Wednesday, August 28, 2013

WCLK smothers Jamal Ahmad's S.O.U.L. with smooth jazz

Posted By on Wed, Aug 28, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Jamal Ahmad
Yesterday, Atlanta jazz station 91.9 WCLK-FM introduced a new, softer jazz format that has plenty of its long-time listeners heated.

In an effort to boost its audience and garner more membership dollars, the non-commercial radio station attached to Clark Atlanta University has started pre-programming its playlist and narrowed it down from about 900 songs to 400 songs Monday-Friday, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution radio reporter Rodney Ho, who spoke to WCLK's general manager of the last 20 years, Wendy Williams.

"We're going to play what the listeners want," Williams told the AJC. But from the responses pouring into WCLK's Facebook page, a new Save our S.O.U.L. campaign Facebook page, and the Change.org online petition calling for the station's return to original DJ programming, smooth jazz is not going over so smoothly.

The main concern is over celebrated WCLK DJ and on-air personality Jamal Ahmad, who's S.O.U.L. of Jazz show has been a longtime listener favorite, recognized locally and internationally for its groundbreaking programming.

"Jamal Ahmad's show is one of the last bastion's on noncommercial music in the city of Atlanta," reads the first line of the petition, started by Creative Loafing contributor and publisher of Slo Mo magazine, Carlton Hargro.

Between Ahmad's original WCLK-FM show "S.O.U.L." (Sounds of Universal Love) - which pumped a weekly diet of UK soul, drum 'n' bass and acid jazz from 1995 to 2005 - to his involvement as co-founder of defunct indie label Groovement Collective (which introduced listeners to India.Arie, Donnie, and others), Ahmad is a large part of the reason why Atlanta's soul scene took over the world stage in the 2000s.

In 2007, Jamal Ahmad left the station when WCLK attempted - and failed - at implementing a smooth jazz format. His return earned him Best Drive-Time Radio DJ accolades in Creative Loafing in 2008 and the AJC in 2009.

Since the station switched to its smooth jazz format on Monday, Ahmad's 3 p.m.-6 p.m. S.O.U.L. of Jazz slot has been watered down to resemble something akin to Smooth Jazz 107.5 (WJZZ-FM) - a former Atlanta station which fizzled out five years ago due its reliance on a smooth R&B and light jazz format that "has died across the country, partly because it was considered background music and the listeners were not engaged to the music or the advertisers," Ho writes.

If anything, the format switch shows how desperate WCLK is to increase its operating budget, which heavily relies on membership donations. The station's current listener-to-member ratio is about 100,000 to 1,900 - that's less than 2 percent. Last year, the station increased its signal, which in turn boosted its coverage area by 40 percent. Through listener research, the station determined that it needed to narrow its scope. By cutting out a lot of it's classic jazz programming from the '50s and '60s, WCLK hopes to offer a more contemporary sound, including such artists as Peter White, Jeff Lorber, and Gerald Albright, Williams told the AJC.

But the station's most contemporary music - such as nu soul from the likes of Australian group Hiatus Kaiyote, Swedish group Quadron, and British soul heavyweight Omar - has traditionally come from Ahmad's S.O.U.L. slot. The format change applies to the rest of the station's weekday jocks, too, including Morris Baxter, Riva Blue, and Debb Moore.

If anything, it sounds like Williams' new approach is over-the-hill, not the DJ-selected format. The AJC posted a comment on WCLK's Facebook page that echoes that exact sentiment:

From J. Scott Fugate:
Something the station will soon learn - something I learned as a smooth jazz station manager - smooth jazz listeners are PASSIVE, they want background music, white noise that doesn't disturb them. They don't engage, don't pay attention to the music, don't know the artists . . . and they DON''T become members. They also don't listen to advertisements - that's why the format died, that's why labels stopped pushing the format.

WCLK is five years behind the curve.

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