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