Where others claim to embrace jazz, Buckley inhales it. Next to family, he says, it's his greatest love.

Because of his passion, he has remained a fresh yet familiar server of this unique American art form since his first broadcasts on a couple of small Indiana radio stations in the late 1940s and early '50s. In 1952 he broke in with the legendary Daddy-O Daylie on WAAF in Chicago. Then came even longer stints with WNIB and WAIT. Finally, he signed on with National Public Radio's WBEZ in 1977 where he's logged on for nearly 30 years.

Today, Buckley and fellow purveyors of jazz at 91.5 FMâ€"including former Forest Parker Steve Cushing, Richard Steele, Dan Binder and Niles Franzâ€"face uncertainty because the station plans to change its format from a balance of talk and jazz to one of talk-talk-talkâ€"in a 24/7 world of talk.

Such radical proposals on NPR are not without precedent. In 1991, former general manager Ken Davis suggested that two, possibly three, other public radio stations, form an association for each to carry its own form of programming: news-talk, jazz music, features and opinions, etc. According to a WBEZ source, Davis had discussed this with former Program Director Carol Nolan. Before weak-signal power problems at Glen Ellyn's WDCB transmitter could be remedied, word of Davis' proposal got back to WBEZ's apparently uninformed board of directors who presumably felt miffed enough for Davis to tender his previously prepared resignationâ€"which was accepted.

Even today, the station's board and brass may seem a mite too slick in justifying its no-jazz stance. They say the move is an effort to attract younger listeners with a "mission-based rather than a market-driven decision." Somehow, jargon like this smells of committee talk, boardroom smoke-and-mirrors talk, insincere talk-talk-talk.

Earlier this year, according to the same source, the current G.M., Torey Malatia, did touch base with the board on the subject and he never overtly expressed taking jazz off the air, but said that WBEZ would continue to carry unprogrammed jazz.

What does that last phrase mean? That jazz wouldn't be listed or scheduled? Or not announced till play-time? And how much of the music is being talked about? Until now, the disposal of Chicago Public Radio jazz seemed to range from nebulous to uncertain. It would appear that part of Malatia's job would be to provide more clarity.

One fuzzy area concerns sister stations WBEW in Chesterton, Ind. and WBEQ in Morris, Ill. Though their call letters and frequencies are given dozens of times a day on the air, there's seldom public mention of their roles in this matter.

We offered WBEZ a chance to include a statement in this piece but we did not receive one before press deadline.

Others, however, are making themselves clear on the all-talk issue:

In the Commentary section of the April 18 Chicago Tribune, reporter Cory Franklin wrote: "Isn't there enough talk on the radio already? Ninety-five percent of it is pure bloviation. Wouldn't the next generation be better off knowing and appreciating Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie?"

Franklin went on to quote Betty Carter, one of the great jazz voices of the 20th century: "Putting happy smiles on people's faces ... [T]hat's what jazz was about. It wasn't about money. It was about how happy you could make people." Franklin concluded his report with this "Memo to Chicago Public Radio: We need more happy smiles on peoples' faces. More jazz would do that. More talk shows won't."

A lot of people could lose their smiles come February.

Eddie Banjura, founder of the 34-year-old Illiana Club of Traditional Jazz in the south 'burbs, voiced his personal reaction to the intended format change in his club's newsletter with, "I myself will not support any radio station that does not play good music."

How many listenersâ€"including paid members supporting the WBEZ jazz familyâ€"might agree?

When pressed for a comment, Buckley said, "There's so much talk about this, I don't feel the need to comment."

Speaking again with him a second time, I couldn't help being impressed by Buckley's decency, integrity and lack of bitterness. His philosophy is simple: Rather than wearing the tag, "disc jockey," he sees himself as a "concerned historian who wants to keep spreading the jazz word." Through adversity and cheer, his is a quiet humor on and off-mic.

Asked how he succeeded in a tough business, he replied, "I owe it all to my inherent good taste." It's hard to dislike the author of an answer like that. And it must have been handy to have such an attitude when the edict from management was announced two months ago because Buckley never knew his job was in jeopardy until he read of it in the Sun-Times and Tribune.

At a roast honoring him a decade ago, after acknowledging the satirical stabs, he departed from the "script" and ad-libbed: "You know, I've worked at WBEZ 20 years now, and the first 18 of them have been the happiest of my life." Change "20" to "30," and it starts to get prophetic. You wonder if Ken Davis was in the audience.

There's kindness (aka thoughts of "the other guy") in Buckley, too. You may know that back in the early '80s, pianist Marion McPartland was on the air at some god-awful pre-dawn hour. Having his own four-hour Sunday afternoon show on WBEZ, he talked to management and gave an hour to her. She still precedes his current noon-to-three Sunday time slot.

Buckley has his warts, but he's always had a facility for doing "the right thing."

Does WBEZ?

If enough people remain indifferent about supporting this music, there'll be no more music on 91.5 FM come February. Petition now to save jazz on WBEZ. Do the right thing. Go to the website www.savethemusiconwbez.com.

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