WWOZ: Thirty Years of "Bringing New Orleans Music to the Universe"

Wade Luquet BY

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In a small office just off of the main studio, music director Scott Borne sits among stacks of boxes containing 25,000 CD's with a machine that picks up a CD from a stack, copies it and then digitizes it. The music from that CD will now be safely housed on a server in the second floor studio and offices of public radio station WWOZ located in an historic building on the river in New Orleans. Just in case, the digital version of all 250,000 songs will have a copy on a server well outside of the city. The staff and volunteers nearly learned a tough lesson in 2005 when the breaks in the faulty federal levees after Hurricane Katrina left their Treme neighborhood under water. WWOZ was lucky: only some minor roof damage, less than a foot of water, and some tower damage. The music collection was in tact and their equipment was mostly undamaged. The station went back on the air as web-only "WWOZ in Exile" out of a radio station in New Jersey within a week, and was able to open a broadcast studio in Baton Rouge by October.
By December 2005, four months after the flooding, they were back on the air in their present studios in the French Quarter. For many, WWOZ coming back on the air was one more step for New Orleans returning to its "new normal."

As a radio station, WWOZ has become an important part of the city post-Katrina. In a city that has its own language, its own food, its own customs, its own architecture, and its own music, it makes sense that it would need its own radio station to speak to its people. While the station plays an eclectic mix of music including funk, alternative, Irish, hip hop, Zydeco, and contemporary jazz, at least fifteen of it broadcasting hours per week is New Orleans music with distinctly New Orleans musicians. With a small paid staff and a large, enthusiastic volunteer staff, WWOZ is able to, as their tag line states, "Bring New Orleans Music to the Universe" through its 24 hour local broadcast and its worldwide webcast. For many displaced and ex pat New Orleanians, the webcast is their lifeline back to the city they know and love.

All 'OZ disc jockeys are volunteers who enjoy bringing there taste in music to their audience. Unlike most commercial stations, these DJ's are given the freedom to play whatever songs they want. According to long-time program director Dwayne Breashears, "We want them to play the songs that they like. As long as there is no foul language in the song, they are free to play it." As their web site states, "Pure intent, pure music, pure groove." Some of the DJ's are long-time New Orleans musicians such as pianist David Torkanowsky playing a rhythm and blues show, and regular host and Original Tuxedo Jazz Band drummer Bob French spinning traditional New Orleans jazz, and doling out a few hot political statements for his morning listeners. Other DJ's include jazz writer and early jazz expert Tom Morgan, Delta blues guitarist Marc Stone and many other volunteers who spin tunes for WWOZ for the love of the music.

WWOZ is also known for its live music and original programming. Just off of the main studio is a large room with a set of drums and a piano where artist can come to the studio and play live on the air and be interviewed by the DJ's. Several times a week, local and visiting artist will come to the studio to perform and promote a local concert or gig date. This also contributes to WWOZ's free-wheeling feel as these interviews and mini-concerts are often unexpected and spur of the moment for the DJ's. Many of these events are set up by long-time artist and special events liaison Dee Lindsey. Lindsey is a charming woman who has worked hard to create relationships with previously skeptical local artist who now recognize the importance of their appearances on WWOZ thanks to her careful relationship building skills.

The station also produces several original shows including Street Talk, a five minute segment about life and the people of New Orleans, and the weekly New Orleans All the Way Live, an hour long radio show dedicated to the "food, festivals, and culture of the Crescent City." This magazine style show is produced by George Ingmire and features musician interviews, live music recorded in clubs or the musicians homes, and other information of interest regarding food, festivals, and culture in New Orleans. New Orleans All the Way Live is sponsored by The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and is also made available to other radio stations in an effort to promote New Orleans culture and tourism.

WWOZ will also travel to clubs and national events to broadcast live feeds to the station. Breashears and Borne will pack up their mini-studio and broadcast live from classic venues such as the Maple Leaf Bar and Snug Harbor. Recently, the station broadcast live from the Grammy Museum for "A Night of Louisiana Music" featuring four Grammy-nominated Louisiana performers in a three hour concert. New Orleans Jazz Festival weekend finds WWOZ on-site at their festival tent sending out live music direct from the festival. For many out of state New Orleanians, this becomes their connection to this internationally recognized music festival they all so loved while residents. WWOZ also sponsors the highly regarded Piano Night during the jazz festival where some of the city's greatest piano players show their stuff to a sold out audience at the House of Blues.

WWOZ, like many public stations, supports itself through grant funding and memberships. Premiums for members typically include CD compilations of WWOZ studio and live feed recordings of various New Orleans artists in a mix of musical styles. Because these CD's are not for sale, they are an excellent reason for membership. At this point, there are 31 volumes of music from their studio and live feeds featuring such artist as Herlin Riley, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Astral Project, The Bad Plus, Hot Club of New Orleans, Shamarr Allen, Irma Thomas and many others. These are excellent collections for New Orleans enthusiast who are interested in hearing the many and various styles of music in the Crescent City.

Luckily for those of us who do not live in New Orleans, all of WWOZ's programming is available online at wwoz.org. From its twenty four hour live studio feed to the archived programs of New Orleans All The Way Live, it's all available to anyone with an internet connection. Their live music calendar is invaluable to anyone who may be visiting the city, and just reading the calendar, which is read on the air at the top of every odd hour, is a testament to the importance of music to this city. Its live concert and club feeds takes the listener inside the venues and gives jazz and music fans the opportunity to be in New Orleans and experience the music and the joy of the crowd.

It is inconceivable to think of New Orleans without WWOZ. While its eclectic mix of music may not be for everyone, to have a radio station that knows what it means to be a New Orleanian is important to maintaining it unique culture. The staff and volunteers are locals and lovers of the city who recognize that New Orleans is different, and its culture needs to be preserved. As another of their tag lines reads, "WWOZ: Guardian of the Groove." For thirty years, this small radio station in the New Orleans French Quarter has been guardian, archivist, and promoter of the New Orleans music culture. With their strong internet presence, that culture and its music can be enjoyed internationally. WWOZ does indeed bring New Orleans music to the universe.

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