Smooth operators shift blame for selling out listeners

Bracing for an angry backlash from Chicago radio listeners over the demise of smooth jazz, the owners of WLFM-LP (87.7) are trying to blame the Obama administration for the company’s decision to drop the format.

“In a strange twist, the FCC of the current administration has killed smooth jazz in Chicago by failing to act on our requests to assure the audio future of 87.7 FM,” Pat Kelley, general manager of the station, wrote online and in an email to fans. “What we didn’t count on is that the FCC would abandon us, that ‘Yes We Can’ turned into ‘No We Can’t.’ ”

It’s a misleading and disingenuous claim, to say the least.

As of Monday, Merlin Media will assume control over programming, sales and operations for 87.7 under a local marketing agreement with Venture Technologies Group LLC, which has operated the low-power television station as a smooth jazz radio outlet since 2009. Headed by former Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels, Merlin is expected to launch an alternative rock format on the station as Q 87.7 — Underground. Alternative.

Because the FCC has mandated that all low-power television stations convert from analog to digital broadcasting by 2015, Kelley and his bosses are blaming the feds for the format change. But the fact is no one promised Venture Technologies Group that it could continue the charade of using a low-power TV signal as an FM radio outlet forever. Nor did anyone force the company to cut and run now — more than two years before the conversion mandate takes effect. (Thank you, Merlin!)

“The decision to make this change is due primarily because the current FCC has refused to provide assurance that WLFM can continue to broadcast on 87.7 FM in September 2015,” Kelley wrote. He urges listeners to write to Washington — including the White House (“if you know someone in the Obama administration”), U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, and the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology — although he doesn’t make clear what they’re supposed to protest in their letters.

The traditional ethnic appeal of smooth jazz radio was evident in ratings that showed a large proportion of Smooth 87.7’s 500,000 weekly listeners were African American. Kelley’s letter specifically noted that the station’s programming was embraced by such community groups as “the Chicago Urban League, 100 Black Men, McCormick Chamber of Commerce and many more.”

In any case, the company offers no assurances that it will reconsider its decision. “This won’t bring back smooth jazz right away, but it will send a message for the next time a small innovative group tries to open up new opportunities and serve minority communities, we hope it helps find smooth jazz a new home in Chicago either on our station or another,” Kelley wrote. “We proved that it works and we hope to be back in the future.”

Rather than wait for another comeback of smooth jazz on terrestrial radio, fans would be well advised to check out, a free online service of Chicago-based AccuRadio. It’s voice-tracked by longtime Chicago radio personality Danae Alexander, a veteran of the former smooth jazz WNUA-FM (95.5).

And it sure sounds better than a bunch of lame excuses and empty promises.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)