Trying to get an interview with Maxine Todd, Program Director at Houston's new smooth jazz radio station almost proved to be a lesson in futility. To her credit, the lady has been busy launching 95.7 The Wave since November 2002. In fact, bringing the format to the city is a big deal, seeing as how Houston has been without a commercial jazz station since 1997. Numerous attempts have been made to program jazz in the city over the last 25 years, but to date four of them have failed the test of longevity. With that in mind, getting a perspective from Maxine on what she was going to do differently to keep this new jazz station alive was high on my list of questions. Maxine arrived in Houston after much heralded success at KOAI The Oasis in Dallas, Texas. Her tenure as PD of Infinity's Smooth Jazz outlet took the station from 14th to fifth in the 25-54 age group in a very short span of time. The hope is that lightning will strike twice in the largest city in Texas. With that in mind, I approached Maxine to get her ideas on jazz radio in Houston. Since her arrival, KHJZ 95.7 The Wave has made considerable Arbitron rating improvements during the last 5 months. In a city with a population of over 4,000,000 people, KHJZ is currently ranked 5th in the 25-54 age group and 14th overall, out of approximately 44 AM/FM stations in the greater Houston metropolitan area.
After two failed meeting attempts, I was leaving the offices of 95.7 FM located on the 19th floor of 24 Greenway Plaza in Houston when an unassuming lady drove up to me in a black European import as I was getting into my automobile. "Are you Sheldon Nunn?" she asked in an excitable but humorous manner. "I'm Maxine Todd, and I apologize for all the confusion and the lateness we have experienced of late." She went on to explain that she was finalizing plans for a number of concerts The Wave is sponsoring in the coming year, taking longer than she expected. After exchanging pleasantries, we made our way to a local coffee shop in the area where we could talk about Houston's latest foray into jazz radio. Maxine has been in radio for over 26 years and she is a smooth jazz aficionado as well. At 95.7 FM, she has a dual role as Program Director and as one of the station's Air Personalities in a market dominated by continuous change. Smooth jazz has felt the brunt of that change in Houston, having failed miserably during the last thirty years. In that amount of time, five stations have bitten the dust. Six years ago the city lost another, which seemed to dash all hopes of ever having a commercial jazz station at any time. Over the years, the only outlet the city has had is one public station and eight hours of weekend programming on a local adult contemporary outlet.
In Maxine's mind, Houston is ready for change. KHJZ 95.7 The Wave is one of 180 radio stations in 22 states under the Infinity umbrella, an integral part of the Viacom Corporation and CBS, a multi-media conglomerate. Although jazz's showing in the city has been bleak at best, Maxine feels 95.7 FM will establish a long standing presence and viability in the city. To accomplish this, she has put together an entire cadre of seasoned veterans who know something about the jazz music. In addition, Todd has reached out to a certain segment of the populace in the community, which has been identified as the 25-54 age group. She believes: " This is the best and most vibrant market for smooth jazz. Much research has been done to prove that demographic out." As we talked, she indicated that smooth jazz can not be all things to all people. "We are not a station that is going to reinvent what we do. Smooth jazz is all about relaxation and contemplation. It is a healthy mix of soft rock, R&B ballads and contemporary jazz. That is our identified music base."
As Maxine and I continued to talk about the impact KHJZ 95.7 expects to have on Houston with its programming and concert offerings, other problems surfaced as well. In recent years, the city has not been very successful bringing talent to Houston. Most concerts are not sold-out, and some do not even turn a profit. There is not a major club environment where jazz can be heard on a national level. In fact, two major outlets have closed since 1997, Rockefeller's and most recently The Iris Jazz Resort. Scott Gertner's Skybar also tried to present jazz at various times. In either situation, there was limited support for those type of concerts. Rockefeller's set the standard in many connoisseur's minds, one that has yet to be met since its demise. The deck seems to be stacked against what you are trying to do to bring your listeners into the forefront of jazz of any type. Maxine pondered that notion for a moment, and in a philosophical response she told me: "Wave listeners still light up when Rockefeller's is mentioned. Coleen Fisher, who I am currently working with at The Verizon Theater used to work at that venue. Her voice still lights up when that place is mentioned. Coleen is helping us with our concert series and often revels about the impact Rockefeller's had on Houston. One thing has occured to me, people will go see artists they are most familiar with. As a staple, we are bringing artists such as Boney James, The Rippingtons, Michael Franks, Peter White, Kirk Whalum and Guitar's 'n' Sax's to the city. When we brought Anita Baker to the H'Town Arena Theater, the show was met with great success. The Boney James concert scheduled for late April is already sold-out. We know through our research, that Houston has a staple of musicians they like. Taking opportunities to various locations throughout Houston will heighten our exposure as well. We will continue to go with what our listeners like." What about the question of whether KHJZ 95.7 FM is truly a jazz station, and not a just another combination pop instrumental and R&B station? I asked.
Maxine Todd's entire expression changed, and she responded in a very serious manner. "As I mentioned earlier, we cannot be all things to all people! Smooth jazz is very much a part of pop, soft rock, R&B and contemporary jazz music. If people are looking to hear something other than that, then they should look elsewhere. We are about soft easy listening formats. To prove this out, 95.7 The Wave has been enthusiastically received in the greater Houston area market. Listeners have thanked us for turning them on to The Verizon Theater during our concert series. They have also offered input and feedback to us on a variety of topics that will help us better serve our listening area. In addition, we continually look for opportunities to improve upon our programming. Most recently, we signed The Dave Koz Radio Show. We constantly investigate community involvement programs. In other words this is our approach to increasing awareness in our listening area. The proof can be found in our ever-increasing popularity."
During my conversation with Maxine Todd, I found her to be a very capable and determined individual. Her knowledge of jazz was also quite evident. She also has a distinct purpose in mind. Maxine intends to maintain a jazz radio presence in the 4th largest city in the United States. She takes this task very seriously. Upon reflection, I must admit I have not always supported Maxine's point of view; however, since speaking with her, I too am open to change. Throughout its 100-year history, jazz has been all about change. The genre is constantly evolving and ever-changing. Smooth jazz is but another one of those changes. The music is at the very heart of American culture. It is for all practical purposes "the intuitive creative spirit that comes from within." Although smooth jazz has its critics, KHJZ 95.7 The Wave and Maxine Todd are providing yet another perspective on this thing called jazz. In the process, Houston can finally breathe in the return of commercial jazz radio.