WWOZ: The Most Magical Radio Station

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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.

In New Orleans For Mardi Gras

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First, I’d like to apologise for the delay in updating this blog since my last post. In my life I’ve moved from a slightly chaotic period to one of relative calm, which seems appropriate as we’ve now moved from carnival season into Lent.

But in this post I’ll be looking back to carnival, as this year I was lucky enough to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras for the first time. I’ve always visited before during high summer and, despite the heat locals always say they hate and the fact that it’s supposed to be slow season, I’ve always loved the city as it is then, stretched out and languid.

But I’d been told that the weeks between Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras day itself, New Orleans’ carnival season – and yes, it is a season here not just a day, is the time when the city is most itself. So when the opportunity arose to visit at this time, I couldn’t say no.

Sadly pancakes (and work commitments) were calling me home for the big Tuesday itself, but I was in New Orleans for the week immediately preceding it and got to witness seven of the city’s Mardi Gras parades. These, which range from elaborate processions of floats, marching bands and dancers to chilled-out communal fancy dress walking parties, are some of the high points of carnival festivities in the city, and my focus in this post – I’m planning to cover other carnival topics in later ones.

But before I get onto the highs, I feel I should deal with the very few downers to my week. Let’s start with the cold. Having left a wintry London behind me, I was hoping for some subtropical sun, or at least a bit of spring, but the New Orleans I found was cold, cloudy, and rainy and quite a lot like, well, how London is most of the year. I was impressed with how NOLA-ites went about in sports jackets and shorts, but to see what was happening on the streets I had to pull on the winter coat that I’d been hoping not to have to get out of my suitcase until I landed at Heathrow again.

Then there was getting hit in the eye with a flying doubloon. This was a parade throw, of which more later, and gave me a lovely bloodshot eye just a little bit too early for Halloween. But on the plus side, I think I can now tick one more item off that long, long list of “only in New Orleans” experiences. And I got to keep the doubloon.

But these aspects of my trip were in every way outweighed by the pluses. I had king cake for breakfast every day (if you don’t know what that it, see my last post). And because I was eating breakfast by myself mostly, I got the baby every time. Which I think must make me New Orleans royalty – at least I felt that way every time I started my day by getting psyched up on black coffee, sweet cream cheese, and purple and green icing. Once again, only in New Orleans…

Then there were my parade throws, the freebies every float rider, cyclist or walker in a New Orleans parade since the dawn of time has been obliged by law (or compelled by some mystical Mardi Gras magic at least) to fling out into the cheering crowds that line their routes. Beads are traditional and I certainly got plenty of those, particularly in the city’s carnival colours of purple, green and gold, but what follows is rough inventory of just some of the rest of my loot.

Metre-long ropes of plastic pearls, a gummy yellow crown that flashes green when you press a button on its bottom, a set of makeup brushes, a soft toy rat, a monogrammed (and hologrammed) drinking cup, some Reeses Pieces (particularly precious as these American delicacies are not easily available in the UK), and a Mardi Gras Barbie. I don’t feel I’m exaggerating that much if I say that I now never have to buy Christmas decorations or, at a push, Christmas presents, ever again.

Then there’s the sheer spectacle of the parades themselves. The largest ones are confections of jazz bands, blinking lights and flaming torches, and fabulously elaborate and witty floats, some of which you need a good knowledge of New Orleans lore to understand properly. My favourite one, in the fashion-themed Muses parade, showed governor and potential presidential candidate Bobby Jindal as a suited and booted “Insincere Sucker”. Get it?

But I also loved the magic in microcosm of the smaller (mostly) walking and pushbiking parades, like science fiction-themed Chewbacchus or just-for-dogs (with their humans as escorts) Barkus. Both of these parade group (known as a “krewe” in the city) names are plays on the name of one of the biggest players in New Orleans Mardi Gras: “superkrewe” Bacchus, which is fitting given the way in which these smaller krewes lovingly reimagine the traditions of carnival into images that are all their own, a defining impulse of New Orleans carnival across the the city as a whole.

Chewbacchus gave us a dreamy flashlight-lit sequence of over 100 “Rolling Elliots“, dressed in red hoodies and riding bikes with milk floats in them in a homage to film classic E.T. that made me feel nine again.

Meanwhile, my highlight of rainy afternoon-conquering Barkus was seeing a dolled-up pooch perched imperiously in a minature New Orleans beautifully rendered in cardboard to fit the krewe’s 2014 theme: “DOGZILLA: Barkus Licks the Crescent City”.

And these weren’t even the best things about my Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans. What I think I actually liked the most was the interaction between parade-goers. I had all kinds of interesting conversations, had the good fortune to stand next to someone one night who gave an informed and passionate commentary on everything that went past and much else of New Orleans besides, and witnessed many acts of kindness in the crowd, from the giving of simple pieces of advice to sharing out throws to summoning medical help.

These made me realise that in New Orleans being at a parade, even as an outsider, somehow makes you, by some alchemy of opalescence, part of it and therefore, in a small way, part of this city’s long, broad, deep and extraordinary carnival tradition, that still remains all its own.