There are music historians who profess that Jazz is America’s only native art form. They will get no argument from me. To understand the state of Jazz in America today, I’ll recount a story I read a few years ago in a local newspaper.
The f.y.e. (For Your Entertainment) store in a nearby mall received complaints that adult videos were being openly displayed on shelves where they could be easily viewed by minors or other customers who might be offended by their content. The solution? Move them next to the Jazz section, because, as the manger explained, “Hardly anybody ever goes back there.” The sad thing was that the statement was true. How can it be that there is not one 24-hour Jazz station in New York City? It has not always been so. Once upon a time there was a shining beacon of Jazz in New York that went by the call letters WRVR.
The station had a history deeply rooted in the community surrounding Riverside Church in upper Manhattan, where it broadcast hard-core Jazz for over 17 years, before moving to Woodside, Queens and updating its format to include more crossover styles of Jazz and jazz-related music. The philosophy was that the new format would appeal to a larger audience while exposing them to more traditional styles of Jazz.
For those of us who became fans of the station, we were immensely loyal, but the hybrid never grew the audience needed to make the station financially viable, so without warning, at 12:00 P.M. on September 8, 1980 Jazz station WRVR became country station WKHK. Like every other fan, my car and home radios were locked into WRVR, so when they mysteriously disappeared, I desperately twisted and turned the dial trying to figure out WTF was going on. The station was deluged with calls from irate listeners. WKHK which went by the name Kick-FM, sure felt like a kick in the ass to the abandoned fans of WRVR.
The departure left a huge void for Jazz fans. For several years WJAZ in Stamford, CT broadcast Jazz 24 hours, frequently hosted by bassist Rick Petrone. WBGO in Newark, NJ is still broadcasting and comes closest in style and mission to the Riverside Church broadcasts. The emergence of the smooth jazz format brought CD101.9 to the New York market and its playlist was representative of some of the crossover artists you might find on WRVR during the years they broadcast out of Woodside, but it lacked the personality and edge of my beloved station and was a bit too formulaic for my taste. However, if you were a fan, and miss the station, it’s now available streaming here:
To get a flavor of the WRVR sound, you can search for audio clips or clones on the various streaming services. Here is a sample playlist:
As great as the music was, the deejays at WRVR were a big part of the emotional connection with the New York audience. The names at the bottom of the program list, Herschel, G. Keith Alexander, Batt Johnson, and especially the signature voice of the station, Les Davis, were true characters. They were funny, dedicated to the music, and genuinely loved their work and their listeners.
I still hold out hope for the resurgence of Jazz as popular music in America, and for an environment to spawn the WRVR for future generations of Jazz fans.
Loved the write-up. Came here to find a good WRVR story page to link to in a July George Benson post. Having poked around at WRVR it seems like it deserves it’s own write-up. I’ll be researching and writing over the summer. In the meantime, I’ve just mentioned WRVR in this https://www.ctproduced.com/kwame-brathwaite/
Does anyone know if the station manager, Robert Orenbach was the same Robert Orenback bankrupted in the Madoff scandal/crimes?
Sorry I missed this Mark. I’m a huge George Benson fan as well and will check out your links. I have some ideas for the future look and function of this blog, but I’m grateful when fans of the old WRVR, like you, stop by.
Can anyone tell me if and during what time period did Wrvr play the Shadow radio program. I remember listening to the show at 12 midnight on either a Friday or Saturday night. I don’t remember exactly what years it was on. Thanks
Are you talking about rebroadcast of vintage The Shadow radio programs? “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
I found one reference to a rebroadcast on the old WRVR when the station was still based in Riverside Church. ‘RVR hosted a series of old-time radio broadcasts in the early ’70’s. Here’s a link to the original NY Times article:
I remember the demise of WRVR all too well, as I was running a scrap metal processing machine every day, all day, seemingly forever, listening to RVR to keep me sane, and when I came back from lunch break at noon on a Monday in 1980, the station was missing. It was replaced by some irritating caterwauling. I spent the next few days in disbelief, though for a day or two some familiar DJs were announcing the wrong music with an obvious economy of words. I even went to the Save WRVR concert in NYC (I remember Lenny White played).
