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KMHD's progress bebops past limits of local 'jazz police'

Rose City jazz radio station earns place in spotlight as best in the country


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - KMHD 89.1 FM was recently judged to be the top jazz station among 25 major U.S. markets, thanks to the likes of Tony Pacini's 'Jazz Connections' show. Nearly 30 years old, KMHD is among the oldest listener-supported stations in the country.It’s noon in Portland, and Matt Fleeger explains to radio listeners what they are hearing.

“It’s 12 after 12,” says the KMHD deejay. “You are listening to ‘New Jazz for Lunch.’ This next tune is called ‘Song of the Anvil.’ It’s off an interesting album called ‘The Blue & Green Project,’ by (saxophonist) Jack Wilkins.”

Fleeger then plays some Portland jazz artists, and lists saxophonist Mary Sue Tobin, guitarist Dan Balmer and bassist Damian Erskine among those he likes to hear. He also cites pianist Andrew Oliver, saxophonist David Valdez, and the dean of Portland jazz musicians, Mel Brown, the drummer who regularly holds court at Jimmy Mak’s in the Pearl District.

“We’ve got some of the finest musicians in the U.S. living in Portland,” Fleeger says. “You can catch world-class jazz any night here.”

The station he oversees could also be considered world class, given it received the Station of the Year award at the JazzWeek Summit in Detroit in late August. Hosted by the publication JazzWeek, the summit focuses on issues facing jazz radio and jazz record promotion.

For the award, KMHD 89.1 FM was up against stations in the nation’s top 25 metropolitan areas, including those in New York and Los Angeles. Despite its size relative to those cities, Portland boasts a radio audience among the most jazz-friendly in the country, Fleeger says.

“When you compare KMHD’s ratings with our peers around the country, you find that KMHD has a very strong listener base compared with other cities,” Fleeger says. “Our cumulative audience numbers range between 100,000 to 120,000 listeners per week.

“The closest market, in terms of population, to Portland that has a full-time jazz station is KSDS, San Diego — their cumulative audience is around 60,000 to 80,000 per week with higher population.”

Proportionally, KMHD even beats out the “flagship” jazz station in the country, New York City’s WBGO, which attracts about three times the number of listeners KMHD has in a city that has 15 times more people than Portland.

Why KMHD is doing so well stems from reasons rooted in the station’s past as well as its current operation. For one thing, it was established in 1984, making KMHD among the oldest listener-supported radio stations in the country.

Fleeger’s own history with the station is relatively brief — hailing from Pittsburgh, he oversaw a jazz station in San Antonio and came onboard at KMHD when Oregon Public Broadcasting took over its operation from Mt. Hood Community College more than three years ago.

The station was facing financial and organizational problems and moved off the Gresham campus and into OPB studios in Southwest Portland. (The college still owns the station’s license).

When Fleeger stepped aboard in 2009, somewhere around 70,000 to 85,000 people listened to KMHD each week, the majority of whom were 65 or older.

“Currently, our six-month weekly audience is around 100,000 to 120,000, and the largest majority of our audience — 32 percent — is between ages 45 and 54,” Fleeger says. “So, as our audience has grown, it’s become younger.”

One of the reasons the younger crowd is tuning into KMHD is “we’re not living in fear of our audience,” Fleeger says.

“We’re playing what some might consider ‘edgy’ stuff. We play free jazz and have a whole show — ‘The New Thing’ by Tim DuRoche — dedicated to it. We play a lot of soul-jazz, fusion and funky-stuff.”

Not everyone likes it, he admits.

“Do we get complaints from older listeners when we play (hip-hop jazz pianist) Robert Glasper or (Portland bassist-singer) Esperanza Spalding? Sometimes, yes,” he says. “But we explain that if we only play Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman that we’ll most likely not attract younger listeners.

“We present and play jazz as forward-thinking, progressive music, not regressive music,” he continues, warming to his topic. “That’s what made jazz ‘cool’ in the first place. The people who derided the sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in their heyday are of the same ilk as those who deride Glasper and Spalding today.”

Trendsetting station

Fleeger also stepped up the professionalism of the station’s mostly volunteer staff, regularly coaching its 37 deejays on vocal delivery and making sure their playlists have a certain flow.

Not all the deejays who worked at the station when he arrived liked the new approach, and some left after Fleeger took over. Meanwhile, some of the station’s listeners switched the dial, decrying the station’s shift away from its more amateurish “patchwork” approach to playlists.

However, other folks in Portland’s jazz community loved the new approach. Take Dan Duval, guitarist with Gunga Galunga, a new, local indie jazz ensemble, who doesn’t mince words when asked to compare the old and new KMHD.

“I remember the old (pre-OPB) KMHD, which was mocked and reviled by every jazz musician I met,” he says. “I’m very grateful that it has been transformed into something that I enjoy waking up to every morning. They’re finally playing the full spectrum of jazz, including the best contemporary stuff.”

Like other jazz lovers, he particularly likes the station’s musician interviews, as well as other types of programming.

“Every band I’ve played with in this city has benefited from (KMHD’s) support and advocacy,” he says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that their efforts have helped grow an audience for this music here in Portland.”

Latin and jazz violinist Eddie Parente liked both the old and new KMHD, and says he’s benefited from exposure to its listeners.

“I truly love KMHD and listen to it regularly and am thankful for their support of the rich, local jazz scene here in Portland,” he says.

Vibraphonist Mike Horsfall seconds that notion.

“KMHD has been ... very active in the local jazz scene, and regularly play tunes recorded by local artists,” he says. “Several of the deejays schedule live interviews, and feature them playing live on their shows as well.”

Don Lucoff, managing director of PDX Jazz, the presenting organization of the Portland Jazz Festival, says KMHD’s playlist helps festival organizers consider which musicians they might book.

“KMHD is a trendsetting jazz radio station in the United States,” Lucoff says. “So certainly we look to see what type of artists they are playing and which ones are creating a buzz in the marketplace.”

No more exclusive clubs

Like other veterans of the jazz scene, Susie Jones, who has worked on the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival as well as the Gresham “Adventures in Jazz” concert series, credits KMHD for growing its audience.

“KMHD continues to be a leader in promoting jazz on the airwaves in our community, and worldwide, streaming on the Web,” Jones says, listing Art Abrams’ “Jazz Summit,” Tony Pacini’s “Jazz Connections” and Carlton Jackson’s “The Message” among her favorite shows.

As for Jackson, he likes the station’s approach to promoting jazz in the contemporary era.

“I feel encouragement from my peers, and I have heard from listeners about how the station ‘feels’ to them now,” he says. “So this steels our resolve, as to how the whole thing is laid out to the public.”

Fleeger advises other jazz stations around the country to stop whining about how young people aren’t into jazz and start giving them reasons to enjoy it.

“The solution is pretty simple,” he says. “Stop making jazz an ‘exclusive club’ that has too many rules, end the ‘this is jazz and that’s not’ type of mentality and embrace the fun, diverse sound and history of the music. And don’t live in fear of the ‘jazz police.’ ”