Reviving the Music of New Orleans' WWOZ
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
For thousands of New Orleanians, life will return to normal, or at the very least, life will begin to make more sense when they can turn their radios on to WWOZ-FM. For 25 years, the station has been the source for all kinds of New Orleans music--jazz, funk, Latin, Afro-Caribbean, Cajun, folk, you name it. WWOZ also served as a performance space, an on-air bulletin board for concerts and second lines, and an online haven for fans of New Orleans music around the world. The station, like many, was knocked out by Hurricane Katrina. Eve Troeh reports on the efforts to get WWOZ back on the air.
EVE TROEH reporting:
WWOZ general manager David Freedman is trying to bring his station back to life in the same seat-of-the-pants manner he used to keep it afloat.
Mr. DAVID FREEDMAN (General Manager, WWOZ): WWOZ. Hey, David. All right, I'm climbing the stairs again.
TROEH: He slipped back into New Orleans on a bogus press pass. He's climbing more than 20 floors of a sweltering stairwell in total darkness to check on the station's tower, antennae and transmitter.
Mr. D. FREEDMAN: We're on top of the 25-story building in downtown New Orleans, which holds our tower way above any possible flood water. However, the higher you go, the stronger the wind. Our tower really took a beating. We have two experienced tower guys. They're gonna scale right up that pole and look at it inch by inch.
TROEH: This is the first up-close look at the station's hardware since it signed off the air at midnight on Friday, August 27th, two days before Katrina struck. WWOZ is known far beyond New Orleans. Ken Freedman, no relation to David Freedman, is general manager of community station WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was the first to step in with an offer to help WWOZ reconnect with listeners.
Mr. KEN FREEDMAN (General Manager, WFMU): As soon as the hurricane happened, the first thing I thought of was WWOZ. I wanted to help get a stream back up just so that they didn't lose their online audience at the same time that they lost their FM audience, 'cause the FM audience obviously scattered all over the country. I just happened to have a ton of New Orleans MP3s in our MP3 library, and we had spare computers. So we just had all the pieces sitting here ready to go.
TROEH: WWOZ in exile was born. The Webcast was linked to the station's home page, which also served as a registry for volunteers and musicians as well as a funnel for donations. When the station went off the air, its bank accounts were almost empty. Since the Webcast began, more than $60,000 has poured in along with tapes, CDs and MP3s of old WWOZ programs, which David Freedman says have been added to the online music mix.
Mr. D. FREEDMAN: People have dug out all their old cassettes and you can hear The Duke of Paducah, who hasn't been heard of in 15 years, and Big Mama and Ernie K-Doe. Actually it's some really vintage programming.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. ERNIE K-DOE: You ain't got to love me. You ain't got to like me, but one thing you know, I'm a good rooster. Burn, K-Doe, burn.
(Singing) Well, I done got over you...
TROEH: Deejays who evacuated to New York and New Jersey even stepped in to WFMU to record new shows.
(Soundbite of radio program)
Mr. DEAN ELLIS: This is Dean Ellis coming to you from Jersey City, New Jersey, place of my birth and now the home of WWOZ in exile, WWOZ-FM in New Orleans, place of my rebirth. We're still buoyant, we're still here, we're still New Orleans, we're still OZ. Here's Lucinda.
(Soundbite of music)
LUCINDA: (Singing) Everybody's telling you, now they're talking about who knows who. I'm going back to the ...(unintelligible) where everything's still the same.
TROEH: The city's not the same, of course. The 400 volunteers who powered OZ are scattered around the country. Some are musicians, cab drivers or waiters who may not be able to afford to come back to New Orleans. But Tom Morgan(ph), an independent investor who's staying in Charlottesville, Virginia, thinks all of OZ's deejays, like himself, can't wait to get back.
Mr. TOM MORGAN (Independent Investor): Missy Bowen(ph), she worked for one of the hospitals; Bob French(ph), who does shows before me, is a displaced musician now. We're all different kind of things that we do. But, you know, we all have such a love for the city and for bringing the city's culture to the people and to the world, I can't imagine too many people not coming back.
TROEH: The station will need all of the extra hands it can get. Back up on the roof in downtown New Orleans, David Freedman looks inside a hut that holds WWOZ's transmitters.
Mr. D. FREEDMAN: This air conditioner came flying out of that window, and that two-ton unit is sitting right between our old transmitter and our brand- new digital, which cost--I don't know--$70,000, $80,000, something like that. But we're fine in this room.
TROEH: With the transmitter intact, OZ may be able to beam a satellite signal from Baton Rouge, where Freedman and about a dozen deejays are making camp for now. Freedman spends a few more hours in New Orleans. He inspects the studios for mold, arranges to have the soggy carpet pulled out, drives past the homes of a few station volunteers and gets a business owner's pass so he can enter the city legally. He sees rebuilding the station as part of a greater social and cultural rebuilding.
Mr. D. FREEDMAN: I think the day that we go on the air from New Orleans is the day that we send a signal out to our community to rally around and come back home. And the quicker we can send that signal out, the healthier it's gonna be for our community and the healthier it's gonna be for the foreseeable future of the culture in New Orleans.
TROEH: This week, David Freedman hopes to build WWOZ on wheels, a mobile studio in a van or RV that he could drive around to wherever OZ deejays and staff have landed. He's hired a crew to drop a satellite dish on the roof of the station's downtown building. Now he's just waiting for the lights to come on. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh.
WERTHEIMER: By the way, we're happy to tell you that NPR's affiliate in New Orleans, WWNO-FM has been broadcasting in that city via satellite from the Atlanta studios of Georgia Public Radio since September 21st.