I started listening to RVR as a kid in the 60’s in CT, and clearly remember Ed Beach on my dad’s single-channel “Hi-Fi” that he built in the 50’s with 807 beam tetrode transmitter tubes for the output. I was one of only a handful of kids in high school who was into it, and my clock radio was even set to that station.
Rick Petrone did his best after the demise of the station with a start-up station in CT, but it never really caught fire. Smooth jazz is also not my thing (CD101?). I found WBGO when I moved to NJ for 8 years, but have since discovered WGMC 90.1FM up here in Rochester, NY. GMC is the closest thing to RVR I’ve ever heard. Started in 1971, they upgraded the transmitter and antenna a couple of years since moving here 20 years ago. Member supported, but not NPR, so no non-music programming and almost no news. Very professionally run, and definitely no commercials. And they play a lot of music when it’s fundraising time so it’s not just a constant beg-a-thon (yes, I donate).
Just straight-ahead jazz, with some specialty shows on the weekends during the day (Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, etc.). But other than that, it’s 24/7 jazz. And they stream it, so when I move again, I’ll still be able to get it.
I still miss RVR, but at least there are a few solid alternatives these days. Sorry for the sales pitch (just a member; no other affiliation), but I’m surprised nobody mention them.
Thank for putting this station out there! Im listening now on their livestream, very nice! It seems like they have 2 streams; one for Smooth Jazz and another for straight ahead and other types of jazz. I think more RVR fans should know about this station, for real!
Great time capsule. I well remember building a tube receiver in radio shop. I followed your same path after ‘RVR abandoned its jazz programming, first discovering Rick Petrone on WJAZ in Stamford, CT. I went on a couple of WJAZ sponsored jazz cruises out of Captain’s Cove in Bridgeport and I think also from Westport. Rick was a bassist as well and performed around the area during this time. He was very knowledgeable about jazz and easy to reach by phone during his show. I owe him an apology for a smart-ass call I made to comment on one particular musical selection I didn’t care for.
“Hello, what’s that you’re playing right now?”
“That’s Claire Fisher”
“You consider that jazz?”
“Obviously you don’t. You need to do your homework.”
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered how off-base my comment was. Turns out Claire Fisher was responsible for the orchestral arrangements on the iconic Rufus albums from the ’70’s, arrangements that created the aura that showcased Chaka Khan’s immense vocal talent.
Sadly, WJAZ did not last long, and for me CD101.9 came up short. I gave your WGMC a listen and it featured some nice jazz guitar. Definitely worth a listen for old fans of ‘RVR.
1979. It was my First trip to NY. Knowing that I love jazz, my ny friends ok introduced me to WRVR and I got Crazy. As I lived in Rio, where there was no jazz radio station at all, I have decided to Record 2 áudio cassete tapes of their programs. Well, I still have these 2 treasures with me. And I listen to them everytime I longe for that time.
Cris, I find it unbelievable that there wasn’t a single jazz station in Rio. I mean within the country that blessed us with Jobim and Gilberto, the bossa nova and the samba, Airto and Flora Purim? Then again, we still don’t have a fulltime Jazz station in NYC, Columbia University’s WKCR notwithstanding.
Better transfer those tapes to CD or digital files before you wear them out. Thanks for sharing your fond memories of WRVR.
Here’s a link to a WRVR-like Pandora Station. It’s not perfect, but it sometimes its starts to feels like the real thing. (I do miss it so!)
Thanks for the link Jeff. I also discovered a playlist on Pandora put together by another fan of the old station. Any fan of jazz is a friend of mine. It’s important to keep the music alive.
It’s impossible to recreate the ‘RVR vibe without the original on-air personalities and connection to that place in time. As noted in another post, these days I’m a big fan of WBGO streaming out of Newark.
I was so bummed out when I turned on WRVR and it had suddenly -without warning – become a country station
RTF was replaced by ‘WTF’
Did WRVR play commercials?
