Behind the Racial Uproar at One of the World’s Best Jazz Stations
By Tammy La Gorce
Published Jan. 29, 2020
Keanna Faircloth, the new host of “Afternoon Jazz” at WBGO.Anna Watts for The New York Times
WBGO seems to be distancing itself from the community that built it. There have been repercussions.
Keanna Faircloth, the new host of “Afternoon Jazz” at WBGO.Anna Watts for The New York Times
For almost 40 years, Dorthaan Kirk, the widow of the great jazz saxophonistRahsaan Roland Kirk, was a fixture at WBGO, Newark’s public jazz station.
Considered the city’s “first lady of jazz,” Ms. Kirk organized jazz brunches and persuaded famous musicians like Regina Carter to perform at children’s concerts. Her parties at the station celebrating the art exhibitions she curated, like one featuring vintage boomboxes, were always open to the public.
In 2018, Ms. Kirk retired, just shy of her 80th birthday.
Things at WBGO quickly changed after that. The station ended the exhibitions and the parties. Then management stopped allowing the public into the building, citing security concerns. The community, it seemed, was no longer welcome at the station it helped to create.
Dorthaan Kirk and Bill Daughtry were longtime employees of WBGO.Anna Watts for The New York Times
This development did not sit well. WBGO is arguably the best jazz station in the world, and its fate speaks to the broader challenges facing the popularity of jazz, that uniquely American idiom.
What WBGO offers is rare and culturally significant: an ongoing, ever-changing audio library of jazz, both old and new. The fact that its headquarters are in Newark, a center of black culture and activism, as well as the home of musicians like Sarah Vaughan and the saxophonists James Moody and Wayne Shorter, is no accident.
Not surprisingly, the situation became contentious. WBGO stalwarts rallied around a batch of perceived slights. Grievances cited in a petition, signed by the singer Cassandra Wilson and the pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., pointed out the racial imbalance in WBGO’s leadershipand hiring decisions that marginalized veteran employees and the community at large. An op-ed published in Novemberalluded to a “perceived stench of racism on the part of WBGO.”
At the center of it all was Amy Niles, the station’s innovative yet divisive president and chief executive, who was once its chief operating officer. This week, after a tense board meeting and the firing of a black employee who refused to take part in an internal investigation out of fear of being fired, Ms. Niles resigned.
Upon learning the news, Ms. Kirk was sympathetic, pointing out that Ms. Niles’s previous position as C.O.O. was never filled. “She took on too much, and that’s when WBGO started deteriorating,” she said.
But the conflict ran much deeper than management style. The problem facing WBGO, really, is nothing less than honoring the roots of jazz while staying afloat financially.
In 2014, Ms. Niles, a hardworking executive with a background in radio marketing, was brought in to modernize and expand the reach of WBGO.
This is something that most would agree, needed to happen. In the last two decades, social media, streaming and podcasts had reshaped the radio business, forcing old-school stations to rethink how and where they distribute and market their music.
But the way this new reality was enforced was heavily resisted at WBGO, where announcers are considered community elders and storytellers.
Ms. Niles seemed to understand this. In an interview earlier this month, she championed the creative license given to the station’s on-air personalities, citing the example of Bob Porter, the host of three WBGO shows and a 40-year veteran of the station, who “not only played the record you just heard, he produced it or he was there for the recording session. The stories he’s telling, he’s telling firsthand.”
But those stories were not being told in a vacuum. They issued from Newark, a city that, in the 1960s and ’70s, saw its mostly black residents’ fight for social justice, especially during the race riots of 1967, channel the spirit of jazz.
Whether Ms. Niles, her management team and the station’s board of trustees were paying adequate respect to WBGO’s legacy was at the heart of the conflict. “People who have a conception of what WBGO was in the ’70s and ’80s may need to rethink some of that in the 2020s,” said Tom Thomas, co-chief executive of the Station Resource Group, a national alliance of public radio stations.
WBGO, which has an annual budget of about $5 million, recently focused on expanding the station’s editorial content. Nate Chinen, a former jazz critic for The New York Times, was hired by Ms. Niles in 2017 to be the head writer.
“One thing I give Amy a lot of credit for is really insisting on an ideal that, in the 21st century, BGO needs to be considered and to consider itself a media organization rather than strictly a radio station,” Mr. Chinen said.
The criticisms from the community, though, were less about the product and more about workplace culture and the role of the station in Newark.
In the op-ed from November, the community activist Ronald Glover raised concerns that the station’s board and management were elitist and disproportionately white.
