DFW Music News

Musicians Have Split Reactions to UNT's Jazz Radio Changing Formats

Members of local jazz groups such as The Big Ass Brass Band have some interesting things to say about KNTU 88.1 FM's format change from jazz to indie music.
Members of local jazz groups such as The Big Ass Brass Band have some interesting things to say about KNTU 88.1 FM's format change from jazz to indie music. Mike Brooks
The window of opportunity to hear jazz on terrestrial radio just got a little smaller in DFW.

KNTU 88.1 FM, a student-run station owned by the University of North Texas in Denton, announced on Friday that it had switched to an independent music format after more than 40 years of an all-jazz format, according to a statement posted on the station's social media pages.

"Based on local research and feedback from underwriters, we have decided the new format would have greater growth potential as well as energize students at the university," wrote KNTU general manager Dan Ballas. "We are excited about the future of the radio station and the prospect of renewed involvement with UNT students."

News of the format change was greeted with a wave of comments expressing disappointment, including a Change.org petition that's reached its goal of over 1,500 signatures. Taylor Hatch, a jazz guitar major at UNT, says the announcement was a total surprise to him.

"It definitely came as a shock to me for sure, mostly because of the reputation of the jazz program at UNT that has lasted for legacies and decades," Hatch says. "KNTU's influence of being an all-jazz station has given the program the boost it needed."

KNTU went on the air in 1969 under its first general manager Bill Mercer, the play-by-play announcer for several Dallas teams, including the Dallas Cowboys. Mercer said in an interview cited in a 2003 thesis written by UNT student Levi Thomson that "the very first word ever uttered on the air [on KNTU] was a curse word," followed by a rebroadcast of Orson Welles' infamous 1938 dramatization of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

The student station started with a news and sports format and changed to an all-jazz station in 1981 when engineers started building a broadcast antenna that could boost its signal to the standard 100,000-watt level. It took seven years for the project to be completed and receive approval from the Federal Communication Commission, according to the thesis.

Program director Mark Lambert wrote in the station's announcement that declining listeners and student participation led to the format change.

"It's been tough the last couple years to get enough students to work in the jazz format on KNTU," Lambert wrote. "One of the goals of our new format is to attract a younger audience and get the attention of students again."

Jazz musician Randy McGill says KNTU helped him build his group Randy McGill & The Eclectic when he moved to Dallas from Miami in 2018 by featuring his latest album. Attention from the station could bring "validity to any project," he said.

"I think it's sad, man, because it's hard enough trying to keep this jazz form alive in this day and age," McGill says. "Everything's so processed and pop-based. It's hard to get our music heard."

Other musicians such as Steven Dunn, one of the founding members of the Big Ass Brass Band, say they weren't surprised with the decision to change format. He's "surprised it took this long for some type of big change to happen."

"The few times I did listen to it, they're not playing the kind of music you hear live," Dunn says. "They're playing UNT-style jazz, which makes sense, but when you're out in bars or shows, that's not what you hear. It's not the stuff that doesn't sound like a bunch of people playing the same 10 records from the '50s or '60s."

"I think it's sad, man, because it's hard enough trying to keep this jazz form alive in this day and age ... Everything's so processed and pop based. It's hard to get our music heard." – Randy McGill

tweet this

Musician Aaron Gonzalez, known from the family jazz band Yells at Eels and showcases such as The Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions, says KNTU's jazz format felt rigid and didn't focus enough on neo or modern jazz styles. That may be helpful if you're studying the artistry of jazz in UNT's world-renowned program, but not if you're a local listener just trying to catch some tunes looking for something closer to the times.

"They were very straight-ahead for my tastes," Gonzalez says. "It's neither here nor there and they introduced a lot of good musicians, but if they didn't have such a rigid format for what styles could be played, they'd have a lot more interesting of a jazz program that was a lot more stylistically dynamic, that had more fusion or more international jazz than it played."

The new format doesn't seem to be as independent as its new name proclaims, according to Gonzalez. He says he caught a recent earful of the station in his car and the songs he heard included more mainstream fare like Sublime and the Foo Fighters.

"Maybe the most interesting thing I heard was R.E.M.," Gonzalez says.

The format change shrinks jazz's presence on terrestrial radio to mere pockets of airtime, such as KNON 89.3 FM's Sounds of Jazz on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from midnight to 4 a.m. and occasional profiles and performances on Dallas' public radio station KERA 90.1 FM.

It also shrinks the opportunities for UNT's jazz program students to showcase their work, Hatch says.

"It's extremely critical to lose a platform that has showcased ongoing work and continuous expansion of the UNT jazz program," Hatch says. "It's just disappointing to lose something that's been part of history since 1969." 
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.