Yes, it was a commercial radio station. You can hear some of the old commercials on the Joe Bev feeds entitled “Hour of Jazz” found elsewhere on this blog.
Thanks, I was listening to a R2R tape I have of the station but whoever recorded it must have, quite smoothly, removed the commercials.
Would you be willing to share the old recording on YouTube?
While every other teenager was listening to WKTU, I woke up to Les Davis. I don’t know why I did, but he formed the basis of the music I’ve been listening to ever since. If I hadn’t stumbled onto that station, my ears would not have opened to all that great music.
Paco on 92 WKTU…Paco Navarro was legendary in his own right when Disco was king. He passed away last year.
Les Davis retired a few months ago and leaves a huge void for those who loved his style and place in Jazz broadcasting history. Glad to hear he influenced you in a positive way Joe. Thanks for the memories.
Woke up in disbelief on September 9, 1980 to Les Davis announcing a Dolly Parton song.
The whole switch was handled in such a bizarre and abrupt fashion. Haul away all of the jazz albums, change the musical format on the fly, and retain the DJ’s.
Thanks for stopping by to share your experience Andrew.
Yeah, same thing happened to me. Only it must have been a different time in the morning, as my clock radio clicks on, and I hear Les Davis say, “and here’s one from Johnny Cash.” I’m glad you recall the date. All I remember is it was the weekend, and it was surreal.
Surreal is such an understatement. It felt like a funeral of a dear friend and no one told you they had passed. My heart sank and they way it was done, in my opinion, was very unprofessional, considering the huge fan base at the time. I think a bit of a warning would have been nice.
I nostalgically laughed when you mentioned the frantic searching for the station after it was ceremoniously decapitated literally overnight. It was late 70’s I believe. That was the only station I had my car tuned into.! When I heard Country music playing I too thought somehow the WRVR station had drifted off and I would just tune it back in and be back to normal. When I eventually found out about the overnite ‘massacre’ I was truly broken. As others have said who were regular listeners there was nothing else like it. And for a place like New York Oh shame! to be devoid of a jazz station…well, lets just leave it at that. I did buy one of their Jazz Station Tee shirts that appeared with their famous motto Jazz The Proud Sound Of American Music” It was a powdered blue color and I think I wore it till the moths had their fill of it. But yeah listening to all the genres of Jazz was special and such a joy. I remember the likes of Angela Bofill who had such an incredible voice or Anita Baker and other great ladies of jazz. Of course the DJ’s really carried the day and made the experience of listening to RVR more enjoyable. And the interviews they had with popular jazz artists. What a joy that station was. Im 72 now and still love jazz but WRVR will always live on in my mind even though its been long gone!
Thanks for visiting and sharing your memories Elliot. I had forgotten about the interviews with jazz artists that were popular at the time. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Angela Bofill, and dedicated a separate post to her, and to some of the other “great ladies of jazz” and R&B.
I highly recommend giving WBGO a listen.
The station is keeping classic jazz alive while promoting current and new artists. I really enjoy the “Saturday Rhythm Revue” with Felix Hernandez, and “Evening Jazz” hosted by Nicole Sweeney.
Poison21, thanks for the tip. I will definitely give it a try! Elliot
Dug RVR so much that I launched RVRJazz.com several years back. Unfortunately it only lasted a year and I had to close it down. I played everything from Jean-Luc Ponty to Miles and Weather Report to Coltrane. Seems like Snarky Puppy is one of the few bands that reminds me of back then. If anyone is looking for a program director – contact me. email@example.com
I bet every fan of WRVR has thought about recreating the station in one form or another. Were there legal or copyright laws that forced you to close down RVRJazz.com? How was your “station” structured? I’ve researched podcasts to create canned content, but any prerecorded music that can be downloaded is a no-no. Streaming is an option, and if you use a reputable service, licensing is part of the cost structure, but it can be a bit costly for the casual hobbyist. I think I should open up the conversation in a post to get some feedback and suggestions from other fans of WRVR. Thanks for stopping by Will, and for the nod to Snarky Puppy. I’ll give them a listen…
There are plenty of internet radio Jazz stations dedicated to all genres of jazz, but I think for the sake of crossing into all sphere’s of radio and listening, jazz needs to make a comeback to commercial radio for those who enjoy it and are willing to invest in it.
