The article below originally appeared on sfgate.com and is being reprinted with permission.
One recent afternoon, my jazz pianist buddy, George Yamasaki, and I were at Perry’s on Union Street for lunch and found ourselves flanked by familiar faces. On one side, there was Hank Greenwald and family, reminding me that the Giants have enjoyed a long line of superb announcers. At the other table, radio exec Brent Osborne handed me a card reading “JazzonFM.” Among other things, he helps secure underwriting support for KCSM. And that reminded me that it was time to drop by and see how jazz radio is doing.
At KCSM (“Jazz 91” at 91.1 FM), things are fine, according to general manager Dante Betteo. “Jazz radio in general has been declining,” he said. “It’s not commercially feasible to sustain a jazz station.” KCSM is a noncommercial station, owned by the San Mateo County Community College District and based on campus at the College of San Mateo. It relies on underwriters and listeners for support. In both sponsorships and contributions, said Betteo, “We’re seeing slight growth from year to year,” including donations from online listeners. KCSM is available on TuneIn and iTunes as well as on the station’s site. And, of course, there’s an app for it.
KCSM, which began as a learning center for broadcasting students, has programmed jazz full-time since 1988, outlasting KJAZ, which folded in 1994. In fact, much of that legendary station’s music library — more than 12,000 albums — is now at KCSM.
“Jazz 91” has taken advantage of its campus location. It stages “Jazz on the Hill,” an annual day of free concerts at two venues. “It’s to thank listeners for their support — and it’s a fundraiser.” Betteo says. The most recent event, featuring Pancho Sanchez, Maria Muldaur and the Dirty Cellos, drew some 3,000 attendees. Off campus, KCSM has forged relationships with youth music organizations, SFJazz, San Jose Jazz and local clubs.
KCSM has a stable of two dozen announcers, most of them doing part-time shifts. The latest addition is Harry Duncan, an R&B fanatic who plays a bit of everything Sundays 8-10 p.m. He joins a roster including Clifford Brown Jr., Melanie Berzon (who’s also operations director), Jayne Sanchez and Alicia Lopez. Many of the DJs are musicians, including program director/morning host Alisa Clancy, Richard Hadlock, Sonny Buxton, Clint Baker, Chris Cortez and music director Jesse “Chuy” Varela.
In the DJ studio, I found Varela on the air. He has been for 20 years, beginning with a Latin jazz show. He’s seen the station move into electronic and synthesized music; into jazz and rock fusions. “We embrace a larger part of what jazz is. The most controversial thing now is the inclusion of rap. A lot of people feel, ‘Oh, that’s not jazz.’ But we embrace a little of many things, including smooth jazz. More of those artists are moving toward straight-ahead jazz. We have a new record with David Benoit and Jane Monheit. They’re broadening horizons.”
KCSM, he adds, is drawing younger listeners. “You go along with what the music brings. Like, Robert Glasper won a Grammy in R&B, but he does an acoustic trio record, and he’ll take pop hits and transform them,” Varela said.
Jazz clubs, he admits, are on the decline, but he points to house concerts and smaller venues (like the Sound Room in Oakland) as ways musicians get heard. “Jazz is not dead,” Varela said. “There’s always something percolating.”
The axman cometh: For a while there, it seemed as if CBS Radio was immune to the budget and personnel cuts taking place at other major broadcasting corporations. But after iHeart let Don Bleu go at KOSF, and after Entercom said goodbye to KOIT’s Jack Kulp, and Cumulus dismissed sportscaster Kevin Radich from KGO and shut down its South Bay bureau, it’s CBS’ turn. No matter that KCBS is the top-rated station in the market. CBS is planning to sell a good number of its 100-plus stations, mainly in small and medium-size markets, but it’s making cuts everywhere, to give the group the leanest possible look. So, after veteran sportscaster Hal Ramey was pink-slipped and City Hall bureau chief Barbara Taylor retired after her bureau was closed, I heard that longtime sales exec David Bramnick was pink-slipped, and that two other loyal CBS Radio employees got bad news.
Marcus Bonfiglio lost his post as producer of the morning show on KMVQ (“Now”). He’d been at the station almost 10 years, and co-hosted the morning show, “Maria & Marcus,” until they were replaced by Fernando & Greg. Bonfiglio then juggled social media and digital content work with his duties on the morning show. “I’m proud to have helped build ‘Now’ into the powerhouse radio station that it is,” he said in a statement.
Meantime, Liz Saint John, a superwoman who served as public affairs director, conducting and producing an excellent weekly interview program aired on KCBS and three sister stations and DJ’d on weekends on KLLC (“Alice”), was told that the public affairs post was being eliminated. She continues on “Alice,” Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but will miss the public affairs gig. “I’ve had the honor of shining a spotlight on many nonprofit organizations that serve the Bay Area and the opportunity to talk with scientists, writers, academics, filmmakers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, community leaders, artists, explorers, innovators and so many more.”
Speaking of talented women, Nikki Blakk left KSAN (“The Bone”) a few months ago with little notice. She wanted it that way. She’d joined the station in 2000, before it became “The Bone,” and at one point served as assistant program director as well as afternoon drive DJ. But, she said, “There were changes coming on, and I felt the need to move on.” What changes? She didn’t say, but a listen to KSAN reveals more focus on familiar hits (the same is going on at sister station KFOG). Blakk, who has her own channel, “Nikki Blakk’s Metal Zone,” on Live365, does voice work (go to www.nikki blakk.com for more info) and is open to another station. “But I’m looking for the right situation,” she said. “I’m doing this existential thing. I realize that ambitions are pointless, and it’s time to regroup.”