What's Best for the Fest? | Post No Bills | Chicago Reader

What's Best for the Fest? 

Jazz Fest and WBEZ - Same Old Song

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The good news is that WBEZ will broadcast live all four nights of the 1997 Chicago Jazz Festival, which takes place August 28-31. The bad news is that a promising and innovative new plan for the broadcast by an outside group has been passed over by the Mayor's Office of Special Events in favor of more of the same from the production staff that lumbered through last year's drab, occasionally incompetent coverage.

WBEZ's Jazz Festival coverage, which began back in 1982 and became available for National Public Radio satellite distribution in 1986, has suffered in recent years. The station recorded but has yet to broadcast 1995's event, claiming it can't afford to pay the musicians the union-approved broadcast fees (about $80 for sidemen and $140 for bandleaders). And last year longtime broadcast anchor Neil Tesser, then a WBEZ DJ and still a jazz critic for this paper and a member of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs the festival, was replaced by Richard Steele, a WBEZ commentator who demonstrated his lack of jazz expertise on several occasions, including a bungled interview with Chicago saxophonist Ari Brown.

The 1996 broadcast, which as usual was available free of charge to NPR stations, was picked up by approximately 60 affiliates, down from a peak of 120 stations during the 80s. One obvious reason for this decline is that Detroit's annual jazz festival is on the same weekend and its broadcast is also made available free of charge to NPR affiliates. Last year about 45 stations opted to carry that festival.

Tesser, who's technically on a leave of absence from WBEZ that began after the last Jazz Festival, and former WBEZ director of underwriting Tony Judge proposed a way to eliminate this competition by combining the best of both events into a package deal that would also be free via the satellite. They figured the joint production would appeal to most of the stations that had to choose between festivals last year, as well as to WBEZ--and might also have attracted interest from major jazz markets like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, where the NPR affiliates didn't carry either. In addition, their proposed $95,000 budget included a $10,000 fee to be paid to the city of Chicago for broadcast rights, something WBEZ had never offered and a rather nice plum, considering that until money from the Democratic National Convention afforded a slight increase for 1996, the Jazz Festival budget had been dwindling steadily for five years. Linda Yohn, a representative of Detroit's NPR affiliate WEMU, and Detroit jazz fest head Jim Dulzo met with Tesser and Judge in January and eagerly gave their blessing, Tesser said.

In February Tesser and Judge met with Jennifer Washington, the Jazz Festival coordinator from the Mayor's Office of Special Events, and according to Tesser, she too greeted the proposal enthusiastically. The plan gave Tesser and Judge 45 days to find underwriting, with the guarantee that if they failed to raise the needed funds the city would be free to award broadcast rights to another organization. By contrast, in recent years WBEZ has waited until the last minute to agree to broadcast the festival, said one source who asked not to be identified, sometimes leaving only a few months to find underwriting and plan the whole production. Right now the Blues Festival is less than two months away and WBEZ has yet to commit to a broadcast of that event.

In the weeks following the meeting it seemed as though the Tesser-Judge plan was a shoo-in, according to Jazz Institute head Penny Tyler. "Jennifer Washington was all for it," she said. "It seemed like a beautiful opportunity to receive $10,000 into the budget as well as have professional people handle the broadcast." Washington did not return calls regarding this article.

But last week the Mayor's Office of Special Events awarded the broadcast to WBEZ; no good explanation has been made for why Tesser and Judge weren't given a chance. A press release cited the long-standing relationship with WBEZ and an in-kind promotional package from the station whose worth was estimated at $160,000. It also claimed that the broadcast is "part of a five-year plan [with WBEZ] that began last year."

WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia said the package--frequent promotional spots, artist profiles, and other prefestival programs--represents a moderate increase over the one it provided last year. "A lot of this stuff has been done by the station in the past," he said. "But I'm not sure we have been able to effectively communicate to the city, as perhaps we have recently, that this all has a value, that there are dollar consequences if it were to have been purchased."

But most of WBEZ's past promotion has been aimed at getting Chicagoans down to Grant Park, and the city is more interested in attracting tourists--a department in which wider broadcast distribution could make a difference. According to James E. Sheahan, the executive director of the Mayor's Office of Special Events, the five-year plan (which, Malatia admitted, doesn't exist in written form), is a public awareness campaign. "We're working with the Internet, with WBEZ, and the Department of Tourism," Sheahan said. It seems as though such a plan would at least include a broadcasting commitment by the station, but Malatia said it doesn't.

Sheahan would explain the decision to stick with WBEZ only by saying, "We've had a long-term relationship with 'BEZ and we're happy with the way things have gone." When I asked about the station's failure to broadcast the 1995 festival, he replied, "We're very happy with the relationship we have with WBEZ." He explained that potential sponsors (broadcasters are considered sponsors too) make proposals every year. "When you build a relationship with sponsors, whether it's WBEZ or United Airlines, everyone comes along and says," and here Sheahan affected a whine, "'I can do a better job than this one and I think you should do this and I think you should do that.' Well, guess what? We know what we're doing here because nobody else does it like we do it here." Sheahan also repeatedly cited WBEZ's "proven track record," but when asked what he thought of Tesser, whose track record includes developing WBEZ's broadcast 15 years ago, he stumbled over his words: "I don't know. I'm sure he's got a real good track record and so on and so forth, but I think WBEZ does a real good job."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jazz Fest by Marc PoKempner.

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