Cue the sax: Rick O’Dell launches SmoothJazzChicago.net
Rick O’Dell, who’s been the signature voice of smooth jazz radio in Chicago for more than 25 years, just launched a free 24/7 streaming digital station devoted to the mellow music format he helped pioneer.
Premiering online and on mobile devices Monday, SmoothJazzChicago.net fills a void for the estimated 500,000 smooth jazz fans who were disenfranchised last April when Venture Technologies dropped the genre after three years from the former WLFM-LP (87.7). Smooth jazz previously aired for 22 years on Clear Channel’s WNUA-FM (95.5).
O’Dell, 53, who doubled as program director and midday personality at both WLFM and WNUA, will serve as the new digital station’s first on-air personality, occupying his familiar slot from 9am to 3pm Monday through Friday. He’ll draw on a personal collection of more than 4,000 CDs, one of the largest music libraries of smooth jazz in the world.
“I wanted to build a digital station that resembled a traditional terrestrial radio station in ways that mattered to listeners,” O’Dell said. “Familiar personalities hosting the music, locally relevant elements such as weather updates, contests and giveaways, requests and dedications, a playlist that didn’t reflect global tastes as much as local tastes — Chicago's tastes — and, most important of all, available free of charge.”
It’s the crowning career achievement for O’Dell, a lifelong Chicagoan and graduate of Lyons Township High School and the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. While working at the former adult contemporary WCLR, he created and hosted a Sunday morning showcase of light jazz and what was then called “new age” music. Six months later, WNUA hit the air with a full-time smooth jazz format and soon thereafter hired O’Dell as music director and midday host. He's been synonymous with the genre ever since.
In a blog post over the weekend, O'Dell recalled the format's origins, crediting Frank Cody of Broadcast Architecture with inventing it from scratch. "He created a category of music I found I adored and into which I’ve happily poured my passion and dedication the past 25 years," O'Dell wrote. "And, by coming up with the smooth jazz format, he gave me the opportunity to enjoy a career in radio that has exceeded my grandest dreams."
On the eve of SmoothJazzChicago's launch, O’Dell reflected on how far he’s come and where the beloved format he introduced to his hometown is headed:
Q. When you first started the Sunday Brunch at WCLR in February 1987, did you ever imagine it would lead to your own 24/7 station more than 25 years later?
A. What I find unusual is that I was lucky enough to be around for every stage in the life cycle of the smooth jazz format on terrestrial radio. How often does one get to do that? I was part of the first smooth jazz show on Chicago radio. I was also there at the end, 25 years later, at what is likely the last station in Chicago to do the format full-time, WLFM. Not too long ago, Bill Cochran commented to me: “Everything in your career seems to have led to this point, doing the whole thing by yourself now.” He's right, but it's not a career path I'd recommend — as you get deeper into your career, having your workload increase incrementally and your paycheck decrease incrementally at every step.
Q. Time and again you've shown there's a large and loyal audience for smooth jazz. But if Rick O'Dell has given up on terrestrial radio, then it must be hopeless, right?
A. I never gave up on terrestrial radio. Terrestrial radio gave up on the format. It was mainly because of the [Arbitron] Portable People Meter. No other format was as materially altered — and ultimately wounded — by the PPM as smooth jazz. Take a look at what's available on the dial right now. There are over 30 viable radio frequencies in Chicago with lots of sound-alike formats. Not a single one of those 30 stations showed any interest in doing smooth jazz full-time even though WLFM had over 500,000 listeners in its final month. Essentially, PPM scared them off. And I got tired of making phone calls to people who could do something about it but wouldn't. I decided I couldn't wait for a miracle to happen.
Q. You've said Chicago listeners' tastes are different from the rest of the country when it comes to smooth jazz. How so?
A. If you traveled around the country back when the format was at its peak and listened to what other stations were doing, you'd notice right away that the energy, the tempo and the soulfulness of WNUA were missing. For 20 years at WNUA I kept hearing from people in the industry — and listeners — that WNUA was able to capture the unique vibe of Chicago perfectly. [Clear Channel programmer] Darren Davis put it best, I think, when he told me that whenever he'd return to Chicago from a business trip, he didn't feel as though he was truly home until he'd be riding in on the Kennedy and see the city skyline come into view with WNUA playing in the cab. The skyline, Lake Shore Drive, Navy Pier, the city neighborhoods — somehow they all seemed to come alive with the music of WNUA.
Q. Since your new channel will be free to listeners, will your business model depend on advertiser support? Special events? Other revenue sources?
A. We're trying to bring everything related to smooth jazz in Chicago under one umbrella, so it can be marketed and promoted to the fullest and enjoyed by the greatest number of people. Our business model will depend mostly on advertiser support but will also generate cash flow from concerts and events. From concert booking and promotion to artist representation to event programming and marketing to radio, we can accomplish much more as a group than by working individually. Smooth jazz and jazz in general are on shaky ground. We can't afford to all be going in different directions.
Q. In addition to reviving your Sunday Brunch and Chicago Music shows, your station will feature two of your longtime Chicago colleagues, Bill Cochran and Scott Adams, and Patti Genko from Milwaukee. Any other surprises we can expect?
A. I want to grow the station by adding local personalities and several other signature weekend shows within the format, and I'd like to try and push the boundaries a bit musically, especially on the weekend.
Q. I know I've asked you this before, but who's your favorite smooth jazz artist?
A. David Benoit for his grace and elegance, Dave Koz for the fact that he knows how to put on a show!
Q. Tell the truth: Have you ever played the saxophone?
A. I took piano lessons as a kid and played the trombone for two years. Ten minutes in, if I'd have been more honest with myself and my folks, I wouldn't have wasted all our time. I had no talent. I've got a decent pair of ears, though, and I think I'm a fair judge of what sounds good.