by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming
Maybe the most radical thing about the newly revamped WQCD (CD101.9) New York was the promo I heard on Nov. 22, the first day of its repositioning from “Smooth Jazz” to “New York Chill.” In one of several promos that explained the revamping of the station, PD Blake Lawrence noted that listeners could still use the station the same way they always had—at the office, in traffic, or for making love. That’s been one of radio’s implied uses since the days when Murray the K offered a soundtrack for “submarine race” watchers, but hearing it spoken in this atmosphere of post-Janet Jackson/Nicolette Sheridan hysteria was still a jolt. So, for that matter, were the liners from the station’s first few days promising that CD101.9 was playing “interesting music…again.”
Positioning is key here. In its first week, CD101.9 had the twin jobs of reminding the listeners who still gave it a 2.8 share 12-plus in the first fall Arbitrend that core artists like Sade and George Benson hadn’t gone anywhere, and convincing potential new listeners that something different was going on here, despite the presence of Sade and George Benson. In the local news stories that accompanied the change, station representatives were also careful to position this as something other than a flat-out format change. And so far, that’s true. What’s going on here is more an attempt to transfer the hip cachet of “chill”—the downtempo electronica/jazz hybrid that has launched a million compilations over the last 4-5 years—to the existing smooth jazz format, something that had already been happening on a smaller scale.
An attempt to transfer the hip cachet of “chill” to the existing smooth jazz format
Chill first surfaced at mainstream American radio about 18 months ago with late night shows on the now defunct Triple-A WKOC (the Coast) Norfolk, Va., and on the very much extant gold-based Modern Rock KBZT (FM94.9). Later in 2003, it made its way into late nights at Hot AC KLLC (Alice 97.3) San Francisco and on its first full-time outlet KLBU (Blu 102.9) Santa Fe, N.M., which has gone from no ratings to a 2.1 share 12-plus in that market’s spring Arbitron. There’s now a full-time Sirius channel devoted to chillout music as well.
So far, no two of chill’s manifestations at radio have been the same, although Sirius, Alice and KBZT have all been more vocal-driven and rely heavily on the ethereal side of the rock universe, from Mazzy Star to Roxy Music. KLBU has been the most pure, most instrumental jazz-based distillation of the format so far, although on a recent listen, it was around 40-50% vocal itself. And WQCD sounds like none of them.
In its first week, CD101.9 was featuring roughly 35% vocals (now including Massive Attack and Frou Frou, but still prominently featuring songs like Anita Baker’s “Giving You The Best That I Got” and Sting’s “Fields Of Gold” that were warhorses of the format before), 40% smooth jazz instrumentals, and 25% chillout instrumentals. Much of the latter music, my colleague Tom Webster notes, is the acid jazz or “groove” music that had already been making its way on to the format in recent years. Of the songs on his 80-minute music monitor (below), Webster says “only Frou Frou might really be out of place on, say, KTWV Los Angeles.” And as one manager of another prominent Smooth Jazz station dryly notes, “We’ve been mixing in chill music, too. We didn’t do a press release.”
It’s clearly not a station for hardcore chill fans—I know one who feels that Zero 7 and Massive Attack are actually diminished by being played next to Peter White and Boney James. And even with a more neutral personal take on Smooth Jazz, the author still hears stretches on CD101.9 where a smooth jazz cover is followed by a familiar vocal and it feels like the station hasn’t changed enough. It’s hard to find any chillout elements in “After All” by Al Jarreau—a record that’s missing either the electronic pulse or the etherealness that distinguishes the genre in its loosest definition. But it’s clearly a record that tests too well to just walk away from.
Then again, Smooth Jazz stations are used to the purists scoffing, but listening anyway. And, ironically, if the new station doesn’t feel like 4 a.m. in Ibiza yet—something which most of us can’t judge from personal experience anyway—it does feel like more of a jazz station again, relying less on the vocals and cover versions that made the format feel increasingly like Soft AC, Urban AC, or, worse, an updated Easy Listening format. (That’s not so different from Emmis’ sister WRDA [Red 104.1] St. Louis’ neo-Adult Standards format, which, without ‘60s and ‘70s MOR, sounds more purist than most of its format counterparts.)
It’s unlikely that WQCD’s evolution will end here. Emmis launched Modern Rock WKQX (Q101) Chicago in the early ‘90s as a Modern Rock/Hot AC hybrid that still played Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp before the Modern Rock revolution took place and there was no reason to keep those songs around. And having a station that plays any chillout music in New York is likely to further prompt the record labels to promote more of that product to the format. Once Hip-Hop broke through at R&B radio, it became a lot harder for straight R&B product to get played, and that meant that labels brought even less straight R&B even to stations that wanted to play it.
