A new KPLU general manager is upping the station’s game with more jazz programming and education, a news/culture show and a beefed-up online video series offering more opportunities to local musicians.
If you stuck out an errant elbow on a recent Friday at 88.5 KPLU-FM’s Fourth Avenue studio, you were in danger of jabbing a high-level patron or worse, knocking a key on Anton Schwartz’s tenor saxophone.
It was pretty cozy in there. Schwartz and his chamber jazz trio — Inga Swearingen (vocals) and Chuck Deardorf (bass) — were playing one of the station’s live Studio Sessions, with a five-camera video shoot in progress, plus a still photographer and a half-dozen patrons lining the studio’s north wall in folding chairs.
“I love the small, intimate setting,” said Stephen Tan, who leads the station’s community advisory council for high-level donors. “I see performers here I wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s a great way of connecting performers with the community.”
The Studio Sessions are part of a new initiative at KPLU ushered in by general manager Joey Cohn, who has been at the station 27 years and took the helm as GM a year and a half ago.
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The new regime has meant stepping up the half-hour Studio Sessions from once a month to once a week, with half the musicians coming from Seattle, and a twice-weekly schedule on the horizon. In January, the station also inaugurated its first locally focused news and culture show, Sound Effect, which airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays.
The station also has raised its profile in local jazz education, adding to its already successful 10-year-old School of Jazz program (which produces an annual recording of student bands) partnerships with Seattle’s non-school-based Jazz Ed organization and the Seattle Jazz Experience, an annual student jazz festival.
All this local activity is accompanied by a boost in emphasis on the station’s 24-hour online programming, Jazz24.
“We’ve been very reactive over the years,” said Cohn. “We’d like to do a better job of proactive leadership.”
This is music to the ears of the Seattle jazz community, which in the past has been kept at arm’s length by a station that seemed to want to identify with National Public Radio, but not with jazz.
“They made it very clear years ago that they had no interest in the local jazz community,” said John Bishop, president of Seattle’s Origin Records. “The studio sessions are a positive change. I applaud them for that.”
More than just a feel-good move, the initiative seems to be working for the station financially. KPLU had its most successful year in history from June 2014 to June 2015, with income of $7 million, said Cohn — a 20 percent increase over the previous year. And while Neilsen ratings still show KPLU bested by local NPR competitor KUOW for weekly share of radio listeners (4.1 to 2.7), the stations were just about neck and neck in 2014 for weekly listenership, with KPLU at 301,000 and KUOW at 306,000. (The top station in the Seattle area in August, with market share of 6.1, was KZOK FM, which plays classic rock.)
Cohn is especially excited by developments in audio and video streaming. As live radio listenership declines, digital listening is going up, he explained, creating a “cross-fade” between audiences. Jazz24 has listeners in 135 countries. That means not only an additional 85,000 listeners a week, but that jazz lovers in London and Taiwan are becoming donors.
“There used to be a station in London called JazzFM,” he explained. “So when people Google that, they find us.”
When Brits tune in to the Studio Sessions, the voice they hear first is that of genial and enthusiastic host Abe Beeson, who does the evening weekday shift at KPLU. Beeson, 45, has unimpeachable local bona fides. His parents ran the Silver Spoon restaurant in Duvall, which longtime residents will recall as a venue for folk acts like Uncle Bonsai and Reilly & Maloney, and his dad, Ed, used to book the Backstage, a onetime popular variety club in Ballard.
Beeson has hosted nearly 200 Studio Sessions over the past six years, including performances by national acts Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard and Dave Grusin, as well as Seattle area performers like Schwartz, Pearl Django and Industrial Revelation.
“It’s a huge development,” Schwartz said of the sessions. “It’s a nice studio, they broadcast it, and you come away with a nice video on YouTube.”
KPLU has lots of videos from the Studio Sessions online now, and 6 million people have watched them. Schwartz’s lovely half-hour in that crowded studio has joined the list, and you can watch the trio’s take on Marc Johnson’s “Samurai Hee Haw,” with Swearingen and Schwartz landing on a sweetly dissonant half-step as Deardorf thrums a vigorous vamp.
“To get that feeling of spontaneity in action is so great,” said Beeson. “It’s a real good snapshot that belongs to the Northwest. That’s the most exciting thing. And I think it also shows the musicians around the world that the Seattle community has that kind of support.”