The jazz purist in you is depressed. While browsing at the book mart, you spot a CD titled Next Generation SWING. You figure the recording is intended for TV-numbed teens, because above the first title, Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive, an' Wail," there's a big red arrow and this helpful mnemonic: "Gap TV Commercial Theme Song!"
Well, cheer up. There is a source of authentic swing that's not part of a multi-tiered merchandising strategy. Perhaps you've already discovered, while driving southeast toward Geauga County, this beacon on the left side of the dial: radio station WKHR/FM-91.5.
Though chasing the station's signal requires persistence (it fades on Cleveland's West Side), efforts are rewarded by the felicitous sounds of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Jo Stafford, and Bix Beiderbecke.
Playing music of the '30s, '40s, and '50s (with an occasional contemporary swing tune thrown in), WKHR clearly is not a commercial station. The sets are long, uninterrupted by tiresome chatter and retirement-home commercials. The DJs are enthusiastic, but unlike those at commercial swing station WRMR/AM-850, they don't indulge in windy monologues or intermingle the Andrews Sisters with LeAnn Rimes.
WKHR resides at Kenston High School, in the hamlet of Bainbridge. According to Station Manager Chris Kofron, the station was founded 18 years ago by Joanne Molter, the school's media adviser at the time. Four years ago, it swapped frequencies with WSTB, a high school heavy-metal station in Streetsboro, an exchange that boosted its power from 150 to 1,000 watts.
Until then, WKHR's format was mixed: big band in the morning, blues at noon, and alternative rock the rest of the day. "People weren't listening," Kofron says. "Stations like WENZ and WMMS were playing alternative, with much more power." Led by its general manager, Scott McVay, the station wagered on a concept it calls "big band, swing, and the great American song," and the gamble paid off. WKHR now has a loyal following, and not just among the Golden Buckeye set. "We get calls from younger people," Kofron says, "swing dancers and musicians who find ideas for repertoire by listening to us."
Despite its schoolhouse venue, Kofron stresses that WKHR is "a community station, not a high school station." It is supported by foundation grants, underwriting from local businesses, and listener contributions. The all-volunteer staff of 120 includes about fifty announcers, each hosting a two-hour shift. On weekday afternoons, on-air duties are handled by students from the entertainment-marketing class Kofron teaches at Kenston.
Visitors to the station will encounter three generations of swing enthusiasts. In addition to Kofron, 33, who acquired his passion for noncommercial radio at Cleveland State University's WCSB, there's Jimmy Morgan, 71, and a small group of students. This may be their grandparents' music, but the teens have developed strong preferences. Kofron drills them: "Who's your favorite?" They volley back: "Tommy Dorsey." "Ella Fitzgerald." "Sinatra, easy."
To what does Kofron attribute the recent upswing of swing? "It's incredible stuff. It's popular now because the music that is force-fed to us by radio is lacking."
Morgan, a trumpeter and singer who toured with big bands in the '40s, is on the air Tuesday mornings from 8 to 10. He is lukewarm about the modern remakes of swing classics. "Everyone raves about this Brian Setzer," he says. "I just can't get used to seeing a rock and roll guitar player in front of a big band."
Kofron shows off the broadcast studio, a sunlit, professional-grade facility. On the air today is Jennifer Gray, 17. "That was Hoagy Carmichael and 'Memphis in June,'" she intones smoothly.
The station's growth will depend on whether it can broaden its broadcast range, and Kofron is researching options for increasing wattage. Meanwhile, it will continue to provide what Kofron calls "old-timey radio at its finest."
Kofron says he's changed with the format. "When we were playing alternative music, I'd go home feeling horrible. Now I go home in a great mood. We're a cure for road rage."