For those of a certain age that still listen to Felix Hernandez, which I know is a totally different genre of music, I know those folks love jazz just the same and know jazz just the same
I love “Rhythm Revue” as well. Grew up on that music.
King Felix is a pretty good pitcher, but seriously, I think Felix Hernandez goes back to the “Salsa Meets Jazz” series at the Village Gate and, along with Rhonda Hamilton, represents a lot of broadcast hours at WBGO.
@poison21 Same here 🙂 I really enjoy listening to his show on Saturday mornings and Tony Ryan on Saturday nights. Really takes me back! Felix and Tony both have Facebook pages for their shows, great group of people there, although I no longer indulge on Facebook any longer, but the group pages are fun
A friend’s father was an avid listener to WRVR back in the 1960s. He apparently taped their shows and then cataloged them. The tapes have long disapeared but the catalog exists.
The American Archive of Public Broadcasting is doing the same thing on a larger scale. Please see the details here: https://americanarchivepb.wordpress.com/2018/02/08/historic-wrvr-fm-archives-to-be-digitized-preserved-and-made-available-in-the-american-archive-of-public-broadcasting/
I was luck for having the chance of recording, in 1980, 2 cassetes tape of the music played at this beloved nyc jazz radio station. I will try do provide it for my friends who miss that jazz station as much as I do. I recorded it in july and 2 months later it disapeared.
It’s not clear from your comment. Do you still have tapes of the show from 1980?
I still have cassette tapes of WRVR which I used to take with me when I was travelling , that’s how hooked up I was .
I could have write this article , I was so panicked and lost when the station came off the air !
Thanks for writing this blog.
I have some ideas for future posts, and sharing your old recordings would be special. Do you have a way to transfer to digital format, say mp3, to upload to YouTube, or similar, so I can include in future posts? Let me know if you’re interested.
Loved RVR. Ed Beach, the stations historian was my fave. BGO is a bit too slick for me. Although it isn’t 24/7, WKCR at 89.9 is IMO, has the best jazz programming in NYC. At least 10 hours of jazz daily and the national treasure Phil Schaap. No other station has 24 hour annual Birthday broadcasts (16 currently). No advertising or corporate sponsorship and infrequent fund raising. The BEST!
I’ve listened to WKCR, which broadcasts from Columbia University, but I had forgotten about it because of the limited broadcast area. I see they stream, so will definitely give them a listen. Thanks Peter, and thanks for your comments.
Right now they are having the annual Bach Fest which is 24/7 Bach through the end of the year. So if one tunes in now it will appear to be a classical station.
I tuned in and heard pipe organ, which was a little too Baroque for my taste. WKCR is on New Year’s resolution list.
And jazz radio is losing another name – i just read on one of the boards that the great Les Davis retiring after tomorrow night’s show on Sirius-XM Real Jazz 67 – the end of an era 😦
Les Davis was one of the signature voices of ‘RVR. 😦
Thanks for stopping by Andrea, to share your thoughts on our beloved station.
I was listening to RVR exclusively by 11th yr. of H.S. on L.I. NY. It was my entree to “jazz” and their heavy reliance/rotation of fusion artists and product served as a great transition platform for a kid who’d previously been heavy into disco and related dance music. I’m a huge WBGO fan and booster; it’s essentially the only radio I listen to outside of the occasional obligatory visit to 1010 WINS. WRVR came under a lot of criticism in its heyday for the type “jazz” they played; many didn’t consider it jazz at all. I didn’t quite understand the criticism at the time, but some decades later, I get it. It was OK for what it was during its run. WBGO has done exemplary work in filling the void and advancing the form.
