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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Songbook's Greatest Champion Finds a Permanent Online Home

Growing up in New York, Jonathan Schwartz was a major part of my formative years, specifically when it came to the development of my musical tastes. As I've discussed before, thanks to my grandparents I was a longtime listener of the old WNEW-AM, NYC's home for American popular standards. And Mr. Schwartz was pretty much our favorite DJ on the station. But he was so much more than a DJ--he was a radio personality in the truest sense of the term, sharing in-depth stories and anecdotes that added so much more to our enjoyment of the music, and made him feel like a long-time personal friend.

After leaving AM due to the demise of WNEW (and later WQEW) in the 1990s, Jonathan found a home on WNYC-FM, New York's NPR affiliate. Here he had more freedom than ever before. And when he also became one of the premiere personalities behind the fledgling XM Satellite Radio in 2000, it was an even greater joy for fans of "our kind of music". Jonathan was given the leeway to shape his own channel, devoted 24/7 to the Great American Songbook, and his great love, Sinatra, in particular. Alternately called Frank's Place and High Standards, it was absolutely one of the musical highlights of the new platform.

But when XM merged with competitor Sirius in 2008, things began to change. The Sinatra family had their own channel on Sirius, and when it was merged with Jonathan's XM endeavor, the two were strange bedfellows, to say the least. For various reasons, Frank's kids (Nancy in particular) have never been all that high on Jonathan (hell, even Frank himself had differences with him over the years). And so the writing was on the wall: Sirius would, of course, back Nancy and company, and Jonathan's days were numbered. After being relegated to the '40s Channel for a while, his contract quietly expired earlier this year.

It seemed, just as in 1998 when WQEW left the NY AM airwaves, taking the American songbook with it, that this type of music was once again being endangered. Certainly, thanks to streaming radio there are more outlets than ever, and in particular channels like Metromedia Radio (inheritors of the WNEW legacy) do a tremendous job of keeping the torch lit. But the loss of Jonathan was a major blow.

The son of all-time great songwriter Arthur Schwartz, Jonathan is the songbook's most vocal, most eloquent and most fascinating champion. His gentle voice has entranced fans of this music, including myself, for decades, and no one gives rich context to it quite like he does, with his unforgettable and often precocious commentaries--not to mention his always-impeccable choice in material (although I can do with a little less modern Broadway and a little more smoky saloon singing, but to each his own.) It seemed Jonathan would be relegated to his weekend WNYC shows and nothing more.

That is, until the brass at WNYC woke up to the tremendous opportunity they had on their hands. With Schwartz now a free agent, the NPR affiliate was free to do more with him than ever. And earlier this month, they pulled the trigger on an exciting project that has captured the attention of fans of classic American pop like nothing has in quite a while. It's The Jonathan Channel--an online streaming radio platform that airs 24/7, and is under the complete control of Mr. Schwartz. Kind of like what his XM channel used to be, except at no charge to the listener (although donations certainly are welcome, as it is a public radio venture.)

I've been listening most days since it began, and for those of us who grew up with Jonathan's brand of standards radio, it is truly a gift. Jonathan Schwartz, available anytime, anywhere, in perpetuity. My grandfather would've loved it, even if he probably would need my help to figure out how to stream it.

The New Yorker Magazine celebrated the event with a couple of fascinating articles, including an interview with Schwartz, as well as something his fans have been clamoring for for years: Jonathan's personal list of must-have albums. Talk about Christmas list fodder! I encourage everyone to give these pieces a read.

I also encourage everyone to give The Jonathan Channel a listen. Whether you're already familiar with him or not, if you love this kind of music and appreciate it being thoughtfully and artfully presented, then Jonathan Schwartz is for you. I'll certainly be tuning in whenever I have the chance. His voice has accompanied me since childhood, and helped stir the passion that led to Standard of the Day in the first place. So here's to Jonathan, and his new permanent home. May the music go on forever.

The Jonathan Channel
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