The wonderful wizards of WWOZ
On Dec. 4, 1980, the New Orleans community radio station WWOZ got its federal license — which was a good thing, except for one not-so-minor detail: It had to be on the air within 24 hours. That was no small feat, as the fledgling station didn’t have a physical home at the time. So, on-air personnel taped shows at home and rushed them to the transmitter in Bridge City to get them on the air at 90.7 on the FM dial. It was a harried start, but they got it done. In the process, New Orleans got a radio station dedicated to doing something that remarkably few others did at the time: giving airplay to authentic New Orleans music.
The listener-supported, volunteer-programmed station, which also brings New Orleans music to the world via its website, www.wwoz.org, has office and studio space in a suite across North Peters Street from the French Market. During the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival — hands-down the highlight of the local music calendar — it broadcasts live music from the festival site at the Fair Grounds.
- In its early days, WWOZ operated out of an upstairs beer-storage room at Tipitina’s music club. From that chamber, a DJ could — and occasionally would — drop a microphone through the floor to send the live music over the airwaves.
- The station’s call letters stand for “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and, specifically, this line: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” — meaning the focus is on the music.
- In the HBO series “Treme,” actor Steve Zahn played a character named Davis McAlary who worked as a WWOZ disc jockey. An ‘OZ bumper sticker also decorates the office fridge in the locally shot CBS series “NCIS: New Orleans.”
- On its 1996 album “Friction, Baby,” the New Orleans band Better Than Ezra immortalized the station with a song titled “WWOZ,” which starts with the lyric, “WWOZ is on the air in stereo.”
- After Hurricane Katrina, WWOZ served as a clearinghouse for information on how local musicians fared in the storm. In addition, its internet presence served as a musical balm for countless displaced locals living far from home.
- Among other honors, WWOZ was named one of the top five radio stations in the country by Rolling Stone magazine in 2008. That same year, Esquire magazine named it the Internet Radio Station of the Year.
- In 2012, the station published a cookbook, “That Sounds Good! A Cookbook Celebrating 30 years of WWOZ,” filled with recipes from local musicians and friends of the station.
- Jerry and Walter Brock, who helped found the station to reflect local culture, set up the Nora Blatch Educational Foundation to hold the station’s license. The Blatch Foundation turned over the station’s license in 1987 to the Friends of WWOZ Inc., a nonprofit corporation established by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation to operate the station, guarantee its financial stability and expand its market.
WWOZ is deeply committed to all things New Orleans, with its coverage of parades and second-lines, its attention to local musicians and the music they create, and its presence at Jazz Fest, where the station operates out of a commodious tent just off the Fair Grounds racetrack. It has a cadre of some 600 volunteers who not only work at the station but also go on the air during pledge drives. “First, last and always, WWOZ is about the music of New Orleans, the community of New Orleans,” Chief Operating Officer Arthur Cohen told The Times-Picayune in a 2016 interview. “We’re dedicated to volunteer culture, the localism and to the music community: To exposing music, help keep it alive and to reflect what it’s always been, today and tomorrow.”