Jazz has always been a jumbled fruit basket of musical artistry, both in its performance and in its perception. To some people, jazz represents the most American of the musical arts, embodying an exhilarating and maddening variety of styles and cultures, typical of America itself. To others jazz is doggerel, a lowbrow collection of disjointed sounds without a grander purpose. Whatever one's perspective, however, it cannot be denied that the arrival of a strong jazz scene often heralds the transformation of a sleepy city into something larger, something more metropolitan, something more sophisticated. Jazz is a refreshing and potent mixer for a city-cocktail of nightlife, cafes, performance venues and artistic expression.
Enter WSHA-FM (88.9 FM). No entity has nurtured and shepherded the local jazz sound more than the college radio station of Shaw University. For 15 years, this small station has featured strong programming in jazz, blues and cultural and heritage music. For many Triangle citizens, both native and transplanted, the station has been a welcome alternative to the array of rock-lite, adult contemporary, and teen-pop stations that fill the local airwaves with play-listed fare. WSHA has for many years presented a home-spun yet sophisticated sound that has truly become one of the area's cultural jewels.
WSHA was founded in 1968, and concentrated mainly on R&B programming. Then in 1987, the station changed its focus to jazz. Currently, five full-time employees and 20 active volunteers work diligently to keep this sound alive from 6 a.m. through 1 a.m. weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends. Jazz programming is included in a healthy mix that includes blues, gospel, heritage music and community service programs.
This last component of their programming is particularly significant considering the relative lack thereof on other stations of the dial. Youth programs include "Live Wire" and "Youth Voice Raleigh" talk shows. Local issues and information are discussed in weekly shows like "Traces of Faces and Places," hosted by Margaret Rose Murray. And WSHA is unique in its coverage of local arts and heritage events, such as Artsplosure. While the sound of the station's jazz is definitely cosmopolitan, the overall flavor of the station never strays from the local.
"The mission of WSHA is to serve the Triangle community as no other station does, with jazz, information, cultural, educational and global programming," says Dr. Emeka Emekauwa, general manager. This philosophy is echoed by the staff and volunteers. "We're trying to constantly put the station back into the hands of the community," says Ohtha "Big O" Chavis, who hosts the popular show "The Blues is the Blues is the Blues." "It's all about the music, but at the same time it's about the community. That's why we try to give them what they want to hear, without playlists, without advertisements. We try to educate our listeners as well as entertain them."
This approach must work. WSHA boasts a growing audience of enthusiastic listeners, including many young people who enjoy this alternative to commercial radio. Listeners to the stations webcast have called in from around the country and the world, from as far away as New Zealand. Now, as other jazz stations are proposed in the Triangle and existing stations consider the addition of jazz to their programming, WSHA is proud of its pioneering role. "It is very satisfying for all of us to see any other station try to 'clone' WSHA," says Dr. Emekauwa. "We must be doing something right for others to follow."
The future looks bright. WSHA has asked the FCC for permission to increase its broadcast power from 12,500 watts to 50,000 watts. The change should improve the range and quality of the station's signal. Hopefully, the station's mission, its community orientation, and its sophisticated sound--already a cause for celebration in this rapidly-growing area--will become even more powerful as a result.
Information about WSHA and a streaming-audio live feed can be accessed at www.wshafm.org.