Even if WQCD’s gamble does pay off—bringing in enough new listeners to lower the average age, keeping enough of the old listeners to maintain critical mass—it’s not necessarily a new template for the format. Markets like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are naturals for some form of “chillout,” with or without the Smooth Jazz. In other places, Smooth Jazz, despite its much publicized graying, is still a more viable franchise than many available market options. And being co-owned with a successful Urban AC gives CD101.9 a little more freedom to experiment.
WQCD (CD101.9) Music Monitor
Here’s 80 minutes of WQCD, beginning around 10 a.m., Nov. 29—a week after its repositioning—with notes from Edison Media Research VP Tom Webster, who worked with numerous Smooth Jazz stations as VP of Broadcast Architecture.
Adani & Wolf, “Daylight”— These Dutch compadres of Praful feature a similar blend of down-tempo acid jazz. This music is newly marketed as “chill,” but it’s really the same brand of “groove” that smooth jazz stations have always relied on as secondary tracks (e.g., Paul Hardcastle/Jazzmasters/Down to the Bone etc.);
Doobie Brothers, “Minute By Minute”—A smooth jazz vocal staple;
Bugge Wesseltoft, “Change”—More adventurous than Adani & Wolf or Praful (certainly more electronic elements), but still very much in the traditional acid jazz/downtempo vain. Like St. Germain, a more jazzy, improvisational mentality, but still very SJ-friendly and easy to take;
George Benson, “Breezin’” – A smooth jazz power/anchor;
Down To The Bone, “The Zodiac” – Been on the format for years—again, what the format’s current brain trust might call “groove,” slightly house-flavored acid jazz.
Frou Frou, “Breathe In”—An adventurous choice, though this downbeat mix is pretty safe. Breezy electronic dance pop with Dido-esque vocals, not out of place on a Mitsubishi commercial. This mix, however, is very downtempo;
Peter White, “The Closer I Get To You”—SJ guitar hero with Roberta Flack cover;
Sting, “Fields Of Gold”—A longtime smooth jazz warhorse;
Praful, “One Day Deep” – Again, pretty easy-to-take acid/nu jazz. Not out of place with the groove music that was already part of the format, but he’s Dutch and coffee-house cool;
Richard Elliot, “Sly”—standard SJ instrumental fare;
Boney James w/Joe Sample, “Stone Groove” – Strong, melodic, straight-ahead smooth jazz;
Massive Attack, “Protection” – Massive Attack’s most accessible song, with Everything But The Girl’s Tracy Thorn on vocals. With the exception of the somewhat de-fanged mix of Frou Frou (above), probably the coolest, most credible “chill” record of the hour (if you were just heading back from Space Ibiza at 7 am, that is);
Soul Ballet, “Cream” – Standard “groove”/acid jazz;
Earth, Wind & Fire, “Can’t Hide Love”—A cool SJ record as well as a secret weapon for many Urban AC/R&B Oldies programmers;
Stanley Jordan, “The Lady In My Life” – Smooth jazz bread-and-butter;
Enigma, “Sadeness”—SJ stations have always played this record, now showcased as an example of “chill”;
Ramsey Lewis Trio, “The In Crowd” – The updated version, not the 1965 original (which probably wouldn’t work in this context)
Other (Chillout) Rooms, Other Voices
Here are two sample hours from the more rock-derived versions of the chillout format, KBZT San Diego’s “Big Sonic Chill” late night program and Sirius Satellite Radio’s Chill channel.
Air, “Surfin’ On A Rocket”
Zero 7 & Lenny Kravitz, “If You Can’t Say No”
Aim, “Good Disease (Stephen Jones Mix)”
Café Del Mar, “Sun Electric”
Depeche Mode, “Stripped”
Moodswings, “Spiritual High”
Shins, “New Slang”
Radiohead, “Karma Police”
Ballistic Brothers, “Uschi’s Groove”
Mazzy Star, “Fade Into You”
Streets, “Dry Your Eyes”
Dub Pistols, “World Gone Crazy”
R.E.M., “Everybody Hurts”
KBZT (FM94.9) Big Sonic Chill, 10 p.m., November 29, 2004
Moby, “Life’s So Sweet “
Red House Painters, “Grace Cathedral Park”
Massive Attack, “Angel”
American Music Club, “Myopic Books”
Everything But The Girl, “Mine”
Cocteau Twins, “Iceblink Luck”
Roxy Music, “More Than This”
Azure Ray, “The Devil’s Feet”
Grant Lee Buffalo, “We’re Coming Down”
Enigma, “Principles Of Lust/Sadeness”