WWOZ, 90.7 FM, the radio station that’s inspired a vast community of listeners in the New Orleans area and beyond, marks its 34th birthday Friday at Tipitina’s.
The station picked a fitting location for its celebration. WWOZ began at Tipitina’s, making its on-air debut from the club’s second floor on Dec. 4, 1980.
Initially, the station broadcast just one song, continuously via a tape loop, “Keep Cool Babylon,” by reggae group Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. Taped content, albeit much more varied, remained the norm for years.
WWOZ cofounders Jerry and Walter Brock were protégés of Lorenzo Milam, the West Coast pioneer of listener-supported, community radio. The Brock brothers moved from Dallas to New Orleans to launch WWOZ. From the station’s beginning, playing New Orleans jazz and rhythm-and-blues was the mission.
Performers at Friday’s party for WWOZ represent New Orleans’ music history, present and future.
Davell Crawford is the grandson of one of the city’s classic R&B performers, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford. A singer-pianist like his grandfather, Crawford will play a tribute to another classic New Orleans artist, singer-pianist James Booker.
Singer-keyboardist Ivan Neville will perform a tribute to the Neville Brothers, a group that features his father, Aaron, and his uncles Art, Charles and Cyril.
Another of Friday’s entertainers, DJ Soul Sister, aka Melissa Weber, started her WWOZ program, “Soul Power,” in 1994. Specializing in funk, soul and hip-hop from the 1970s and early ’80s, she spins her “rare groove” vinyl recordings Saturdays at the station from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
In addition to Weber’s 20-year stand at WWOZ, she was the last DJ to broadcast from the station’s former location in Armstrong Park. Just before Hurricane Katrina forced WWOZ to go dark, Weber played “What The Heck, Let’s Discotheque,” from the self-titled 1975 album by the disco-jazz-funk band Side Effect.
Weber, WWOZ general manager David Freedman said, has developed a tremendous following.
“When she came in, she was working on a concept,” Freedman said last week at the station, which has shared a historic French Quarter building with the French Market Corporation since December 2005. “She has flowered into a major talent.”
Speaking of Crawford, Freedman said, and his grandfather, who recorded the Mardi Gras classic “Jock-A-Mo” in 1953, “the genius hasn’t left the family. We’re blessed to have Davell grace us with his presence.”
Freedman, like the Brock brothers, is a Milam protégé. He joined WWOZ’s board in 1989 and became its general manager in 1992.
Freedman oversaw landmarks in the station’s progress, including the launch of live performance broadcasts from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1993, WWOZ’s pioneering presence on the Internet and its early entry into audio streaming (1994 and 1995 respectively).
When Freedman became WWOZ’s general manager, the station had four paid staff members. Today it has a paid staff of 20 and 650 volunteers. The volunteers include vastly knowledgeable DJs who command huge record collections.
Thanks to the station’s Web presence, more than 50 percent of its contributions come from beyond the geographical area its over-the-air signal reaches.
“We have 57,000 listeners in New York City, 25,000 in the San Francisco Bay area,” Freedman said.
“Eighty-five percent of our income comes from people donating money to us,” he added. “It’s not a great business model. Because if listeners don’t send us money, we can’t cut them off like cable television does. But people pay us to stay on the air, even though they don’t have to.”