Time has given me perspective as well, and we come from a similar starting point. Before WRVR, for me it was Frankie Crocker on WBLS. WBGO is the current standard by which all jazz stations should be measured. I too understand the criticism of the style of jazz presented by RVR, but it was miles ahead of the “smooth jazz” programming later found on CD101.9 and other stations of its ilk. I loved the Crusaders, Return To Forever, Weather Report, and many other cross-over artists featured on the station, as much as I did Cannonball Adderley, Miles, Monk, Trane, Les McCaan & Eddie Harris, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and so many others. I’m pleased that there are still so many fans of the old station. Thanks for stopping by to share your insights, Siddiq.
I have to dissent 🙂 – ‘BGO may be the station that is STILL holding up the standard after all these years – BUT it was WRVR that showed radio programmers the RIGHT way to do jazz radio (‘QCD failed miserably) – anybody remember Roger (aka Rogelio) Dawson’s Sunday Latin jazz show on ‘RVR?
You are preaching to the choir–nothing has ever replaced WRVR, or even come close in my opinion, which explains why after nearly 40 years, so many fans still miss the station. It also explains why I’m so obsessed with trying to keep its memory alive. I paid homage to the Sunday Salsa Show in a separate post. Check it out: https://foursquaremiles.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/wrvr-jazz-sunday-salsa-show/
I have a reel to reel tape of a lady DJ doing the complete Mothers of Invention album called Absolutely Free. I’m in the process of converting it to digital format. I am slow in checking my email.
When was the original broadcast? What station?
It’s really a shame a Jazz format is not anywhere on the FM dial 24/7 that is anywhere near to WRVR or CD101.9. I think the problem is many appreciate the sound but don’t show it in donations, which stations like those needed to stay alive. I truly believe someone will open a station and devote it to a Jazz format, which would be beautiful to keep the genre alive, thriving and enjoyable for those that miss it and want it
WRVR and CD101.9 were commercial stations, so their demise was due to poor ratings. WBGO in Newark is public radio. Highly recommend giving it a listen. Thanks for your comment Inga!
I’m sorry thats right, they were commercial stations. I listen to WBGO a lot now as that seems thats all thats left nowadays.
WBGO has gained some momentum the past few years with its web presence, and the programming is diverse and very solid. They are carrying the torch for us devotees of great music.
Yes, I love Nicole Sweeney! When she’s on I’m guaranteed to hear something from back in the day!
in the case of both stations, it was not just the ratings – it was, I believe, the demographics had changed to the point that it wasn’t economically feasible for either station to sustain any kind of ratings or financial success in the jazz market – thank God for ‘BGO! (ps – and jazz is traditionally a radio format that skews older demographically – radio minds usually write off anybody over age 40 – i’m 59…. 🙂 )
I’m sure you’re correct that it wasn’t just about the ratings; the decision to change formats and drop jazz was hasty and misguided for many reasons. We are contemporaries, which means we represented the largest demographic group at the time. Teens and 20-somethings bought a lot of records, but the station also attracted an older audience which had more disposable income and should have appealed to sponsors of big-ticket items like cars and appliances.
I have an original reel to reel audition tape from 1974 if anyone is interested.
Is it your audition, or one of the deejays from the station? Do you want to send it to me in digital format to post on my blog?
I was 14 when it happened.
I was crushed. I live in Newburgh NY, 60 miles north of NYC so at that time it was my only source of this music and culture. My older brother and I and some of his friends went to a “Save WRVR” Concert at Carnegie Hall. Bob James, Patty Austin, and a long list of other great players in the band. It was a magical event for me.
Too bad it didn’t work!
Could there have been so few of us who cared, because it seemed like there were a lot of people passionate about WRVR. It was a moment in time that has never been recreated. Thanks for reaching out and sharing Eric.
When I was in middle school, my family moved to Pennsylvania. The first radio station I found was WJJZ 106.1. I still remember their station jingle, and to this day, whenever I hear jazz, it takes me back to being 12 or 13 years old, meeting new friends, and learning a new place.
Sounds like you enjoyed the music too. Thanks for sharing.
I loved WRVR. If I could start a radio station myself, it would sound an awful lot like WRVR. Thanks.