Photos by RYAN HODGSON-RIGSBEE
A RADIO STATION'S CALL SIGN IS A UNIQUE IDENTIFIER THAT SEPARATES IT from all other broadcasters in the nation, and in our abbreviation-prone country, call letters are usually chosen to signify a geographic location or source of patronage. When Jerry and Walter Brock filled out their federal license to start up a community radio station in New Orleans in 1980, they chose the letters WWOZ, inspired by the Wonderful World of Oz and his demand that no attention should be paid to the man behind the curtain. In the founders’ minds, the varied music of New Orleans, that of generations both past and present, would draw the audience, not the personality of any disc jockey.
Of course, within a few years Ernie K-Doe, an endless flame of personality, had his own weekly show on ‘OZ and routinely veered the non-profit station into treacherous waters merely by name-dropping local businesses on air. In retrospect, when you hand over control of the helm every two or three hours to a different New Orleanian with their own idea of which direction to head, such results are inevitable. While the music takes precedence, one way or another the personalities of the small staff and their crew of volunteers all find their way out onto the airwaves. There’s no need to hijack the frequency when it so readily absorbs you into it.
As a non-profit, the station’s operating income is dependent on grants and pledged funds from listeners, and to gin up supporters the station goes on an eleven day binge of pitching and promoting itself as the greatest radio station in the country (or, in rare instances of cockiness, the universe), the guardians of the groove, and the only place like itself on earth. In between nonstop recitations of the toll-free pledge line number, New Orleans and Louisiana musicians play short live sets, emphasizing that participation in traditions is an ongoing lifestyle.
The performance room where the bands play sounds nice and close like it should, a carpeted room just about 400 square feet with windows into the DJ’s studio, a small engineering booth, and an even smaller production room where items like the daily Livewire music calendar are recorded and edited. On my initial tour of the station, Crystal Gross, the station’s development director, points out some dusty material that has been recently ground into the carpet. “When the bands get going, the paint chips start falling,” she said.
Not that it’s all crumbling charm around here. The station moved to the second floor of the French Market Corporation building on North Peters Street from its longtime home in Armstrong Park in Treme after Katrina swamped the grounds, and most of the equipment has been upgraded since then. Still, there is the slight feel of being inside of a public school office: old steel lockers line the hall; posters from Piano Nights past with dated fonts hang on the walls; a large metal fixture holds individual mailboxes for the show hosts arranged roughly by their position in the weekly schedule. A Kenny G LP overlooks the pigeonholes as a kind of momento mori. “Lest We Forget,” reads a note attached to its cover. Small offices hold multiple occupants and their paraphernalia.
Only about twenty people are on staff here, and each person is almost a department unto themselves. Everyone else who passes through the front door is a volunteer. During a pledge drive, the number of individuals who offer their time--show hosts, pitchmen, engineers, phone operators, and musicians--totals over 300.
There is one bottleneck in the station: the copy room that separates the kitchen from the air studio from which the show hosts broadcast. This is where the communal printer churns out the latest list of new members that need to be thanked on air, where people blow into their coffee before moving on, where calendars, query letters, and calls for donations are posted on a bulletin board. This is where New Orleans arrives and assembles before being transmitted out into the world.
“Our culture is not a given,” James Carville says in a live sermon on Sunday afternoon during Cousin Dmitri’s Acoustic Blues show. Of course, this became painfully obvious during the federal flood, or, as some around the station refer to it, “that thing that happened.”
Though the physical damage forced a change of venue for ‘OZ and the mental toll claimed some staff and volunteers, WWOZ’s spirit remained intact and received almost daily aid from the listeners from outside Louisiana the station had amassed since their early adoption of online streaming. The cultivation of a real community on wwoz.org proved to be a major part of the station’s ability to survive. For many, WWOZ is a conduit to New Orleans culture whether they’ve been here or not, almost like a front office for the city, a true one-stop shop. In this scenario, of course, the most visible (or audible) people are the show hosts.
For some people, listening and loving music isn’t enough. they have to be closer to it, observe its origins and classify its evolutions. All of the show hosts I spoke to fit this mold, occupying their own point on the continuum between collector and fact junkie, fanboy and participant, booster and kingmaker. While there can be the occasional brush of egos, the disagreements are usually over the interpretation of the Crescent City scripture, not the infallibility of it.
