WBGO's Amy Niles works to create harmony of jazz, technology, community support
Amy Niles vividly remembers the first time she heard jazz.
She was nine years old, growing up in New York's West Village and already six years into music lessons. She thought she would become an opera singer.
"Then one day, I went to hear Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66," says Niles, a confident, friendly woman with thick, dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
"And I heard a song that I knew, which was 'Fool on the Hill.' And as a classical musician, you study with interpretation but the idea…is that it is set just this way. But I heard a song that I knew interpreted with a whole different flavor and a whole different style.
"I heard music differently for the first time."
The experience stuck with Niles even as she pursued other careers in music and performance. She played Broadway in "Evita" for four years as Perón's mistress, she sang "Another Suitcase, in Another Hall" – off-Broadway in "The Fantasticks," and appeared on the soap opera "Love of Life." Later, she moved to the business side and became involved with marketing for Sirius Radio and hosted its Broadway Channel.
This summer, Niles, 54, was named the new president of jazz station WBGO, where she succeeds Cephas Bowles. She has been a part of the operation since 2006, first as chief operating officer and senior vice president overseeing areas such as development, membership, marketing and programming, and then as the acting president.
"She's really got an insight into how to connect with people," says host Michael Bourne, a friend of Niles since before she arrived at the station.
"She knows how to talk to people in boardrooms and people who are down in the basement doing laundry listening to the radio."
As she begins to tackle the challenges of promoting jazz and public radio, and developing listener support in a time where internet listening reigns, Niles thinks back to that first "a-ha moment" where she understood how a song could be transformed – and how to make sure that can happen for someone who happens to turn on the dial at any moment.
"It's not just about playing music," she says. "It's about making light bulbs go off."
As Niles walks through the corridors at WBGO's Newark studio, she passes walls covered top-to-bottom in gilded plaques and awards and a library that contains scores of CDs and records – more than a shelf for Ella Fitzgerald alone.
She peeks into a room where the hands of countless famed pianists have tickled the ivories and points out a Hammond B-3 organ hidden behind a black curtain. She throws her arms around saxophonist Joe Lovano, who is visiting.
Niles discovered the station about 15 years ago after meeting Bourne through her Sirius show. They used to attend the theater together, and when people turned around after recognizing his voice, she was the one to encourage them to become WBGO members, he says. She had no professional connection to the station at the time.
One day, they stopped by a volunteer drive on the way to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Niles began answering phones. She was "absolutely hooked." Then, Bourne told her about an open position.
"I couldn't wait," she says. "I dropped everything."
"When she applied, someone said, 'she's never worked in public radio,'" Bourne recalls.
"Good," he replied. "We need someone who knows how to bring in millions in the private sector. We have enough people with public radio experience."
Art and commerce, sometimes seen as opposing forces, have always worked in tandem for Niles. As a student at New York University, she studied music and business. After Broadway, when she wanted to start a family – she is now married with two daughters – she decided that the performing lifestyle was no longer ideal for her.
"Most people have a midlife crisis and they go and they get a Porsche," she says. "I went for my M.B.A."
As a result, she says, "I understand the musicians' mentality but I understand what it takes to write the check."
Niles is in charge of a $5.5 million operating budget and manages a staff of about 50 in addition to hundreds of volunteers. As of July, the station had an average weekly cumulative listenership of 330,000 and 300,000 website views. In order to be close to work, she has moved to the station's Military Park neighborhood. She has also joined Mayor Ras Baraka's transition team for Arts and Culture.
Last year, under her leadership, WBGO had its highest number of listeners in its history, with 17,000 members. But Niles is aware that such figures cannot be taken for granted, especially in light of changing technologies.
"The next generation may not be radio listeners," she says.
As a result, an increasing amount of attention is being paid to online and mobile listeners. In addition, Niles has encouraged investments in marketing to raise awareness and in a new transmitter to broadcast from New York's Times Square.
"It's only about 4 percent of people who listen to us who actually support us," she says. "Can you imagine if only 4 percent of people who turned on their electricity paid their electric bill?"
Niles fondly recalls examples of that small number of listeners who do donate – including a man who lost his job and collected cans just to raise $10 a month to support the music he loved.
It's a rare mentality.
"We had a funder – this was an incredible woman I had the opportunity to meet and she said, 'I don't understand. I can raise 2 million dollars by [telling people] I'll put their name on a wall. But how come I can go to somebody and say, 'will you buy 10 tickets to send a kid to hear a concert' and they look at me like I'm nuts?'"
The woman died recently, and a foundation in her name is now supporting the station's Kids Jazz Concerts Series, interactive weekend afternoon events for young listeners.
"We'd love to be very idealistic about putting jazz on the radio and keeping the lights on," Niles says. "But the fact is we have to communicate to our audience that without support, without this partnership that we have, we don't exist."
Niles' management style and her priorities for the station seem to relate back to her Broadway days.
"I remember Hal Prince saying to us one day in rehearsal that every one of us was a piece of furniture and that really stuck with me," she says of her days working in the ensemble.
Her approach is the opposite, driven to forge a relationship with each person, when it comes to both employees and listeners.
In addition to traditional fund drives, Niles wants to get to know the audience through travel and events, an area she has worked to expand. The station has sponsored trips to Newport and Montreal jazz festivals including backstage access, and a weekend of jazz immersion at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y.
When it comes to the idea that some see jazz as a niche or something difficult to understand, Niles tries to be as inviting as possible.
"How does it make you feel?" she asks. "Does it make you happy? Does it make you feel calm?
"Sometimes the way to experience jazz is just to listen to it, take from it what you want. If you want to analyze it, great. If you want to say 'that's pretty,' great….what I always say to people is enjoy it, don't worry about it."
When Niles listens, she gravitates to the American Songbook – a natural entrée for Broadway fans, with many standards common to both – as well as Latin and Brazilian jazz.
"There's jazz I like and some that doesn't do it for me" she says. "Jazz is many, many things. It's Brazilian, it's Latin, it's smooth, it's contemporary, it's classic soul."
She practically overflows with praise for hosts such as Rhonda Hamilton of "Mid-day Jazz" and Felix Hernandez of "Rhythm Revue" and their ability to introduce the varied shades of the music. The station has also added a new show in the past year – "The Checkout," in which new artists and releases are showcased – and has a "radar" feature in which listeners can hear recordings before they are available to the general public.
A multiplatform program with an education component in partnership with NPR is also in the works.
"They don't just spin records," she says of the station's hosts. "They really connect the listener to what the music is about…which I think makes us a solid proposition for the future. You don't get that on Spotify or Music Choice or all those things.
"You have the opportunity to learn from some of the greats. That really makes us unique and I think that's part of what will keep us going."
Ever the vocalist, Niles refers to two Sondheim lyrics as touchstones. First, "Art isn't easy." Then, "Everybody says don't…I say try."
"I think jazz has a tremendous past but it also has a tremendous future," she says. "The wonderful thing about jazz is it's always evolving."
"This is only the first 35 years [of the station,]" she adds. "I want at least another 35 years. I may not be here for them, but WBGO will be."