When it begins taping its new season next week, look for significant changes. Longtime Jukebox personality Nikki Reyes has amicably left the show. The bands will still be filmed live, but the show's all-live format has been scrapped, and new co-hosts Eric Pierson and Fahnlohnee Harris will film separate interview and informational segments off location, which will then be edited into the broadcast. And while the bands will continue to be taped at Generations Hall, they will be playing in a more interactive "in the round" setting reminiscent of MTV's Unplugged format.
With all due respect to Louisiana Jukebox's numerous past accomplishments and awards, including multiple Cable Ace Awards, these changes were long overdue. The show has always had immense potential, but when compared with the impressive benchmark set by Austin City Limits -- a no-frills PBS-aired program with a heavy focus on Texas' rich indigenous musical scene -- Jukebox's failure to get more national recognition and distribution has been a major disappointment. Yes, the show is produced on a minimal budget, but frequently changing hosts and shooting locations has hurt Jukebox's ability to consistently produce a quality product. (Full disclosure: I interviewed for a co-host position approximately five years ago.)
The new moves come under the direction of Ernest Collins, Mayor Ray Nagin's recent appointee as the director of arts and entertainment for the City of New Orleans. Collins has produced Louisiana Jukebox since the show's inception, and his continued involvement with the show is a somewhat unusual arrangement; he's retained his title as Jukebox's executive producer, but is no longer on the Cox Communications payroll. "One of the most important jobs of executive producer is to secure resources, in order to carry out the production," says Collins. "I have endeavored to do that, reaching out to various entities that have the shared objectives of the program. I think it dovetails very nicely with my role in the city, which is to fully develop each of those components -- tourism, music, arts -- within the city."
To that end, Louisiana Jukebox will now be produced with the financial assistance of three entities: Cox Communications, the City of New Orleans, and the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation. Since negotiations between the show's new partners haven't been finalized, Collins declines to name the exact dollar figure, saying that the amount is "more than a dollar and less than $100,000."
With these new partnerships, part of Louisiana Jukebox programming will be New Orleans "vignettes" -- brief segments promoting various aspects of the city. While that raises questions about the line between editorial and advertising, new senior producer Tim Sommer isn't worried. "They're music videos about the state of Louisiana," says Sommer. "We can put together a series of images involving aspects of the state to an appropriate piece of music, whether it's from an artist on that show or an archival track. I don't think anything we'd choose would displease the state."
Sommer's hire is Collins' most crucial move for Jukebox's plans to reach new quality and distribution levels. Sommer has a formidable resume in almost all aspects of the music business. As a musician, he was part of the critically acclaimed '80s band Hugo Largo, whose debut album was produced by R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. As an A&R man for Atlantic Records, Sommer signed acts such as Hootie & the Blowfish and Duncan Sheik. He's produced albums by Cowboy Mouth and Tom's House. Most importantly, he has extensive music television experience in New York and Los Angeles -- he was a VJ for both MTV and VH1, and ran VH1's news department. Sommer moved to New Orleans a year and a half ago, and has plenty of fresh ideas and enthusiasm for Louisiana Jukebox.
"One thing we're doing differently now is we'll still have a wide variety of artists playing, but their segments are going to be split up," says Sommer. "If the first band is George Porter, then you'll see one song by George, then maybe one from the Magnolia Sisters, then one from Sonia Tetlow. I trust music listeners to not be music critics. It's going to be a little quicker and more fast-paced. I'm competing for the people who might be tempted to switch the channel to Law and Order.
"New Orleans deserves a live music television show as good as any in the country," Sommer says. "It's not hard to make a good music television show in New Orleans; it's hard not to."
Those are bold words -- but Louisiana Jukebox is ripe for bold changes.