WRVR was on to something. The hasty decision to abandon ship, after painstaking research and experimentation, remains a mystery nearly forty years later. WRVR’s popularity and loyal following was well noted by WBGO, and when jazz suddenly vanished from 106.7 FM, on September 8, 1980, the fledgling public radio station seized the opportunity to fill the void, and expanded from part-time to around-the-clock broadcasting. The bold and fortuitous decision enabled WBGO to emerge as the leader in jazz programming in the greater NYC market, while WRVR was reduced to a footnote in radio history.
Although few New York listeners seem aware of it, WBGO has been providing intelligent, challenging jazz programming for a year and a half. Though jazz had been well established at the station, round-the-clock programming had not been tried.
”I was in Washington attending an important meeting the day WRVR went off the air,” Albert Pryor, WBGO’s program director, recalled. ”But when I heard the news, I caught the first plane back to Newark, and we made the decision that day to go on the air around the clock. That same night at 1 A.M. I went on the air and did our first all night shift.”
The reckless actions of that fateful day in New York radio history were at odds with the thoughtful approach that led to the programming recipe book that WRVR utilized at its Woodside studio. The WRVR secret sauce, which was the brainchild of program manager Dennis Waters, consisted of an equal mix of traditional jazz, progressive jazz, and R&B inspired fusion jazz that Waters named the Triple-Z format. He brought a Top-40 sensibility to jazz programming developed during his tenue at WKTQ in Pittsburgh. Waters’ strategy included bringing popular DJ Herschel Venezie along with him. Herschel became one of the most popular voices at WRVR, and was soon named co-music director of the station in November, 1979.
Researchers Morris Holbrook and Douglas Holloway later reached out to Waters, and to listeners via questionnaires, to gain a better understanding of the thought process that went into WRVR’s programming strategy. From the data collected in those responses, they developed a matrix of Commercial vs. Purist, and Familiar vs. Esoteric jazz artists which formulated the ‘RVR playlists. My eyes glazed over a bit from some of the details of how the matrix was created, but the finished product is eye-opening and clearly shows the “circular pattern” used by the station to incorporate all styles into each hour of programming, without alienating one single group of listeners.
The strategy of the team from Pittsburgh was validated by strong ratings, until the sale of the station by Sonderling to Viacom. Listeners be damned! WRVR was no more, but the path paved by the ill-fated station led to the current success of WBGO.
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