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The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation Unveils the Jazz Media Lab, a Major Radio Initiative

Isaiah McClain
WBGO's Nicole Sweeney (seated) and Simon Renter (standing) at the BRIC Jazzfest in 2016.

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has long been a vital supporter of jazz, most visibly through its annual Artist Awards. Today the foundation — which also goes by its initials, DDCF — announced the Jazz Media Lab, which will distribute more than $1 million in funds to a cohort of nonprofit jazz radio stations across the country.

Each of those stations — KMHD (Oregon Public Broadcasting) in Portland, Ore., KNKX (Pacific Public Media) in Tacoma, Wash., KUVO (Rocky Mountain Public Media) in Denver, Colo., WBGO (Newark Public Radio) in Newark, N.J., and WRTI (Temple University) in Philadelphia, Pa. — will receive general operating support grants of $225,000 over three years.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a powerful blow to jazz artists — and indeed, the entire jazz ecosystem,” says Maurine Knighton, program director for the arts at DDCF. “We believe a program to increase jazz radio stations’ organizational capacity and financial resilience; strengthen their ability to broaden audiences for jazz; and reinforce their vital role as a connector of jazz artists, audiences and community organizations, is indispensable to the future of jazz.”

Credit WRTI
Josh Jackson, Orrin Evans, Joe Patti, and Bob Perkins in the control room of WRTI.

By virtue of both its scope and substance, the Jazz Media Lab amounts to a historic investment in the American jazz radio landscape. “It’s been a long time since I can remember a gift this large benefitting jazz media,” says Josh Jackson, associate general manager for content at WRTI. “We’ve had many foundations support particular jazz organizations and presenters in important ways, but a comprehensive approach like Jazz Media Lab hasn’t happened since Lila Wallace—Reader’s Digest created the National Jazz Network. That was 30 years ago, so these opportunities for boldness with dollars attached are infrequent.”

Between them, the five Jazz Media Lab stations represent an array of constituencies for the music, with strikingly different resources. WBGO and WRTI, for instance, serve two of the leading metropolitan areas in the northeast, each with a robust staff. By contrast, KMHD has just three full-time employees, with additional support from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Credit KMHD
Matt Fleeger, program director at KMHD

Because of these divergent circumstances, each station is likely to seek its own approach to the DDCF’s supplemental innovation fund, which will provide $50,000 to support a pilot program, with a likely focus on new audience outreach. “Currently, KMHD does not have an on-demand streaming option for our broadcast programming,” Matt Fleeger, that station’s program director, offers as one example. “Our hope is to create dynamic digital content that can support our local music scene and the philosophy and ‘brand’ of Jazz Without Boundaries.”

Credit WBGO
WBGO president Steve Williams, right, with WBGO cofounder Dorthaan Kirk and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis in 2015.

Steve Williams, president and CEO of WBGO, echoes Knighton’s point about this moment of extraordinary challenge for the musical community. “COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow to the jazz performance ecosystem,” he says, “and we’re most interested in developing or supplementing plans to repair the damage. Using the fund to implement technologies and programs that support alternatives for performers and presenters will be a focus for us.”

In addition to funding, the Jazz Media Lab promises to provide its stations with executive coaching, professional development training, financial assessments, and other consulting services. At its core is the idea that these five media organizations amount to a consortium, and that it can only stand to benefit through greater peer exchange. “Primarily, we see an opportunity for generating and sharing valuable information about audience engagement and content development and distribution,” says Williams. “If there is one thing that we have in common with our partners in JML, it’s the need to establish a strong position of preference with our constituents, given the multiplicity of options in the audio space.”

Credit KNKX
Drummer Jonathan Barber in a session at KNKX.

Joey Cohn, general manager of KNKX, expresses a similar idea. “I think the stations will benefit from sharing their success stories with each other,” he says. “What has worked for them as far as reaching new audiences? Have they adjusted their music presentations in any way to do that? What partnerships in the community have opened doors to new listeners?”

According to KNKX’s music director, Carol Handley, the cohort exchange represents an opportunity whose dimensions still aren’t fully known: “Perhaps we could work together to stream performances by regional artists who are developing their careers, or find a way to share our library’s content with each other.”

At a time when live music has effectively ground to a standstill in local communities, and technology has enabled greater access to musical presentations from afar, that ideal of collaboration across a geographic divide seems especially productive.

Credit KUVO
A volunteer booth at KUVO's Five Points Jazz Festival.

“Jazz listeners frequently think about what the music scene is like in other cities that have a well-established jazz radio station,” reflects Tina Cartagena, senior vice president of radio and new media at KUVO. “We’re sure that building connections between music scenes would be interesting to our audience, and we’re excited to learn from other stations who are implementing ideas for new ways to connect listeners to the local jazz scene to build awareness, appreciation, introductions to artistic talent, and sustainability for jazz globally.”

To learn more about the Jazz Media Lab, visit the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation online.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.