Tune Out

On a clear night you could hear a pair of bright, shining voices in South Florida's vast radio wasteland that reached from Jupiter in the north all the way south to Key West, across the Everglades to Naples and as far east as the Bahamas.

And then, suddenly, you couldn't. A collective 40 years of cutting-edge music programming came to an abrupt end with the recent cancellations of Steve Malagodi's Modern School of Modern Jazz and More (Sunday 12:00-2:00 a.m.) and Kevin "Ital-K" Smith's Sounds of the Caribbean (Sunday 2:00-7:00 a.m., Monday 12:00-5:00 a.m.) on 91.3 WLRN-FM. The two radio hosts were told by station management on Wednesday, October 8, that the episodes scheduled to air that weekend would be their last. Malagodi's show ended after fifteen years, while Smith's weekend slot concluded after six years. Local radio icon Clint O'Neil, who originally founded Sounds of the Caribbean back in 1979, will continue to broadcast his show Tuesday through Friday from 1:00-5:00 a.m. Both Smith and Malagodi's programs have been replaced by a late-night broadcast of the BBC News.

WLRN station manager Ted Eldredge says the shows were cancelled because they drew a small audience, and those who did happen to tune in didn't make any donations to the listener-supported public radio station. "It really is minimal listenership, probably just a few hundred people at the most," says Eldredge. "The last I looked [at our Arbitron ratings numbers for] Monday through Sunday, the overnight cumulative audience was only about 3000 people," he adds, inadvertently targeting O'Neil's Sounds of the Caribbean as well.

Surely if Sounds of the Caribbean and Modern School of Modern Jazz and More had so few fans, nobody would miss them. They would simply fall into oblivion. Then why are so many people complaining?

"I hated to see ["Modern School of Modern Jazz"] end because I listened to that program a great deal," says Dr. Ron Weber, president of the South Florida Friends of Jazz, which is producing the Hollywood Jazz Festival on November 21-22 at the Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center. He says he's surprised that such an innovative show lasted so long on a station that seems to be moving toward an all-news format. "It was dependable and the quality was always there," he says. "I hate to see it go."

Eldredge won't confirm or deny that his station is choosing news over music, and says that all the other programs on the station's schedule are safe for now. But many of the on-air personalities at WLRN interviewed for this story seemed rattled by rumors of further cancellations, trying to put on their best "day-to-day" and "just happy to be here" demeanors.

Meanwhile the station has received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails opposing the cancellations, impressive for normally apathetic South Floridians. On his final two broadcasts during the weekend of October 12-13, Smith opened the phone lines; the results were two five-hour shows dominated by angry callers deriding the station's actions. The pot-stirring DJ also loudly condemned the cancellations while he was filling in for a vacationing O'Neil during the latter's weekday program, forcing WLRN to ban him from the air after an October 13 show. Jeanette Drew has since taken over for O'Neil, who returns October 28.

"Sounds of the Caribbean is like an institution in the Caribbean community in South Florida," said I. Jabulani Tafari, publisher of the Fort Lauderdale-based Rootz, Reggae and Kulcha magazine. "It's very well known, it's very well respected. And I would say it's very well listened to, and really a flagship reggae program in South Florida, and indeed in the U.S., because it's one of the few reggae programs that's on an NPR station and that goes out to a multiethnic listenership."

With his clear-as-a-bell British accent and quick tongue, the Jamaican-born Smith's style was a departure from O'Neil's sonorous Jamaican lilt. Otherwise both hosts' versions of Sounds of the Caribbean sounded interchangeable: a mix of roots reggae, lovers rock, dancehall, and calypso/soca; the regular announcing of news items that were relevant to the Caribbean community; and spots featuring local guest musicians. So why was his show cancelled instead of O'Neil's? Smith, who still works as a traffic director at the station, says the demise of his show was a personal shot. Eldredge, however, hints this was just an expedient move against a relatively less-tenured DJ. "Kevin's a part-time employee in this capacity," he says. "Clint's full-time and has been at the station for twenty-some-odd years."

Smith hasn't taken his dismissal lightly. Since his show was cancelled he has launched a full-scale e-mail campaign pushing people in the local Caribbean community to call up WLRN. And Sounds of the Caribbean fans like Tafari are organizing a protest on October 22 at the Miami-Dade County school board meeting; the meetings are usually broadcast live by WLRN (which the board owns). "The station has been getting a positive overall response to keep the program," Smith claims. "But management is completely ignoring the wishes of the public."

In contrast, Malagodi hasn't complained about the cancellation of Modern School of Modern Jazz and More -- which used to air right before Smith's Sounds of the Caribbean -- most likely because he still works as an engineer for the station. Revered by jazzbos and other music aficionados, the broadcast veteran has spotlighted this community since he joined the station as a radio producer in 1977, mixing countless records with live performances by local musicians. His expertise in jazz; his knack for using poetic, "hipster" wordplay in introducing the songs; his championing of free-jazz players like Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton and avant-garde composers like Derek Bailey; and his entertaining format made the show compelling, a thinking person's program that challenged and enlightened serious fans of the art form.

On October 13 Malagodi began his farewell episode by playing a recording of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac reading "Pull My Daisy," a poem the legendary Beat writers co-wrote with Neal Cassady. Appropriately, the poem ends with the lines, "Poke my pap/Pit my plum/Let my gap be shut." After the record had finished, he went on a rant against station management. "One cannot expect a cow to recognize Kandinsky," he declared. "Present bovine with the music of Anthony Braxton and they'll continue to chew the grass. Just the ignorant nature of the beast. Hence the cancellation of this program -- it simply doesn't compute with such a primitive processor."

A few days after the episode aired, he says, "There was a couple of people I know, young people, who said that what they heard on my show really made a difference. It was about the quality of the numbers, about giving something to the community that was kind of special."

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John Anderson