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With WZUM-AM 1550, Pittsburgh Public Media brings jazz back to the radio

“Of all cities to lose a full-time jazz station, it was embarrassing.”

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Last month, jazz returned to the Pittsburgh airwaves, in a limited capacity. On April 2, Pittsburgh Public Media, a volunteer organization made of former employees of WDUQ-FM, purchased WZUM-AM 1550 and changed its format from R&B oldies to jazz. Bill Hillgrove, best known as the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt Panthers, introduced the music. He’s also the host of a six-hour weekend show featuring popular jazz that broadcasts three times over the weekend. 

While the AM radio band with spotty coverage might not be an ideal setting for the music, the station serves as a stepping stone in PPM’s plan to get jazz back on the FM dial. After Duquesne University sold WDUQ in 2011, jazz radio was restricted to a few hours a week on the rebranded WESA-FM. But Chuck Leavens, president of PPM, began broadcasting online at the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel (www.pghjazz.net). By 2013, PPM purchased Bethany College’s station, which became WYZR-FM 88.1. Its broadcast range “covers the Ohio Valley and gets pretty well into the South Hills and west areas of Pittsburgh. You can listen to it around Wexford, the Parkway North,” says Leavens.

PPM hopes to expand the programming and coverage, and migrate to the FM band. (Toward that end, it has purchased an FM frequency; a recent ruling by the FCC allows WZUM’s signal to broadcast over the FM dial through an FM translator.) But PPM needs funds to build out, which its members are attempting to raise online and over the air, much like public radio. “We don’t know if it’s possible, but we would like to be on the air before the summer jazz festivals because we’d like to be on the air live from them,” Leavens says. He adds that if the funds come through, they could have it built in time. (Donations can be made at the aforementioned website.)

Hillgrove, once an occasional guest host on WDUQ, loves jazz almost as much as sports. During the ’60s, he hosted Jazz Beat, a program on WQED-TV that featured performances by local musicians. He believes this radio station is a necessity. “Pittsburgh is such a great producer of jazz talents. Of all cities to lose a full-time jazz station, it was embarrassing,” he says.

In the meantime, there’s a reason to crank up the AM dial.


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