WSMJ: a rough switch for smooth-jazz fans

May 28, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Baltimore's smooth-jazz lovers have been left scanning the radio waves for a new station, after last week's surprise switch by WSMJ-FM (104.3) to a "rock alternative" format.

Since Friday morning, a station that for nearly five years had been home to such artists as Spyro Gyra and Deniece Williams has been airing Alice in Chains and Linkin Park - as well as shock jock Elliot in the Morning from 4:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Not surprisingly, lovers of the old format are not exactly cozying up to the new.

"I thought they were doing quite well; I had no idea they were in trouble," said Bob Weaber of Timonium, a 61-year-old business manager for a local electronics firm. "I don't particularly care for the conventional jazz sound, but this was very relaxing and just enjoyable. I don't care for the new format at all."

WSMJ, one of three stations operated in Baltimore by San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, announced its change with little fanfare Friday morning. Listeners to 104.3 heard Gladys Knight and the Pips' "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)" and then three hours of Christmas music before the format switch was made.

"We had an opportunity" to attract younger listeners more attractive to advertisers, says Hartley Adkins, president and market manager for Clear Channel Washington and Baltimore. "Jazz typically has a 35-to-64-year-old listener, while what we're going to be going for is the 18-to-39."

Plus, he says, people who listen to Elliot in the Morning, whose off-color on-air stunts have been known to raise the ire of the Federal Communications Commission, tend to talk about his show. And that sort of buzz is priceless in the 21st-century radio landscape.

"Word-of-mouth is a highly effective way for people to choose what radio stations they sample," says Adkins. "Elliot creates word of mouth."

Ratings at WSMJ - which, tomorrow at 12:10 a.m. officially changes its name to WCHH-FM - have been steady for the past year, hovering between 3.3 percent and 3.6 percent of the total listening audience in an average quarter-hour. For the first three months of this year, the station's 3.5 percent share was the eighth-highest among Baltimore radio stations.

"Traditional jazz is just not a commercial format right now," says WYPR's Andy Bienstock, whose weekday jazz program, which airs from 9 p.m. to midnight, is one of the few oases left for jazz lovers on Baltimore radio. "It's just become too much of a niche format."

So far, 2008 had not been kind to the smooth-jazz genre, which has lost stations in New York, Washington, Houston and Denver.

George Manning, whose jazz show In the Tradition airs 8 p.m.-midnight Mondays on jazz-oriented WEAA-FM (88.9), sees little overlap between true jazz fans and those who prefer smooth jazz. The latter is far more pop-oriented, and the playlists at stations like WSMJ have become too predictable, he says, and that has contributed to their demise.

"When you listened to the smooth jazz, you knew exactly what they were going to play," he says. "After a while, I think that people became bored."

Still, he acknowledges, any cutback in programming is bad for the local jazz community. "It's not really good news for me," Manning says. "And it's really tough for the jazz musicians in town, because [fewer] stations will play their music."

Bill Coates, owner of the Jazz West record store on Liberty Road, says the future of jazz is moving away from conventional radio.

Disgruntled WSMJ listeners can continue their smooth-jazz ways, as long as they're willing to buy an HD radio. Clear Channel's WASH-FM broadcasts on HD2 at 97.1 and can also be heard over the Internet at

"A lot of that stuff doesn't have commercial interruption," says Coates. And even though the music that played on the old WSMJ "is really not jazz," he admits he's sorry to see the station go.

"It's a struggle now," he says. "Radio is fading fast, unfortunately."

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