Jazz.FM likes to toot its own horn as the premier jazz radio station in the country.
But these days, the station that urges its listeners to tune in to “hear the colour of jazz” is hitting a decidedly blue note.
Staffers past and present, most speaking on condition of anonymity, tell stories of controversial hirings and firings, questionable format changes and a management and board out of touch with staffers and the public.
Perhaps, then, it was only a matter of time before race figured into Jazz’s mixed-up equation.
The leaked e-mails swirling around last month’s departure of Tabby Johnson as host of the gospel show Step It Up suggest the joint is jumping with management issues, some of them related to tensions around the perceived lack of hiring of visible minorities and women.
Johnson is an accomplished vocalist of considerable repute. She’s performed with such heavyweights as Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
She would seem a perfect fit for Jazz.FM’s mission statement “to promote and explore jazz music’s rich diversity… to ensure that our-on-air presenters will be as diverse as the jazz we play.”
So why the sudden exit after two months? Johnson says things came to a head when she mentioned the scarcity of visible minority faces and women at the station to operations manager and music director Brad Barker. Of the station’s 13 on-air hosts, two are women and one is a member of a visible minority.
Her comment, she says, “was greeted with outrage and anger.”
That got Johnson summoned, she says, “like a school kid to the principal’s office” to the office of station president and CEO Ross Porter. There, according to her, the incident “escalated” to the point where, from her perspective, Porter was “fighting to control his temper.”
“I thought I handled the touchy situation with humour,” Johnson says, right down to putting on the twang of a Southern mammy. She also mentioned pay equity concerns. She says she was being paid $50 less than the $200 other on-air personalities get.
But Johnson’s troubles may have begun earlier, when she says she was told by one of the station’s stalwarts, former CBC personality Ralph Benmergui, that she was playing too much black music.
Benmergui did not respond to NOW’s requests for comment. In an e-mail response to Johnson, Benmergui writes, “Please call me today and we can discuss your future at the station.”
Jazz.FM board chair Bernie Webber, who was willing to speak to NOW, flatly denies that Benmergui would say any such thing. “We’re colour-blind here,” Webber explains. “We’re trying to recruit, but the reality is that it’s difficult to get the match.”
He can’t name names but says several people the station’s approached are simply “too busy right now.” He’s hopeful one particular “very well-known black (female) entertainer” will come through down the line.
Webber elaborates that Johnson was under the misapprehension that “she was being paid less she was at the scale of anyone starting out at the station.”
In his mind, Johnson’s departure was precipitated by her expressed desire to pursue a post-secondary education, and the extra workload at the station was getting in the way.
Barker’s response to a listener’s e-mail inquiry about Johnson’s departure explains that the show was “put on hiatus…. With Tabby’s busy schedule as singer/actress/educator, we’ve run into some timing issues.”
Johnson’s reluctant to become the “talking head” for “other people’s agenda” – namely, a few in the black community who are considering organizing a boycott of the station.
But, she says, something had to be said about “the climate of fear and mistrust that permeated the building.”
The chorus of disapproval doesn’t stop with Johnson. Money has also been blown by the station on settling several labour board cases, among them that of Mary Lou Creechan, the former program host of Jazz With A Twist, a Latin vibe show.
Creechan claims she was “fired for raising concerns about the lack of diversity at the station, specifically of blacks and women.”
Johnson’s travails there don’t surprise her one bit. She says she was reprimanded for “playing too much Latin music” when she was the only woman on air. She was also the only on-air personality working sans contract.
“It’s an exercise in lost potential,” Creechan says of Jazz.FM today. “All guys, all white and mostly those who don’t know jazz.”
CRTC social policy director Martine Vallee says radio stations, unlike television, are under no onus to put visible-minority voices on air. TV stations are required to file progress reports of corporate plans for “cross-organizational diversity.” Cursory questions are asked of radio licence applicants, but the CRTC does no follow-up.
The question is, “What does cultural diversity in radio mean?” asks Vallee.
Is it an audible minority presence, the music and perspectives, or merely an organizational head count of gender, race, nationality and disability?
Jazz.FM has that covered application-wise. “When hiring,” its CRTC application says, “we endeavour to notify the following agencies: Native Canadian Centre, Centre for Independent Living, a training coordinating group for persons with disabilities, and Canadian Women in Radio and Television job bank” among others.
Webber dismisses former staffers’ gripes as “sour grapes. The place has a very healthy culture,” he says, and any insinuation of discord is “totally off- base.”
He’s adamant that any layoffs that may occur are not related to the strife current and former employess say exists. But “if a method of producing the same output for less money comes along, we’re going to take advantage of that.”
Indeed. About a week after Johnson spoke to NOW, respected jazz musician and long-time staffer Doug Watson was cut loose.
To those who think Jazz.FM’s leadership and direction are at issue right now, Webber says station CEO Porter “has been recognized as Canada’s foremost jazz broadcaster for the better part of the last 25 years. I’m proud of what he’s doing.”
Asked about Webber’s suggestion that she’s playing the race card, Johnson responds, “Well, not only is it still out there – it’s the one I was dealt. You don’t understand how scared people are about losing their jobs.”