Alan Morrell – Staff Writer
Derrick Lucas got into jazz at a young age. He was just 4 years old when he asked his parents for his first record – Spectrum, by jazz drummer Billy Cobham. Cobham’s sound, he said, changed his young life. “I never heard anything like that,” said Lucas, now 38 and the music director for WGMC-FM (90.1) radio. “I went crazy.” Thus began his lifelong love of jazz, one he has shared through WGMC, a jazz-centered station celebrating its 35th anniversary this month. The station signed on in 1973 as a student-run station, run by the Greece Central School District that broadcast for 4½ hours on weekdays, but was off the air on weekends and school breaks.WGMC has evolved to an around-the-clock independent station with a $180,000 budget and five paid employees, along with about 30 volunteers. The broadcast studio originally was at Greece Athena High School, but has moved to Olympia High. The school district still holds the broadcast license.
“We started out with 10 watts, and you were lucky if you could hear us in Greece,” said station manager Rob Linton, who has worked at WGMC for four years.
The station now broadcasts over 15,000 watts, and live Internet streams make WGMC accessible throughout the world.
Listeners from Japan, China, Sweden, Mexico and Israel, among other locales, have contacted the station or sent pledges, Lucas said. WGMC is one of fewer than 10 stations in the United States with a jazz format, he said.
Tom Christian of Perinton noticed WGMC years ago. Christian, who said he tunes in daily, wasn’t a jazz fan before he found WGMC.
“I wouldn’t say I was really knowledgeable about jazz until I listened to this station,” said Christian, 65. “There were no jazz radio stations. But their knowledgeable DJs, they educate you.”
The format is mainly, but not all, jazz. Being an independent station has allowed WGMC to experiment.
“When we started, it was free-form, with everything from Doris Day to Miles Davis to a bluegrass show,” said Lucas, who has been with WGMC for 19 years. WGMC still has a weekly polka show, a Latin Essence show and other non-jazz shows.
Radio programming on commercial stations has changed much over the years, Linton said, as large corporations have bought several stations and fragmented them to specific genres. On-air personalities frequently are recorded in other parts of the country, with their voices piped into local markets, Linton said.
That’s a modus operandi WGMC has never espoused. Linton and Lucas said they want no part of it.
“We say, ‘Here’s a list of suggestions,’ but each DJ can create their own personality,'” Lucas said. “The way commercial radio is now, they’re trying to get rid of that, and it’s sad.”
Radio’s biggest challenge now comes from the iPod and other forms of technology that allow listeners to program their own selections, Lucas said. But there’s nothing like the give-and-take between live radio personalities and listeners, Linton said.
“We’ve had people say, ‘Thank God we found you.’ We’ve gotten comments from soldiers in Iraq,” he said.
“That’s when you realize, it’s all worth it.”