Each host has their own spin on the pitch process as well, their own estimation of their audience and how to coax it into giving. Charles Laborde, who hosts the Cajun and Zydeco show assigns French names to each of the donation levels and offers merci mille fois. Sherwood Collins brings enthusiasm for funding the new transmitter that will push a clear signal to his hometown of Houma for the first time. Hazel the Delta Rambler can remember when you measured your music collection by the yard, not the megabyte and worries about the shrinking amount of specialty content available to people without computers, HD radios, and smartphones. She makes more plainspoken pleas to her bluegrass aficionado audience.
“My show comes from my heart,” says DJ Soul Sister, explaining the mentality she shares with other longtime programmers. “The people who do it and last are the ones who want to share the music. For us, it’s not about personal gain at all. And the ones who don’t think that way aren’t around for very long.”
Soul Sister started as an office volunteer herself, stuffing envelopes and licking stamps one afternoon a week while also starting out as a college radio DJ. She answered phones for the pledge drive, did voice overs, became a regular. Eventually she was mentored by Nina Ketner, host of a soul music show in the nineties, and when Ketner decided to leave New Orleans, she gave Soul Sister the chance to replace her. Now, almost 20 years later, she’s still dropping needles and preaching the power of music.
Crystal Gross believes that the station’s openness is its main strength. “The fact that we’re volunteer-based and how we use our volunteer team is incredible. We allow each person to participate. We aren’t one identity or way; we’re a collective.”
On the final day of the pledge drive, a middle-aged couple from San Francisco spot the WWOZ sign and, being longtime fans who have already made their annual pledge, decide to poke their heads in. They’ve arrived at a prime moment: Jason Stewart and his band are in the middle of a short jazz set in the performance room. They bemoan the fact that community radio around the country consists of majority news and talk programming.
“Don’t we have enough news?” asks Louis, the volunteer who is showing them around.
Of course, there is plenty of news available on the station’s website, from second line skeds to benefit bits, but here in the wonderful world of OZ, it is the music that subsidizes the talk. It all starts with the open door policy the station has had since the lean, laissez faire 80’s. Local musicians stop by with instruments or demos, and OZ gives them access to a wide audience already primed for their flavor.
So when the call goes out at pledge time, most musicians are more than happy to heft their gear and brave the dearth of French Quarter parking to come on air and play something unique. They get up early the day after a gig. They take a long lunch from their day job. They drive up from Reserve just to play two-step triangle. They set up fast and drop right into songs like switching on a light.
For some of them, like James Andrews, WWOZ is a friendly venue filled with familiar faces. He offers up the crowd favorites “Bourbon Street Parade” and “St. James Infirmary,” a song almost overplayed on OZ in its various versions. Yet Andrews offers an original ivetake on the melody, playing in constant counterpoint with his trombonist. After his session he makes sure his backup players know where to find something to eat.
Others, like Michael Juan Nunez, approach the task with awe and humility in their hearts, as if the performance room was sacred ground. He sets up directly on the other side of the glass from the Problem Child, the Blues Breakdown’s soft-voiced host, lyric cheat sheets arrayed at his feet. His heel pops in time with the song he hand picks on a silver resonator. He has his mouth on a mic, his eyes on his hands, his voice going out to the world. For a couple of moments, he is the sole representative of Louisiana blues to listeners throughout the world, singing of the devil and hitting harmonic accents. Before his on air time is up, he personally thanks the studio for what they do. Problem Child reads the pledge line phone number again. You never know who is just tuning in.
Eddie Bo’s baby grand sits in the corner of the performance room, a gift from the piano giant’s family after his death in 2009. Even though it is a cultural artifact, it is not a museum piece. It might get dusted from time to time, but it’s never been sent downstairs to the men with latex gloves for painstaking restoration. It doesn’t stand on quiet display behind a stanchion explained by a plaque. You can not only breathe on it, you can sit on its bench and run your fingers over its edges where the black lacquer has worn away from use and action.
It is there not only to be played on but composed on, improvised on, included. It is the bearer of recitals and renditions, hesitant trial notes and final fortissimos. The instrument’s voice did not cease with its owner’s. It has a chance, now and for as long as is necessary, to enchant and entertain so long as there are people willing to approach it and keep it dry, safe, and in tune.
There is a reason that piano fits right in at WWOZ.
Click here for more photos from Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee of WWOZ's Piano Night, featuring images of Marco Benevento, Ike Stubblefield, and more!