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Smooth jazz format dropped by CBS Radio finds home on Web

When CBS Radio dropped the "smooth jazz" format from WSJT-FM (98.7) in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, there was one local fan of the music who saw a new opportunity.

Bradenton resident Richard Rigg has been streaming music at SmoothJazzTampaBay.com since 2004, when he decided to take the 6,000 records he owned and make them available to the world online.

And as increasing numbers of big commercial stations walk away from the format, grass roots cybercasters like Rigg have become the home for a declining genre that still commands strong fan loyalty.

"(Radio stations) got too complacent; instead of going with their gut, they went with focus groups and analyzed it too much," said Rigg, who features former WSJT host Al Santana from 7 p.m. to midnight on Sundays. "This music is morphing and changing; you'll find it mostly on the Internet now."

WSJT became Play 98.7 at 3 p.m. Tuesday, flipped to a format called "adult contemporary hit radio." The change was abrupt; in moments, Kenny G. and George Benson were out, Maroon 5, Train, Kings of Leon and Katy Perry were in, along with a new slogan: "Today's best hits without the rap."

By focusing the new station on adults ages 25 to 44, Play threads a narrow needle. Sure, you can hear Katy Perry on Clear Channel's WFLZ-FM (93.3), but you might also hear some rap-influenced stuff; Rob Thomas may pop up on Clear Channel's WMTX-FM (100.7), but you might also hear some old U2.

Critics might say several local stations offer similar fare. But Don Howe, Tampa market manager for CBS Radio, said it had to move away from a station with a fading audience in a genre that wasn't producing many dynamic new voices.

"Look at how much new music is coming out of the Lady Gagas and Kris Allens," he said. "Without that, you don't have buzz and record label support. Nobody on American Idol is a jazz musician."

Steve Hamilton states the case more plainly: Smooth jazz stations don't make enough money anymore for big corporations like CBS Radio.

Hamilton was program director at Denver's KKHI-FM in May when the station was sold and turned from smooth jazz to a Christian rock format. So he took his 401(k) money and got permission to keep using the station's online audio stream, Khighonline.com.

Now he's reaching about 20,000 listeners a week, launching iPhone and iPad apps while trying to serve an older audience still eager to hear David Benoit and Dave Koz.

"These big radio chains took on massive debt to grow, so they need formats that are mass appeal and generate huge revenue," he said. "They also need formats that look good to stock holders."

Former WSJT host Alicia Kaye, who will still work part time for CBS Radio, appearing on WRBQ-FM (Q105) at 3 p.m. Sundays, said she'll miss the community of fans and artists gathered around the genre.

"I totally understand the changes and I think they'll be successful," she said. "But having that identity as a fan and cheerleader for some of the best music on the planet, that will be something I'll really miss."

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Smooth jazz format dropped by CBS Radio finds home on Web 09/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 12:06am]
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