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On his recent Sunday jazz show on WDCU-Jazz 90, Tim Masters made the seemingly intentional Freudian slip of referring to “C-Jam Blues,” the jazz standard he’d just finished playing, as “C-SPAN Blues.” He was alluding, of course, to the cable TV network that (if it gets FCC approval) will buy the station from the University of the District of Columbia and turn it into a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week political gabfest.
Masters’ substitution is especially apt for Washington’s small but hardy band of blues fans, who stand to lose one of their few local radio outlets. WDCU’s fellow public station WPFW (89.3) airs Bill Wax’s hourlong “Blue Plate Special” five days a week at lunchtime. PFW also plays some blues numbers, along with R&B, oldies, and music from other genres, during the day on Saturday.
But PFW, a Pacifica station, is heavier on talk and public affairs than Jazz 90 is, and for in-depth listening with some historical context provided, many aficionados prefer DCU’s offerings. These include not only the weekly, syndicated “Beale Street Caravan” but also “The Blues Experience,” hosted every Sunday night from 8 to 11 p.m. by Takoma Park’s Steven J. Hoffman.
“People are quite upset,” Hoffman says. “When I talk to listeners, I hear a lot of stuff like, ‘Living in Washington won’t be the same. Sunday night won’t be the same.’”
What little audience research exists, as well as Hoffman’s own observation of his callers and mailing list, indicates that “The Blues Experience” attracts a generationally mixed, half-black, half-white audience. Black listeners tend to be in the 50-and-older range, while white listeners are mainly in their 30s and 40s. “The challenge is that there are so many styles within the blues, and when people say they like the blues, they often mean different things,” Hoffman says. “A lot of black listeners are more into the soulful stuff like Bobby Bland, and whites like the string-bending guitar-slingers. So I try to play a mix of all styles.”
Hoffman has been doing blues radio gigs on and off since 1971, and has been broadcasting from Washingtonthe first major market he ever worked insince 1982. Whether “The Blues Experience” continues depends on whether C-SPAN decides to include any music in its format. A Jazz 90 source says that because the cable channel has been giving out negative vibes on the part-music option, “the emphasis of the next few weeks is to convince or pressure C-SPAN, using a combination of legal angles and public relations.”
If that fails, Hoffman’s show, or something approximating it, might also be picked up by PFW, but officials there are mum on whether they would hire any DCU personalities if their rival’s format changes. “I wouldn’t have any comment on that,” says PFW program director Lou Hankins. “It would be like picking over the dead bones.” (PFW’s strict, self-imposed sponsorship limitations might pose problems for picking up such syndicated shows as “Beale Street Caravan,” sources say.)
“The blues fans are tremendously important in the Save Jazz 90 Coalition, which is pretty incredible considering there’s blues on the station only on Sunday night,” says the coalition’s leader, Dan Logan. “Steve has a big following, and they’re very enthusiastic about his show.”
PFW’s Hankins adds that his station is hardly gloating over the listeners it could pick up if DCU becomes DOA. “For us it would be a negative overall, because the more jazz there is in the market, the larger the market will be,” Hankins says. Indeed, with C-SPAN poised to change the channel, one wag has suggested an easy way of identifying the station’s target demographic: changing the station’s call letters to WONK. Louis Jacobson
Those interested in the fate of Jazz 90 can direct their browsers to http://members.aol.com/jazzyweb/jazz90 for updates.