Bo Diddley and the late "Ready Teddy" McQuiston at the old WWOZ Studos. Photo: Al Kennedy

WWOZ, Where Does It End?

OffBeat’s short post on the departure of Dwayne Breashears (long-time WWOZ Programming Director) as of April 1 created a storm of controversy in the media.

The New Orleans Advocate picked up on the story as did NOLA.com, which expanded the piece into a litany of issues at the station, including staff and volunteer departures at the much-beloved radio station.

The main issues seem to revolve around the changes in the station’s programming and changing focus to become a worldwide force over the last five to 10 years.

Let’s face it: OZ is just not as New Orleans-centric as it used to be. I remember the days of Brown Sugar, Big Mama Rankin, the Duke of Paducah, Billy Delle, Jivin’ Gene, Don and Millie Vappie, Ready Teddy, Gentilly Junior, “The Doctor,” and even Ernie K-Doe, Davis Rogan and Bar-bra Hoovah…and so many more. Those were the good ole days of OZ, and I must admit I miss them. That bodacious flavor of New Orleans big personality is gone. It was a local music and a personality-driven listen, and those days are no more.

Most of the (dis)credit seems to being accruing to General Manager David Freedman, who has achieved the reputation of spending very little real time at the station; recruitment of DJ/programmers who sound more like a homogenous community station from anywhere U.S.A. rather than from New Orleans; the hiring of key people (an interim COO and a development person) from outside New Orleans who are relatively clueless as to the culture; and alleged harassment of dedicated staff members.

Obviously, this shouldn’t be happening. It’s taken the morale of staff at the station to record low levels (most staffers will not say anything publicly for fear being forced out of their jobs—this has happened at the station) and the departure of key staff people, with Breashears being the most high-profile to submit a resignation.

WWOZ was always a fun, happy place to be—disorganized as hell (Freedman once told me that its “disorganization was part of its charm”–!)—but nonetheless represented New Orleans music in a way that not only appealed to us locals who were music freaks, but the thousands of New Orleans music fanatics worldwide. It seems now that growing pains have taken it down the wrong road and the station is becoming very corporatized, homogenized and oh-so-vanilla.

That’s a shame, because WWOZ is a jewel in the crown of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which owns its license (the license was granted to the Foundation by the Brock Brothers, Jerry and Walter, who created the station in 1981).

When Freedman became general manager in the early 1990s, OffBeat has just begun publishing, and since I loved the station, I offered to help OZ as much as possible via OffBeat. And we did for several years. At some point, though, after OffBeat’s usefulness was no longer required, Freedman decided that a quick buck was more important and abruptly ended the relationship with no notice (long-time readers of the magazine will remember the open letter I wrote to the station). This precipitated a meeting with the WWOZ Governance Board and David Freedman, and that was basically the end of any real relationship we had with the station, although I did approach Freedman over and over again about partnering with the station on several projects. He always blamed his inability to work with us again on the “board.”

But this could be at the heart of the problem. The WWOZ Governance Board consists of people who are appointed by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and community members who are reportedly selected from the community by the General Manager.

Anyone who’s been on a non-profit board knows the issues that can arise between a board and an Executive Director (which, in effect, Freedman is at WWOZ). In a non-profit, the Executive Director is hired by and works for the board, not the other way around. Having the General Manager/ED select board members pretty much guarantees that the GM/ED will be able to do pretty much whatever he wants to do without any real board supervision, approval or oversight. This is obviously a big, big conflict of interest, and surely must lead to major problems. This seems to be what could have happened at WWOZ. From what’s been related to me, the board isn’t overly involved in the management and oversight of the station.

I’ve been on non-profit boards before, and it’s common knowledge that they are usually rife with political intrigue, board member agendas and individual power trips. It’s bad for the non-profit when there are board members who will rubber-stamp whatever is presented as “appropriate for the organization” by an unscrupulous and/or wildly ambitious Executive Director. The smart ED will certainly have made sure to curry the favor of key board members because that way, there will always be supporters who will let the ED get away with whatever he pleases.

I truly believe that the problems with WWOZ have to lead back to the WWOZ Governance Board, which apparently should have been more on top of the reality of the situation at WWOZ; the unhappiness of staff; the use of station money for projects that never came to fruition, or which were not in line with the radio station’s mission.

It seems obvious that David Freedman—who is a great community radio pioneer—has overreached his position at WWOZ, and probably needs to retire for the good of the radio station and its sacred mission. In a very thoughtful letter we published earlier today from ex-staffer Dimitri Apessos, he suggests a rigorous assessment of management at the station. That is a given. I would also suggest a rethinking and restructuring of the WWOZ Governance Board, and holding them more responsible for the station’ operations and finances. Something is not right there, and it needs to be corrected. Or we could lose our ‘OZ. Maybe we already have.

  • Don Paul

    The overview by Jan Ramsey is very good, caring, and close to complete in its assessments, I think. The communities who make New Orleans’ cultures rich should be far more integral to the governance of WWOZ. WWOZ began with them, of them, and for them, and New Orleans and the world will be livelier with them as fundamental leadership.