Final coda for Jazz FM as smoothies take the helm

The Fast Show may have been the crucial nail in the coffin for the niche radio station, says Ian Burrell

It was probably Louis Balfour who did for Jazz FM. Louis - a character from the BBC's
The Fast Show - was the jazzer with a pudding-basin haircut, a pin-striped jacket and a tendency to describe the most excruciating saxophonic noodling as "Greeeat!" The popularity during the mid-nineties of John Thomson's comic creation wasn't at all great for a fledgling radio station that was trying to persuade cats young and old that jazz was still where it was at, daddy-oh.

It was probably Louis Balfour who did for Jazz FM. Louis - a character from the BBC's The Fast Show - was the jazzer with a pudding-basin haircut, a pin-striped jacket and a tendency to describe the most excruciating saxophonic noodling as "Greeeat!" The popularity during the mid-nineties of John Thomson's comic creation wasn't at all great for a fledgling radio station that was trying to persuade cats young and old that jazz was still where it was at, daddy-oh.

Throughout its 15-year life, Jazz FM struggled to find the level of public support that it needed to survive. According to John Myers, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, which bought the station in 2002, listeners were scared away by the "jazz" moniker. "They didn't sample it because the name was a barrier," he says. And so, on 7 June, Jazz FM will be no more, rebranded as Smooth FM to reflect its more diverse musical output (more Marvin and Mary J than Miles and Mingus).

Myers says that research undertaken by his company showed that "there wasn't a huge amount of loyalty to the name Jazz FM", even among those who had tuned in. "We were caught between two stools. We didn't play enough pure jazz to please the jazz people and we played too much jazz to please the people who wanted to come in," he says. "Even the jazz-heads cannot agree among themselves what's jazz and what's not jazz."

The transformation to Smooth was not a decision that was taken lightly. "You've got to change everything from the jingles and the letterheads to the mugs and the T-shirts," says Myers.

The re-branding will include the station's first-ever London television campaign, featuring an attractive blonde woman tuning in on the radio of her black Jaguar and pulling away to the sound of the British R&B singer Lemar and his single "If There's Any Justice".

GMG has already adopted the strapline "London's smooth favourite" to prepare listeners for the change and, a fortnight before switch-over, the name "Jazz" will be dropped altogether. The move will go ahead in spite of interest from Chrysalis in buying GMG's radio division.

In Manchester, GMG has already morphed the north-western outpost of Jazz FM into Smooth, seeing its audience grow from 305,000 to 437,000 as a result. Myers thinks that the transition to Smooth will allow the London station to expand from an audience of 641,000 to hit his target of one million. Even so, he has decided to retain the internationally-popular jazzfm.com website and send it in the opposite direction, making it "pure jazz".

Myers says: "We are not going to disown the jazz-heads straight away - we are actually going to give them more, they're just going to have to use a different medium to get it."

Even so the death of Jazz FM will not escape criticism by purists. In an article in the London Evening Standard last month, Jack Massarik asked the question: "Why not pull out altogether and hand the wavelength to a company happy to play jazz? That, after all, is its broadcasting mandate."

John Simon, GMG's group programme director, denies this. "It was never licensed as just a jazz station anyway, it was meant to be a broad mix of black music," he says.

Had GMG not been beaten by Emap's Kerrang! to a West Midlands FM licence in 2003, the company would have given Jazz FM a crack at surviving as a "national" station, broadcasting from the three biggest English cities. But as things now stand, Simon and Myers argue that there aren't enough jazz fans out there to support a single genre radio station, especially with the BBC offering a sizeable jazz output on Radios 3 and 2 (not to mention regional stations).

But for the Louis Balfours out there all is not lost. As Myers points out: "Even after transition, Smooth will play 45 hours of jazz - that's more than any other radio station in Britain."

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