The BLOG: Culture

To hear “jazz-plus” on radio, tune in to WICN

It’s Saturday morning, and one of the few signs of life on Portland Street in downtown Worcester is the sound of big-band jazz from radio station WICN, 90.5 FM, pouring out onto the sidewalk from a fortress-like structure known as The Printer’s Building.

Fifty Portland Street boasts thick pillars and 14-inch-thick cement floors, built strong to stand the test of time and to withstand the weight of the heavy printing presses that took up much of the floor space after it was built in 1923.

It’s fitting that this anachronistic structure houses what in itself is a bit of an anachronism. WICN, known as “Jazz+ for New England,” is one of the few radio stations in New England – or anywhere in the United States, for that matter – whose playlist still primarily consists of jazz and related music.

WICN-FM Interim General Manager Tom Lucci (Courtesy of WICN-FM)

WICN-FM interim general manager Tom Lucci (Courtesy of WICN-FM)

On this particular Saturday morning, on-air host Howard Caplan is playing his weekly “Tribute to the Rat Pack,” a half-dozen tunes recorded in the 1950s and 1960s by Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

This Rat Pack six-pack isn’t exactly mainstream, hardcore jazz, but it is a fairly close cousin – tunes from the Great American Songbook, sung by crooners backed by big bands. At WICN, the “plus” in “Jazz+” stands for mainstream jazz’s fellow travelers:  swing, smooth jazz, great American songbook, rhythm& blues, bossa nova and Latin.

Many members of WICN’s audience are jazz fans but aren’t necessarily dyed-in-the-wool purists, says interim general manager Tom Lucci, who also is a host of the Jazz Standards show.

“A lot of our listeners are curious about the music and what we do,” he said. “They’re people who are willing to go on the exploration with us.

“We see our mission as putting together unique listening experiences. We’re trying to play music of the best quality that will go together, even if it’s not immediately obvious that it does. We’re trying to engage our listeners.”

To that end, WICN, which was never exclusively jazz, has further broadened its mix of music in the last couple of years.

Michelle Willson, who hosts the morning drive-time show The Blend, has moved from several days a week to every weekday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., serving up a blend of jazz, R&B, and some contemporary hits. Bonnie Johnson takes up a prominent weekend time-slot with The Colors of Jazz, which often features smooth jazz.

You might hear some rock, and you’ll definitely hear new jazz releases on Jazz Highways, the morning show hosted by Brian Barlow, a former station general manager who was a driving force  several years ago in moving the station to its present location and upgrading its equipment to better serve its audience.

Evenings feature new age on Sunday, soul on Monday, bluegrass on Tuesday, Americana on Wednesday, folk on Thursday, Latin on Friday, and blues, boogie and jump on Saturday.

But jazz is still the main course at WICN, and among the station’s biggest draws are long-time on-air hosts such as Al Dean and Joe Slezik, who cart in boxes of CDs and LPs from their personal collections – recordings that can’t be heard elsewhere because they’re out of print.

HOW TO LISTEN

WICN’s signal reaches from roughly the edge of Springfield in the west, to I-95 in the east. Those who want to listen farther out can stream the station live from its website or go to the website to download an app for smartphone or tablet.

HOW TO SUPPORT JAZZ ON AIR

WICN is a public radio station, and as such relies mostly on listener donations and corporate sponsorships to stay in operation. The station, which is accredited by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and is part of National Public Radio, holds on-air fund raisers four times a year, with the next one running December 5 through December 11. (Full disclosure: This correspondent frequently donates his time to help raise funds on-air during the drives.)

To donate during the on-air fund drives (or any other time) call 855-752-0700 or contribute securely online at www.wicn.org.

Tom Nutile

Tom Nutile

Tom Nutile can be reached at [email protected]

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