Few independent community radio stations today have the impact that New Orleans’ WWOZ FM has. ‘OZ has perhaps the most loyal and active listenership even over several commercial stations, with other cities looking to it as listener-supported model to mirror. “The Guardians of the Groove” preserve New Orleans music on air, and on the web, 365 days a year. This week, WWOZ is celebrating its 33rd year of delivering New Orleans music to our community and to the world, and everyone is invited to the party — both parties, that is. The WWOZ Birthday Bash is Thursday night (December 5) at Tipitina’s and the WWOZ Block Party is Saturday afternoon (December 7) on Basin Street in front of Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy.
Although founders Jerry and Walter Brock formally registered the Nora Blatch Educational Communication Foundation in 1976 for the purpose of applying for a license for a community FM station in New Orleans, it was not until four years later, on December 4, 1980, that WWOZ FM officially went on the air. Did you know that WWOZ’s first office was on the second floor of the legendary music venue, Tipitina’s, at that time? But in its first six weeks of operation, all WWOZ programming was actually pre-recorded on reel-to-reel tape and played directly from the transmitter shed at the base of the station’s tower at Nine Mile Point in Bridge City.
WWOZ remained at Tips until 1984, when it moved to the three-room Kitchen Building in Armstrong Park, the place that many listeners know as the home of the station, with administrative offices were across from the park in a cramped building on St. Philip Street. In 1986, just two years later, the station’s license was transferred to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the non-profit organization that still holds it today (the Foundation also contributes monetary support to ‘OZ annually). That same year, WWOZ’s broadcast transmitter and antenna moved to the New Orleans CBD.
Over the next 20 years, the little station would grow to become a benchmark for independent, community-driven radio — not just in New Orleans, but across the country and around the world. Back then the station’s volunteer “programmers” were eclectic, to say the least, and included the likes of Ernie K-Doe, Brown Sugar, Billy Delle, Big Mama, the Duke of Paducah, DJ Davis Rogan (whose likeness is played out in Steve Zahn’s character on HBO’s Treme series), and many more. OffBeat worked closely with ‘OZ and helped grow the station’s prestige with its readers by publishing a WWOZ newsletter in the magazine every month, and by sponsoring the “Live Wire” music listing announcements for many years.
In August 2005, WWOZ went off the air when the city was evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. With support from radio stations and listeners, WWOZ was streaming again on the internet within days, and broadcasting from their New Orleans transmitter in a matter of weeks, from studios housed temporarily at Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s facilities in Baton Rouge. Because power was not restored to Armstrong Park for quite some time, WWOZ moved to a new studio in the French Market in early December of 2005, almost exactly 25 years after first going on the air. OffBeat has honored WWOZ’s programming at the Best of the Beat Music Business Awards many times over recent years as a recipient of the excellence in radio broadcasting award.
WWOZ brings its staff, its radio show hosts and a slew of dedicated New Orleans artists back to the location of its very first office this Thursday, December 5 for its 33rd Birthday Bash at Tipitina’s (501 Napoleon Ave). The Hot 8 Brass Band, the Mario Abney Effect, WWOZ’s own “Cuttin Class” program student band, the Red Wolf Brass Band and ‘OZ Saturday night “Block Party” show host, DJ Brice Nice, are scheduled to perform. Tickets are $21 general admission or $68 VIP with exclusive balcony access, including complimentary food from Tivoli & Lee and an open bar from Old New Orleans Rum. VIP entry begins at 6:30 p.m. and general admission doors are at 7:30 p.m. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. and advance tickets are available via Tipitina’s here. The proceeds from Thursday night’s Birthday Bash will support WWOZ’s free year-round programming.
But if Thursday night’s jam is not enough for you, bring the whole family out to the annual WWOZ Block Party this Saturday afternoon, December 7 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Basin Street in front of Kermit Ruffin’s Tremé Speakeasy (1535 Basin St). Guitar Slim and the Baby Boyz Brass Band will perform live, and Kermit will personally be running the BBQ. WWOZ will also host a blow-out merchandise sale in their pop-up tent at the block party, all proceeds to support station programming. The WWOZ Block Party is free, all ages and open to the public.
For more information, please visit www.wwoz.org or tune in to 90.7 FM on your New Orleans radio dial.