WWOZ radio marks 30 years on the air with second-line, show
Published: Saturday, December 04, 2010, 5:00 AM
It's hard to believe, but WWOZ-FM, New Orleans' celebrated "jazz and heritage" community radio station, turns 30 this year. On Sunday, staff, volunteers and listeners will celebrate with a second-line and a big musical throw-down at Tipitina's -- the very spot from which the station launched in 1980, from a converted storeroom over the stage.
WWOZ hits its three-decade milestone with plenty to celebrate. The five years since Hurricane Katrina have seen the station overcome some of its most daunting hardships and brought some of its most rapid growth.
In preparing for the storm, station managers decided to go off the air at midnight on Aug. 27, 2005. Within a week or so, though, WWOZ's Internet broadcast was back online, using donated bandwidth from the New Jersey station WFMU. Listeners sent in vintage CDs of old WWOZ shows for rebroadcast; exiled DJs, like David "Jelly Roll Justice" Averbuck, had recorded hundreds of hours of shows, complete with commentary and air checks, for "WWOZ in Exile."
The station's home at the time in Armstrong Park had sustained roof damage, and it was unclear when power would be restored. But by October, 90.7 FM was back on the air, using borrowed studio space at the Louisiana Public Broadcasting building in Baton Rouge, and by December, the station had installed itself in its current digs near the French Market.
Community stations nationwide reached out to 'OZ, hosting fund drives from as far afield as Australia. Now, 31 of those stations have their call letters painted on WWOZ's two mobile broadcast trucks, acquired after the storm.
Broadcasting live music has remained one of the station's hallmarks, though production values have been stepped up a notch or two since engineers lowered a microphone down to the Tipitina's stage. With the new trucks, 'OZ has broadcast live from venues like the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and the Telluride (Colo.) Jazz Festival; recently, the Library of Congress began archiving the station's collection of live recordings. And soon, the station's entire library of CDs, which have been in storage since it left the Armstrong Park space, will be available digitally for DJs to play on the air.
"There's been a lot of positive growth, " said Dwayne Brashears, WWOZ's program director since 1998. "We've become a much more professional entity. In the last five years, we've grown in leaps and bounds."
WWOZ may be all grown up, but it hasn't lost its spunk. The station has retained its commitment to free-format programming and to celebrating strong local personalities. It's the kind of environment where Dave Bartholomew will pop in for a more-chatter-than-platter birthday visit with a live interview that spans five decades of New Orleans music storytelling, or Dr. John can make an unplanned visit on a Jazz Fest morning to share semi-embarrassing memories about a teenage Quint Davis, the festival's producer.
Billy Delle, a show host for almost the entire run of the station, plays his vintage R&B 45s to an adoring audience each week. During fund drive weeks when the station was still in the Armstrong Park "treehouse, " Kermit Ruffins would stop by in person to donate a crisp $100 bill; more recently, Wednesday night DJ A.J. Rodrigue entertained listeners with snippets of Ernie K-Doe's vintage fund drive entreaties from his mid-1990s run on the air. ("If you make your donation, I'll go to the French Market and buy you a shiny red apple!" K-Doe promised on one tape.)
"Volunteers bring their abilities, and their passion, " said David Freedman, WWOZ's general manager. "Which we always thought was inappropriate to try to mess with. You do what you're here for, which is to play the music you feel so strongly about. And we'll try to build support systems to keep this thing together."
Brashears counts moments that illustrate the dedication of fans and musicians among his favorite station memories. In 1999, Eddie Bo's house burned down during the annual fund drive, when he'd been scheduled to visit the station.
"We were wrapping it up, " Brashears remembered. "And Eddie had promised to go on the air and play. He literally came into the station reeking of smoke -- he'd come straight from the site of the burning building to the station, because it meant so much to him. And I thought, this speaks volumes about what the station stands for."
WWOZ 30th Anniversary
What: The award-winning local community radio station celebrates three decades on the air with a second-line, plus a blowout show at Tipitina's, its very first broadcast home. The anniversary second-line will feature the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club and the Camel Toe Lady Steppers, led by the Treme Brass Band. Confirmed performers for the Tipitina's birthday blowout include Theresa Andersson, Kirk Joseph, John "Papa" Gros, Willie Green and longtime WWOZ DJ Soul Sister spinning vintage funk and soul.
Where: Second-line begins at Decatur Street and Elysian Fields Avenue; show at Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Ave., 504.895.8477
When: Saturday; second-line at noon, show at 10 p.m.
Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door.
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