I love radio. When I was growing up, it was rare for a Saturday lunchtime not to be accompanied by Any Questions or for a teatime to go by without my mum wanting to listen to The Archers. Radio Days has always been one of my family’s favourite films and my sister is a now a star of the late night airwaves in Melbourne, Australia. And I think radio’s companionable but not intrusive presence has got me through some of the hardest times in my life.
One of my favourite radio stations is WWOZ which, in case you don’t know, is New Orleans’ community-orientated, listener-supported and volunteer-programmed radio station, supported by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation.
On my trip to the city last month, from which I promised more reports in my last post, I was privileged to be able to visit WWOZ’s studios. And this week, WWOZ and what it means are particularly in my thoughts as they’re undertaking one of their twice-annual fundraising drives. So right now seems as good a time as any to write a little about why I love this station so much.
Like me, WWOZ was born in 1980. It’s a small point in the grand scheme of things, but always makes me feel a sense of kinship with the station. It was founded by Jerry and Walter Brock, two musical brothers with huge record collections and its name is a reference to the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” of the famous book and film, specifically the film’s line, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, meaning that attention should be paid primarily to the programme content rather than the personalities of their presenters. However, I have to say that WWOZ’s cast of characters, who bring a range of different talents to the fore – as music experts, as raconteurs, sometimes simply as friendly voices – is one of my very favourite things about it.
The station lived out its early childhood in a series of borrowed rooms and backstreet bars, on occasion lowering a microphone through the floor to catch a live performance. In 1985, it moved to Louis Armstrong Park in the Tremé neighbourhood and after Katrina found a new home in the French Market, in an office building right in the centre of town, thought its dedication to showcasing the personal musical passions of its hosts, upcoming artists and live performance remains in place to this day.
This French Market base is where I was kindly invited to on a Sunday night by the wonderful jazz musician Kathleen Lee, who hosts her weekly “Swing Session” show then and who I was first lucky enough to meet during my visit to Satchmo SummerFest last year.
There were other guests there, far more knowledgeable about New Orleans music than me, and most importantly for late February in Louisiana, a real carnival spirit between friends old and new – sorry for all the chattering, Kathleen! After having been a fan of the station for so long, finally getting to go up into the building, walk through the corridors, and then even take a seat in the studio that I’ve heard so many great broadcasts from really felt like going into Oz and pulling aside that magical green curtain, except that everything was just as magical behind it.
But as wonderful as my visit was, what I really love about WWOZ is the way it makes me feel like I’m in New Orleans when I’m not there. For me, WWOZ always conjures up moods, conversations, places, people from the city while leaving a part of my mind free to pull aside its own curtain and see what’s behind it. This is radio’s magic, and it’s not done better anywhere than at WWOZ.