As the lone "jazz guy" at a primarily classical station, DJ Lenny Mazel enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. He presented concerts by the likes of James Moody and David "Fathead" Newman at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, did the midnight-to-6 shift for "insomniacs and taxi drivers" five nights a week for seven years and, until recently, hosted two Saturday jazz shows, Sunrise Serenade and Night Train. Counting his first seven years at KRCC, he'd racked up 25 years in broadcasting by the time KCME general manager Jeanna Wearing called him in this past March to tell him he was being dismissed.
Wearing cites marketing studies conducted over the past 18 months to back the move to an all-classical format. But Mazel got the feeling Wearing "wanted to get rid of jazz" ever since she came on board in 1995.
"She doesn't like jazz, she doesn't know jazz, she doesn't respect it, appreciate it, love it, all those things that I do," says the 55-year-old DJ. "There's been a jazz presence on the station ever since it was founded. And I would have been perfectly happy to do this for another 20 years or so."
In addition to complaints from local fans, Mazel's dismissal has spawned a protest being organized by musician Alessandro Salimbeni for 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 17, outside the station's 1921 N. Weber St. studio. Even Joseph A. Reich, president of KCME's board of directors, expressed his disappointment during an interview with the Independent last week.
"I had this idea I won't go so far as to say a vision but why not dare to be different? Why do we have to be like KVOD?" says Reich, referring to the station's Denver-based classical competitor. "For 25 years, we were classical and jazz. And we had one of the finest DJs that I've ever heard, Lenny Mazel, who has got a wealth of knowledge. But I didn't get that idea put into motion or accepted."
Reich says the vote to eliminate jazz led one board member to resign. Another who'd left in response to a previous vote to retain jazz is now back.
"There's 168 hours in the week, and if you've already got 156 of them, how can you not be satisfied?" asks Mazel. "To begrudge the jazz audience their 12 hours, to me, is just selfish. And at the same time that KCME has eliminated its 12 hours of jazz, KRCC is down to two hours a week, which is not really serving the area."
Chasing two hares
Wearing acknowledges the controversy surrounding the decision, but maintains that the change, which went into effect March 22, was necessary to serve the station's core classical audience.
"The jazz people are very passionate about their art, and I'm very sorry to disappoint them," she says. "But you can't chase two hares at once."
Asked how jazz programming stacked up against classical in terms of ratings, Wearing says she doesn't have the numbers at her fingertips and suggests calling Peter Dominowski, the radio consultant hired by KCME. He estimates the average Saturday morning jazz audience over the past five years at 7,700 people, as compared to the station's total weekly audience of "well over 50,000." He and Wearing (who eliminated the overnight jazz shifts back in 1998) maintain that neither popularity nor individual preferences spurred the changeover.
"The whole decision about programming at a public radio station and certainly about jazz here at KCME is not about whether any one particular person likes jazz or not I know I like jazz or whether jazz is important music or worthwhile music of course it is, no question or whether the programming on KCME that involved jazz was done well or not that's not really part of the consideration," says Dominowski. "A radio station simply doesn't have the luxury of acting on personal opinion. We have the responsibility to try to determine what's going to be in the best interest of most of our listeners, most of the time."
Dominowski, who recently moved from Florida to the Boulder area, dismisses the dearth of jazz programming in town by insisting the music is readily available via satellite and cable radio. He also dismisses the fact that neither of those is free or local.
"What is really local about someone in City A selecting a jazz performance by Dexter Gordon, and someone in Colorado Springs selecting that performance off of a CD? I'm not sure that there is a huge difference, in reality."
Upcoming protest notwithstanding, this may all be moot. Prompted by Reich, the station recently gave its jazz collection, some 10,000 CDs, over to Mazel, who hauled them to his Palmer Park-area house in his VW bus.
"They're all on the shelves, just like they were at the station library," says Mazel.
It's a nice consolation prize, he adds, "but I would much rather these CDs were at the station right now, and I was coming in Saturday to play them."