At 3 p.m. May 18, the daily soundtrack for thousands of lives in the Bay Area was altered.
That's the moment the FM radio station previously known as KKSF-FM 103.7 said goodbye to Boney James and Kenny G and hello to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. The station's new name is "103.7 The Band."
It was a jarring closure to KKSF's two-decades-plus reign as the Bay Area's primary home for smooth jazz.
More significant, it served as further evidence that the smooth jazz genre, long considered a commercial powerhouse despite being slammed by critics, is in real trouble. In a 15-month period, more than half of the smooth jazz stations across the country — including those in such major metropolitan areas as Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York — have disappeared, often replaced with classic rock formats.
"It came down to the big picture," program director Michael Erickson says of the decision to change KKSF to 103.7 The Band. "The reason that there are more classic rock stations than smooth jazz stations is that classic rock is a more popular format."
The fall of smooth jazz radio has spurred many industry watchers to predict we will soon be reading last rites on the entire genre. Will Layman, jazz columnist for the Pop Matters Web site, seemed to sum up the sentiment when he wrote that smooth jazz "lingers in the air, absolutely, but it can't last. It will, predictably, vanish into thin air."
Smooth Jazz 101
No musical style is impervious to radio trends. When corporate radio decides, en masse, to embrace a certain format and cast off another, it eventually affects record sales, concert attendance and artists' visibility. Some genres — reggae, traditional jazz or blues — are better suited than others to weather corporate radio's dismissal, because they boast grass-roots fan bases that were not necessarily born from radio play. In fact, fans of KCSM-FM 91.1 learned last week that the traditional jazz station, which operates out of the College of San Mateo, is in danger of closing due to statewide cuts in education funding.
Smooth jazz, in contrast, was literally created by radio. Indeed, the birth of the term is said to have happened during a focus group held in Chicago, as a marketing research group sought to find the right label to sell a new brand of easy-listening music being played on radio in the '70s. Thus, smooth jazz is more of a format or branding device than as an actual organic musical style. And smooth jazz artists have long been seen as joined at the hip to the stations that play their music.
Most people define smooth jazz, first and foremost, by what its not — it's not "real" jazz, characterized by improvisation and heavy interaction between the band members. Smooth jazz, by contrast, tends to feature one primary lead (either instrumental or vocal) played over decidedly low-key accompaniment. Many songs are simple, and/or by-the-note, instrumental arrangements of pop songs, and most clock in at radio-friendly lengths (less than four minutes).
It's fair to consider smooth jazz as a close relative to New Age and the old "beautiful music" radio format, as well as other forms of mood music, in that the primary goal of all these styles often seems to be to create tunes that are as inoffensive and accessible as musically possible. In that pursuit, smooth jazz has only been partially successful — for every fan, it seems, 10 listeners dismiss it as too bland.
"For 20 years (smooth jazz) has appealed across race and class and gender, partly because it asks so little," music critic Ben Ratliff wrote in The New York Times. "It is a physical presence but an intellectual absence. It is an unverified claim."
That unverified claim made Kenny G, Dave Koz, David Benoit and countless other smooth jazz artists very rich during the last few decades, as the smooth jazz brand was the only type of jazz being played on commercial radio. As recently as 2007, these purveyors of soft sound had no reason to suspect the tide would turn against them.
Radio waves (goodbye)
The first major blow was struck in New York, as WQCD FM, which had long held the biggest market share of any smooth jazz station in the country, decided to give up Dave Koz and try out Dave Matthews. A month later, the smooth jazz station fell in Washington, D.C., followed by like-minded channels in Tampa, Miami, Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco. A few days after KKSF made the switch, WNUA in Chicago, which the Radio and Records organization had named top smooth jazz station for 10 straight years (1999-2008), shocked listeners by moving to a Spanish-language pop format.
As of February 2008 more than 30 smooth jazz stations reported to Billboard, the magazine that tracks radio play among genres. A little more than a year later, there were only 15.
Gordon Joshua Murray, who manages the smooth jazz chart for Billboard, points out that many affected stations, including KKSF and WNUA, have the same owner — Clear Channel Communications.
"It seems like Clear Channel has decided to kill the (smooth jazz) format," he says.
Michael Erickson, 103.7 FM program director and Clear Channel employee, hasn't tried to hide that the switch to classic rock was financially motivated. In his letter to listeners, posted on the KKSF Web site, he said the change "was made only after exhaustive market research, and extensive economic considerations (yes this is a business)."
Classic rock and other formats not only attract larger audiences, they also appeal to a broader age demographic, which includes the all-important 18-49 range so significant to many advertisers.
"An aging audience is something that the (smooth jazz) format has had to deal with in recent years — that the average listener is 'getting up there,'"" Murray says.
There is no consensus of opinion as to why smooth jazz has failed to attract young listeners. Some say that the format's reach has grown too broad, in what Murray calls "an effort to be all things to all people," and that adding pop stars such as Beyoncé and Alicia Keys to the mix has led to a watered-down product. Others contradict that statement and say that radio stations such as KKSF failed to evolve.
"They've really been locked down on their play-list," says Lincoln Adler, saxophonist of the local funk-jazz troupe Times 4. "It's the same stuff they've been playing on the radio for years — Anita Baker, Sade. I think that is what hurt them. People I talk to, who like smooth jazz, all have the same comment: 'They just play the same old thing.'""
Whatever the cause, the effect is that smooth jazz stations simply aren't replenishing their listenership with new blood.
"That's what killed Big Band radio and classic country radio," says East Bay native Ben Fong-Torres, a radio columnist, DJ and author of "The Hits Just Keep on Coming," a history of Top 40 radio. "It's not a matter of the music failing — it's a matter of the music not performing in a way that suits a company like Clear Channel."
Smooth still sailing
The strong concert attendance and solid record sales combine to make a case that smooth jazz may yet have some life left. Yet, it's hard to imagine those numbers will remain high without stations such as KKSF around to promote the live shows and record releases.
In all, it seems sadly fitting, in an ironic kind of way, that a genre born from radio could also die by it.