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Rough Seas for Smooth Jazz

Dental drills around the region were halted for a moment of reverent silence last week, as longtime Seattle “Smooth Jazz” radio station 98.9 FM KWJZ, a favorite of the fluoride and root-canal set, underwent a sudden format shift. 

Gone are the endless funky bass lines, breezy electric guitar licks and snappy-yet-inoffensive percussion riffs, replaced with what pre-recorded announcements playing on the station on Monday were calling “The New Click.” 

The Click appears to be focused on pop rock hits of the 1990s and 2000s, like a version of the ubiquitous “Jack” format minus the classic rock (Seattle’s “Jack” outlet is KJAQ 96.5 FM). A new website for the station describes the format as “Modern Music,” and says it “includes the ‘Seattle Sound’ of popular music created in the NW by bands like Nirvana & Pearl Jam,” and lists Green Day, U2, Coldplay, and other poppy rock bands among the artists it plays.   

KWJZ program director Carol Handley addressed the format change in a statement on the station’s old website, which was taken down sometime late Monday or early Tuesday. In a nod to changes wrought by the introduction by Arbitron in 2009 of Portable People Meters (PPMs), Handley said, “Technologies change and the new radio audience measurement is not favoring our once ‘ratings-strong’ Smooth Jazz music format.” 

PPMs are pager-sized devices worn by a representative sample of the radio audience. The device picks up an inaudible tone embedded in each station’s broadcast output and keeps track of what the listener is exposed to and for how long. And therein lies the most potent criticism of the PPMs — that they measure what a listener is exposed to, not what they actually listen to or hear. 

Prior to the introduction of PPMs, ratings were measured by handwritten listener diaries, which required a certain amount of recall and which were criticized for their inherent inaccuracy. Critics of the old system also said that listener diaries tended toward the “aspirational,” listing the eat-your-vegetables stations (news, public radio, classical music, jazz) that diarists wanted others to believe they listened to, not actual listening habits. 

In any event, PPM ratings are available much faster than the old diary ratings, and have done much in the past 18 months to reshape the local radio landscape in markets around the country including Seattle. Ratings translate into ad sales income, of course, and big changes at local stations including KIRO-FM, KVI-AM and KING-FM can be traced to the introduction of PPMs. 

It’s unclear if the Click will also be DJ-free, as Jack is. As part of radical shifts in how people consume audio entertainment, commercial radio stations are increasingly shifting to mostly automated operation, functioning as glorified iPods with long sets of music and breaks for ads and perhaps drive-time traffic reports. This approach is certainly cost-effective (or just plain cheap), and, with the right mix of music, appears to be the best way to maximize ratings in the new PPM system by keeping people tuned in. KJAQ, for example, was in 10th place in local radio ratings for December. 

Formerly-Smooth-now-Click KWJZ is owned by Sandusky Broadcasting, which also operates KIXI AM 880, KQMV-FM and PPM-dominator KWRM (“Warm”) 106.9 FM. 

The latest available Arbitron ratings for December 2010 had KWJZ in 17th place, just behind KISW-FM and just ahead of KJR-AM. These rankings are based on “share,” or the average percentage of the audience listening to the station during a given period. In the same month, Warm 106.9 was ranked No. 1 with a whopping 7.1 share, largely on the strength of its “all Christmas” format. Again, functioning as a giant mp3 player. 

Meanwhile, local public broadcaster KPLU 88.5 FM continues to offer not-so-smooth jazz (along with NPR news, blues and a few long-form programs including “Car Talk” and “This American Life”). While KPLU came in 19th place in the December ratings with just a 2.6 share, the numbers that still count most for a public broadcaster are pledge drive dollars, and KPLU continues to meet its fundraising goals. 

Reached for comment late Monday, KPLU general manager Paul Stankavich said in an email, “We are sorry to lose KWJZ as a service to their nearly 400,000 listeners and invite them to try KPLU or Jazz24 [KPLU’s online and HD Radio all-jazz station]. We constantly evaluate our programming and our playlist and will add music as it fits our jazz format.” 

We’ll see how all this looks in about six months. Just in time for another fluoride treatment or root canal.

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