Jazzed about future.
Gerry Weston grew up listening to the radio and liking the jazz he heard on the airwaves.
"My parents are big radio listeners. They always had the radio on. That's how I discovered jazz growing up in the 1950s and '60s," he recalled.
Weston comes across as the sort of person you could enjoy sitting down with and having nice a long chat about jazz - although chances are he'll know much more about the subject than you do. Still, his voice is pleasant - he doesn't remotely sound like a know-it-all. A voice perfect for radio, perhaps. A jazz radio station even better, you might think.
It just so happens that Weston has been the general manager of radio station WICN-FM (90.5) in Worcester for nearly a year (he officially came on board last July 1), the latest move in a radio broadcasting career often centered on jazz.
WICN calls itself "Jazz + For New England." So Weston plus WICN seems like a good equation. Weston called WICN "an oasis" for jazz devotees during a recent interview at the radio station's studios and offices in the Printers' Building, 50 Portland St. "We're one of the only jazz stations left."
That's a comment that also carries a potential blue note in today's economic and cultural times.
Weston said he has been a working on preparing a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 of $415,000. "We are one lean ship," he remarked. In the not-too-distant past WICN had budgets of more than $500,000.
Weston doesn't have his own program on WICN where he talks and plays jazz. "Not yet," he said. But his voice has been heard on the radio station. "You'll hear me during membership drives. You'll hear me asking for your money."
But Weston sounded optimistic about where WICN is going on its jazz train. "We've settled down financially. We're solid. We're beginning to see an uptick in financial support from the business community," he said. "I've been in this business a long time, so I'm confident."
Weston grew up in Hingham, and can remember his parents taking him to the local A&P when he was 5 years old or so to see famed Boston radio man Fred B. Cole, known as the voice of the big bands, doing a remote broadcast from the supermarket. Later on, Weston took drum lessons, and kept on listening to the radio.
"I fell in love with radio because it's a very intimate medium. It's one on one," Weston said. "It drives me crazy when I hear someone (on the radio) say `Hi everyone.' It's not `Hi everyone.' It's you and me."
Weston graduated from Syracuse University, and his first radio job was at WVLC/WLOM on Cape Cod, where he hosted a jazz show on Saturday nights. Next, he moved to Louisville, Ky., where he was jazz director at WFPL and one of the architects of Public Radio Partnership, now Louisville Public Media. He was president of the partnership for 12 years. Most recently he was manager of Delmvara Public Radio in Salisbury, Md.
Now Weston, 60, single with a grown-up son, is back in Massachusetts and moved to Worcester to take the WICN job. "One of the things that's impressed me about Worcester itself - there seems to be a vibrancy here. In Louisville I saw that city's downtown come back nicely over time because of its arts and educational orientation."
WICN got its name in 1970 when it went on the air as Worcester's Inter-Collegiate Network. In 1995, WICN decided to place the main emphasis on jazz, establishing a niche for itself. It is a National Public Radio station that is on the air 24 hours a day, and most of its programs are locally produced and hosted. But WICN isn't all jazz, with programs that also include folk, soul, bluegrass, Latin sounds, as well as public affairs. Through its affiliation with National Public Radio, WICN presents newscasts every day. Besides its broadcasts, WICN complements its activities by co-presenting concerts such as the Brown Bag series with Mechanics Hall and the Live at Sunset (formerly Jazz at Sunset) concert series with the EcoTarium, which starts its new season June 15.
Seven years ago WICN moved into its attractive quarters at the Printers' Building on Portland Street in downtown Worcester. The space is famous for its column with signatures of distinguished visitors. Two years ago, the radio station "flipped the switch" on a new radio tower at Asnebumskit Hill in Paxton, expanding its reach by 25 to 40 percent. With online streaming of its programs via www. wicn.org, it also has a worldwide audience.
Still, occasional bursts of static are not unheard of in the history of WICN or radio stations in general. "It's been a tight year. There was some turnover before I got here," Weston said.
Last year WICN "re-branded" itself - from "New England's Jazz and Folk Station" to "Jazz + For New England." WICN still plays folk music, Weston, said, but the change emphases the other types of alternative music that can also be heard on the station besides jazz.
When a radio station such as WGBH plays jazz in the evening, WICN switches to its "plus" alternatives. "I'm not a believer in duplicating," Weston said. By the same token, local listeners can get NPR's "Morning Edition" on at least three radio stations, he noted. "But if you want to have jazz music at seven in the morning, we're doing music."
The re-branding came just as Weston came on board, so he said he could not take credit for it. "But what I think I helped with was to make some changes to our on-air sound. How we identify ourselves and come across as professionals. And some subtle changes in the music mix."
WICN is staffed with three full-time positions (including Weston), six part-timers, with the rest (including on air-hosts) volunteers. "Our volunteers are the most professional sounding volunteers I've worked with in my career," Weston said.
Sixteen percent of the radio station's budget comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Weston said. The rest of the funding comes from memberships, business underwriting, business sponsorship of special events and grants from foundations.
"Even though the economy remains on shaky ground, things have recovered from 2008 from a membership point of view," Weston said.
Business support, however, had been flagging until recently, he said. Getting the business community involved is "about getting out there and selling what a wonderful audience we have. They (the audience) love music, they love their community. They are the type of people who go out of their way to do business with the people who do business with us."
Jazz audiences also tend to be well-educated and "not always, but a little higher on the income scale," he said.
"When our business support continues to grow, we will grow."
CUTLINE: Gerry Weston, who became general manager of WICN-FM a year ago, is pictured in the studio at the Printers' Building in downtown Worcester. On the cover, the wall behind Weston is covered with signatures of artists who have visited the station.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/TOM RETTIG