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Thurston Briscoe, Veteran Producer and Executive at WBGO and NPR, Dies at 74

Thurston Briscoe Lizz
WBGO
Thurston Briscoe, right, with Lizz Wright and Eric Tait on Nov. 2, 2011.

Thurston Briscoe, a trailblazing figure in public radio who served for more than two decades as program director at WBGO, died on Monday morning in Morristown, N.J. He was 74.

The cause was throat cancer, according to his brother, Phillip Briscoe.

“Even though Thurston was the program director, we always said he really had a great strength in coming up with various ways to market and promote WBGO,” remembers NEA Jazz Master Dorthaan Kirk, who worked alongside Briscoe during his 23-year tenure at Newark Public Radio. “He had the skills that a development director would have. He was very, very social. He knew how to meet and talk to any person from any walk of life. And obviously, being a lover of the music, he just promoted WBGO out of his heart, off the top of his head, because it was a part of him.”

Briscoe came to WBGO in 1990 after nearly a decade at NPR, where he was among the first wave of staff at Morning Edition. He started as a production assistant on the show, working his way up to senior producer. While at NPR, he also served as an associate producer on Jazz Alive! — the Peabody Award-winning precursor to JazzSet with Branford Marsalis and JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater, both of which he executive produced at WBGO. 

Thurston Briscoe with Doug Doyle
Thurston Briscoe, right, with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle.

“Coming from NPR, he understood the importance of keeping the audience informed while they enjoyed the music,” says WBGO News Director Doug Doyle. “He hired me more than 22 years ago because he wanted a strong local news presence at the station. He’s one of the main reasons WBGO News is so respected in the public radio world.”

As program director at WBGO, Briscoe developed broadcasts like a Live at the Village Vanguard series, as well as web streams from locales like the Newport Jazz Festival.

He oversaw the creation of The Checkout with Josh Jackson, and conceived and executive produced The Jazz Bee, a 24-hour HD2 web stream. Throughout his tenure, he used market research data to tweak the station’s format, with the aim of expanding a listening audience.

Thurston Briscoe was born on July 4, 1947, in Great Bend, Kansas, to Alfonzo and Magdalene Briscoe. He developed his love of radio in the late ‘50s, listening on a transistor set. “There was a black-operated soul station in Jackson, Mississippi, and you could hear a lot of James Brown,” he recalled in a 2003 profile by The Shocker. “He wasn’t always on other stations and that made that station really special. The jocks were talking about rock, they were talking about soul, but they were also talking about what was going on at the local high school. The communities came alive.”

Briscoe attended Great Bend High School and then Wichita State University, where he majored in theater and speech therapy. His undergraduate studies were interrupted by the draft — he served in an Army K-9 unit in Seoul, Korea — before he earned his bachelor’s degree in ’74.

He cut his teeth on the air as a student DJ at KMUW. Then he moved to Eugene, Ore., where he hosted weekly jazz and public affairs programming at KLCC, and taught audio production courses at Lane Community college. After four years in Eugene, he received an invitation to join the team mobilizing behind Morning Edition in Washington, D.C.

Dorthaan Kirk and Thurston Briscoe
Dorthaan Kirk and Thurston Briscoe in 1996.

Briscoe started at WBGO as program director, later becoming Vice President of Programming and Production. His time at the station came to an end in 2013, after which he became a freelance media consultant as well as the VP of Station Relations & Audience Research at Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news and information program distributed by PRX. He maintained his ties to former WBGO colleagues, like Kirk and JazzSet producer Becca Pulliam, who wrote a touching obituary in consultation with the Briscoe family.

“Radio is not a relic,” Briscoe affirmed in a jazz radio roundtable convened by Bret Primack in 2014. “It’s how we do it. I think that a lot of people come up with ideas about what programming they want to do, or what would be cool — but they have to serve the listener.”