Atlanta jazz station hopes smoother sound catches on

By Mike Janssen

Atlanta’s WCLK-FM, a jazz station licensed to Clark University, aims to double its audience share with a new approach to programming music that went into effect Aug. 26.

The station has narrowed its playlist to focus on smooth and contemporary jazz, and now maintains a consistent mix of music throughout the day. Previously, hosts were free to make their own playlists, and the musical mix skipped from genre to genre throughout the day.

General Manager Wendy Williams wants the station to reach a 1.5 audience share in the Atlanta market, double its current 0.7. Williams sees opportunity in diversifying the station’s audience ethnically and by gender. It is currently 85 percent male and African American.

“We needed a strategy,” Williams said. A researcher donated time and money to the process, and advised WCLK on how to implement the new format. Williams declined to disclose the researcher’s identity.

The resulting playlist stems from a two-part research project that began in November 2012. Current and potential listeners were surveyed about their musical tastes, and smooth and contemporary jazz came out on top. As a result, the new WCLK highlights those genres and includes less traditional jazz and neo-soul.

The revised programming also reflects Williams’s desire to prepare the station for possible cuts in funding. Licensee Clark University cut annual funding for WCLK in half in 2011, from $500,000 to $250,000. The university previously provided 35 percent of the station’s budget.

Funding from the university, and from CPB, could continue to decline, Williams said. On the plus side, the station did see some growth in income recently due to a move to a better tower that boosted its coverage area.

Pursuit of smooth

Before the new format took effect, WCLK’s weekday mornings featured smooth and contemporary jazz. The mix then shifted to mainstream jazz in middays, and from 2–6 p.m. featured neo-soul artists such as India.Arie, Snarky Puppy and Swing Out Sister.

The fragmented sound discouraged listeners, Williams said. “We knew we were all over the place, and that’s why we saw low loyalty,” she said. Research found that core listeners made up only 15 percent of WCLK’s audience.

“People were tuning in for shows they liked and leaving when they were over,” Williams said. “So we were a casual station for most people.” Williams hopes the new format will expand WCLK’s core to 30 percent of its total audience.

The station’s research surveyed listeners in the Atlanta metro area ages 25 to 64. Half of the participants in the first phase, a phone survey, said they listened to jazz radio. Respondents who said they liked music snippets played over the phone were added to a subgroup.

That second group of about 200 listeners went on to listen to pieces of 900 songs encompassing all the genres that aired on WCLK. Smooth-jazz artists such as Kem, Sade and Anita Baker ranked highly, as did contemporary jazz musicians, including George Benson and Dianne Reeves.

WCLK used the feedback to trim its playlist to about 400 songs. Since the change, some listeners have told the station that the sound veered too close to smooth jazz, and it has adjusted the mix, Williams said.

Though smooth jazz tends to raise hackles among fans of traditional jazz, WCLK saw that it had an opportunity to grow audience by embracing the subgenre. When a commercial smooth jazz station in Atlanta went off the air in 2008, it had 500,000 weekly listeners and was taking in upwards of $5 million a month in advertising sales, Williams said. That wasn’t enough to sustain a commercial outfit, but its cume was larger than WCLK’s.

WCLK’s programming change has not avoided a backlash. Fans of Jamal Ahmad, who holds down the 2–6 p.m. shift weekdays on the station, have started a Facebook group and online petition in support of his show, The S.O.U.L. of Jazz. Before the new schedule, Ahmad used his time slot to emphasize neo-soul, according to Williams.

“It’s really a great show, but it was its own kind of niche within a niche,” Williams said. “Jazz is already a niche.”

A petition at Change.org supporting Ahmad’s previous show had 723 signers as of last week, and a “Save our S.O.U.L.” Facebook event page had attracted 388 users.

WCLK will step up its marketing efforts in coming weeks to let Atlantans know about the new sound, Williams said.

This article was first published in Current, Sept. 9, 2013

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