He wrote that as a contributing member to the station, he was surprised not to be invited to WBGO’s 40th anniversary gala, which was held in New York City and not in Newark last year. “Is it because I am not a ‘high-end donor’?” he wrote, adding that he knew of several black WBGO staffers who either had not been invited or had been excluded because of the $1,200 ticket.
“The intentional exclusion of these employees is emblematic of deeper issues,” he wrote.
WBGO was founded in 1979, a dozen years after the Newark riots, when the black writer and activist Amiri Baraka, a resident and the father of Newark’s current mayor, Ras Baraka, had inspired a new freedom of self-expression and activism.
“The music of WBGO was an indelible part of my childhood,” Mayor Baraka wrote in a letter to the chairman of the WBGO board this week, urging structural change. “My parents played the station from morning to night. It was the background music, and the sound of jazz that permeated through my home.”
Gary Walker, WBGO’s longtime music director, remembers job titles being fluid in the early days. “We would all answer the phone,” he said. “Sometimes, the general manager would call me at 7 a.m. and say, ‘Gary, what are you doing?’ I would say, ‘Bob, I’m on the air.’ And he’d say, ‘During the news, can you go out front and throw some salt on the sidewalk? It’s snowing.’”
Nationwide, the health of jazz on public radio is less than robust, according to Mr. Thomas. There are only 42 stations devoted to jazz in the country. WBGO, which has nearly 300,000 regular broadcast listeners and a sizable streaming audience outside the local market, is one of the two most successful in the country, Mr. Thomas said. The other is KKJZ Los Angeles.
But for Mr. Thomas, the distinction between the two stations is clear. KKJZ skews more contemporary, with heavier representation of West Coast artists like Pancho Sanchez and Herb Alpert. “WBGO,” he said, “worships at the altar of Coltrane.”
There are also demographic differences. WBGO’s audience has been 47 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic and 44 percent “other” over the past decade, said Mr. Thomas. Only 11 percent of the listeners for KKJZ, the Los Angeles station, are black, and 22 percent Hispanic.
Ms. Kirk’s departure roughly coincided with other beloved personalities leaving the station: “Midday Jazz” host Rhonda Hamilton left in 2019 after 40 years and moved to California, where she is now an on-air host at SiriusXM’s “Real Jazz.”
Bill Daughtry, host of “Afternoon Jazz,” also retired in 2019. But not because he was relocating.
“I retired because I knew a palace revolt wouldn’t be far away,” Mr. Daughtry said. “People are very unhappy there. There’s no vision.” By contrast, he said, the local vision that launched WBGO was vivid. “Legends like Miles Davis came to Newark because it was the second-biggest jazz society in the country,” he said. “What are we now? We’re underrepresented.”
Not everyone saw it that way. WBGO, like all public radio stations, is fueled by donations. The station currently has 17,000 members. In 2019, only 220 of them lived in Newark.
This is, understandably, what led WBGO executives to woo donors outside of Newark, including the decision to hold the anniversary party in Manhattan last year, with little attention paid to local celebrations. “There was gross disappointment over the lack of 40th anniversary events” in Newark, Mr. Daughtry said.
After Mr. Glover’s op-ed, the station issued a statement to employees. An internal review was conducted, the results of which were released this week. They led to Ms. Niles’s resignation and obligatory workplace discrimination training. Robert G. Ottenhoff, a founding member of WBGO, was appointed as the station’s interim chief executive.
Keanna Faircloth arrived at WBGO last fall as the new host of “Afternoon Jazz.” She had spent 16 years at WPFW, a Washington, D.C., station with the tagline “devoted to jazz and justice.” The divisiveness at the Newark station, where she has been winning praise for her social-media savvy and her fresh take on modern jazz artists like Makaya McCraven and Robert Glasper, has been palpable for her.
“I think the station has been sort of cagey and protective,” Ms. Faircloth said. “When a family fights, they don’t necessarily want the world to know about it. That has been the feeling here.”
When she was still in Washington, Ms. Faircloth thought of WBGO as “the mecca for jazz, this beacon on top of the hill,” she said.
Although she is honored to be a part of it now, she has not been able to avoid a sense of disillusionment. She recently compared the situation at the station to the end of the film “The Wiz.”
“In the movie, they went behind this wall and they found out the Wiz was just this old, disenchanted guy who was on a mike the entire time,” she said. “He didn’t have that big, booming voice they thought he had.”
At WBGO these days, she is experiencing a similar reality check.
“I feel a little like Dorothy,” she said. “I’m like, Oh, wow — this isn’t necessarily what I thought it was. I’m still excited to be here. But I see we have a lot of work to do.”
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