When it comes to living in the city of jazzmen and bucketmen, of blues and rhythm & blues, of Cajun music, of zydeco, of bounce, of marching bands, of brass bands that march, of shows and second lines to other shows, following our ears can prove difficult business. Fortunately for us, in 1980 a map to the city's musical avenues materialized in the form of four mythological call letters. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," the letters urged, echoing the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. WWOZ 90.7 FM, the brainchild of brothers Jerry and Walter Brock and their gigantic record collections, was to be a station entirely dedicated to New Orleans music.
WWOZ came to town ten years after the birth of Jazz Fest, a celebration now so tangled up in the culture of New Orleans that it has become synonymous with the city. Aptly nicknamed the world's greatest backyard barbeque, Jazz Fest was the earliest successful effort at organized, large-scale musical celebration in the city; it is thanks to Jazz Fest that we get two weekends each year to try and pull the New Orleans music scene together, to see it as a whole. WWOZ offers us this chance (sans the drinking and dancing in the dirt) seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
'OZ Music Director Scott Borne took a few minutes of his Friday morning to feed me a particularly strong cup of coffee.
"This is public radio," he apologized—and to show me the mountain of CD boxes piled in the station's storeroom. In the process of creating a digital music database, the staff is taking on a massive but necessary project. They have somewhere in the range of 21,000 CDs to import, a collection that grows with the never-ending flood of new CDs to their mailbox every week. Fortunately, the studio suffered only minor damage during Katrina. They will not risk losing their collection to another storm.
"You couldn't just start something like this," Borne argues. A native of Metairie, he moved away from the city for college but, like many other New Orleanians who leave town, never stopped listening to the 'OZ. Borne recognizes the importance of preserving and spreading the legacy of local musicians."The tradition that comes with the New Orleans music scene is what allows us to keep moving forward. We need to cherish it and make sure that it stays as vibrant and important as it's always been."
Borne, who also hosts a weekly contemporary jazz set, began volunteering with the 'OZ when he returned to New Orleans in 2005. "It's how most of us started," he explains. He walked into the station just a few months ahead of the storm, a time when his fresh energy was soon to be sorely needed—when the paid position of Musical Director opened up after Katrina, he was quick to fill it.
Though most volunteers with WWOZ remain volunteers, they can't help but take it seriously.
"We have some that come in weekly, never miss," Borne explains. "It's like a job to them." From the fundraising callers to the bookkeepers to the radio celebrities we all know and love (yes, even DJ Soul Sister, host of the long-running Saturday night Soul Power show), nearly everyone at WWOZ works on a volunteer basis. As a community-powered radio program, the station couldn't exist without them. They are the nuts and bolts of the 'OZ machine.
It is to the volunteers' credit that WWOZ has grown from an operation broadcasting live out of a beer closet at Tipitina's, to an award-winning radio station with its own state-of-the-art studio in the heart of the French Market. Regardless of any upgrade in headquarters, however, the most distinguishing aspect of the station is the degree of warmth and realness that still comes through in its broadcasts.
"We aren't NPR-affiliated, so we don't have to worry about being too streamlined," explains Borne. "Not everything rolls out perfect on air." Despite malfunctioning equipment—an all-vinyl show might explore a single record in depth because only one turntable is working—and the inevitable glitches involved in live broadcasting—rowdy crowds of fans might drown out stage-toggling broadcasters at Jazz Fest—the 'OZ show hosts make it work. They made sure we can feel the real person there behind the radio persona. According to Borne, "It's the raw element of the 'OZ broadcast that keeps it true to the city."
In a place with an unusually high degree of interaction between artists and their fans (in what other city does the general public know where to chow down with Kermit Ruffins on any regular Thursday night?) it follows suit that the major radio station, staffed by a group of your everyday New Orleanians, would maintain a strong sense of approachability.
Loveably unpolished, New Orleans is a place where we cherish the authenticity of spontaneous celebration. If an artist walks in during the middle of Borne's Thursday morning set, he runs with it. "Let's interview," he might suggest, "let's play a track." As an 'OZ DJ, he knows that "there's something about that FM signal," something that breeds spontaneity.
The 'OZ is sort of mirror, a place New Orleanians can look to for help in defining the culture of the city, as well as spread it to the rest of the world. The catch is that the purveyors of this culture are common people too—when we tune into 90.7 FM, the DJs behind the curtain are looking right back out at us.
Make sure to tune into WWOZ 90.7 FM during both Jazz Fest weekends for live broadcasts and updates from the fair grounds.