Some jazz fans may be surprised to learn that community radio station KFAI airs four distinct jazz programs and has for many years. They’ll be surprised because the programs were scattered among days of the week at different times during the day, often too late at night for people who get up early.
Three of the programs have now been gathered into a 4½-hour block that airs every Saturday morning, starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 1:30 p.m., a time period that jazz radio station KBEM devotes to bluegrass and Celtic music. If you’re looking for jazz on Saturday mornings, you now have a place to turn.
Change is good, and for KFAI change was necessary, though it came at a price. As David Brauer reported in August of last year, the station’s ratings had fallen so low that its Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant was at risk. Surveys were done and plans were made to revamp the schedule and incorporate more public affairs programming. Rumors flew that the station would adopt an all news/talk format. People who had hosted shows in the same time slots for years felt frustrated and angry, and they made their feelings known.
None of which would have mattered much at a typical commercial radio station. KFAI’s staff is mostly volunteers. The program hosts who show up at midnight or 2 a.m. are there on their own dime, as are those who step in for them when they’re sick or on vacation or have a family emergency. And even though they’re not being paid, they have a sense of ownership over their programs, both the content (KFAI hosts program their own shows) and the air time. So emotions ran high.
The new schedule took effect on June 30.
“When people have ownership, they take things personally,” says J. Otis Powell!, a KFAI volunteer since 1990. “In the last week of the old schedule, every program was a funeral. Now people are starting to do the second line.”
At commercial stations, fomenters would have been tossed. “KFAI has a history of true democracy,” Powell! explains. “Democracy is messy, which is why few people are courageous enough to practice it.” He sees a jazz lesson in the new schedule: “Group improvisation. You can’t just shake your head and walk away.”
The new jazz lineup on Saturday mornings starts at 9 a.m. with “Mostly Jazz,” hosted by Bill Cottman and Kenna Sarge. The program has aired for 15 years and is a family affair; Cottman started in radio (and fell in love with jazz) when his mother-in-law, Patricia Walton, invited him to appear on a show she was part of. His co-host, Kenna Sarge, is his daughter. Cottman describes their program as “mainstream … classic to bebop and beyond. Patricia made me understand the importance of jazz music in my culture. ‘Mostly Jazz’ is the telling of that story, the story of America’s music, how it has gotten pushed aside in some cases and stolen in others.”
From 10:30 until noon, Larry Englund hosts “Rhythm and Grooves.” Asked to describe it, he says, “I use a phrase that says a lot and doesn’t say anything: ‘Classic and contemporary jazz.’ I’m as likely to play something by Louis Armstrong or Fats Waller as I am by Joe Lovano or Bill Frisell . … My intent is to pair something old with something new in sets where they complement each other. I also try to feature Twin Cities artists and visiting artists.” Englund has introduced a new feature, the Mingus Moment, focusing on music by bassist/composer Charles Mingus.
At noon, KFAI’s executive director Janis Lane-Ewart takes over with “Collective Eye.” The longest-running jazz show on KFAI, on-air since June 1989, it’s “an opportunity for me to share a collective consciousness of improvised music,” Lane-Ewart says. “The chance to explore artists you know and those you’ve never heard rarely happens on commercial radio.” A new addition to her show is “honoring a living jazz master from week to week.” Chicago saxophonist Von Freeman will be featured until further notice.
Now that their shows are back-to-back, the three hosts plan to communicate more. Meanwhile, they’re reporting more calls during their programs, which may indicate that more people are tuning in.