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A sneak peek at WYEP's Pittsburgh Performance Project

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Ever felt like compiling a list of Pittsburgh's greatest music venues, past and present? The folks at public radio station WYEP did, so they applied for a grant from Pittsburgh 250 and received $10,000 to create a radio series on the subject. Initially, WYEP polled its listeners for venue recommendations, coming up with the predictable limited options the station has drummed into their ears for quite a while, like the Byham Theater, Club Café, The Rex, and such fond memories as the Syria Mosque.

WYEP could have stopped right there and scratched their own backs, but instead, they also assembled a panel of experts. Without revealing names, I'll say it was a broad spectrum of experienced individuals from both within and outside the station, spanning jazz, blues, folk, commercial rock and even "alternative" music. No participant was directly involved in booking or running any venues, but there was one journalist in the cabal.

After much deliberation, the panel came up with a decidedly different list; their opinions counted for 75 percent of the final result, with listeners' thoughts making up the remaining 25 percent. (After all, a grant paid for it -- listeners didn't.) So without further ado, here's what they picked: Carnegie Music Hall, Civic Arena, Crawford Grill II, The Decade, Electric Banana, Graffiti, The Hurricane (another legendary jazz club that the Hill House resurrected last year with a performance series), Mancini's, Shadow Lounge, The Stanley Theater (now the Benedum), Syria Mosque and the 31st Street Pub.

Perhaps you're thinking: "That's actually a pretty fair list." But an obvious question arises: Most of the venues on that list, whether defunct or current, do not represent the kind of music played on WYEP since its switch to the Adult Album Alternative format in the late 1980s (though it does reflect the free-form incarnation which existed previously). No jazz from the Hill's glory days -- or any current jazz, local or otherwise -- is played on the station. You won't hear Black Flag or The Exploited, both of whom graced the Banana, nor Skinny Puppy or Mudhoney, who rocked Graffiti. And you definitely won't find any hip hop from the Shadow Lounge, nor the punk, metal and rockabilly which pervade the 31st Street Pub.

So how is WYEP going to produce a radio series that is mostly about venues that either no longer exist or don't feature the music that the station programs on its commercially designed rotation, without exposing the glaring weaknesses inherent in its own myopic cultural agenda? That is a delicious dilemma that I will enjoy seeing the station squirming to resolve over the next few months.

 

WYEP's Pittsburgh Performance Project Launch Party takes place from 7-10 p.m. Fri., July 18 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. Visit www.wyep.org for more details.

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