Guardians of the Groove: How a Community Radio Station Became an Archive of Music History

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WWOZ 90.7FM is a rarity among community radio stations. Where most have gone off the air in the decades since streaming music services debuted, WWOZ has grown from a favorite among locals to being heard all over the world. Named for the Wonderful Wizard of OZ, this station encourages you to pay no attention to the personalities behind the curtain but to focus on the music instead.

Photo Credit: ACloserWalkNola.com.  This bright yellow sign hangs outside WWOZ’s French Market station.


From Humble Beginnings

Jerry and Walter Brock came to New Orleans on a mission. Originally from Texas, the two brothers had a dream of starting a community radio station which focused on New Orleans and Louisiana music. In 1976, they were able to secure the 90.7 FM frequency and went on to create the Nora Blatch Educational Communication Foundation to hold their national broadcasting license. It took them four years of fundraising, negotiating, and paperwork, but in 1980, the license was finalized. At last, WWOZ could hit the air.


But even that was far from smooth. Their initial broadcasts were in Bridge City since that’s where their antennae and transmitter had been set up for testing. It wasn’t until several months later the brothers were able to rent a shabby apartment above the now-famous Tipitina’s music venue and move the OZ operation in New Orleans. While there, if the DJs could get permission from the band, they would lower a microphone through the floorboards and broadcast the music live.

Photo Credit: WWOZ. The original 1980 schedule for WWOZ programming bears quite a few resemblances to todays.


The Treehouse Years

After a few years, the station moved into a three-room building in Armstrong Park. Commonly called the “Treehouse”, the Brock brothers knew the relocation called for a celebration. So, the call went out asking for 90.7 brass players to parade to the park. They got what they asked for in the form of 90 musicians and a 7-year-old to lead the parade.

Photo Credit: WWOZ. Dr. John stops by the WWOZ building in Armstrong Park in 1993.


Being a community station, the money was tight, but the people involved loved the venture so much they brought their own records from home to play over the air and often paid for the tape to record broadcasts made from the early OZ. The station remained in Armstrong Park until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina necessitated relocating to a new building in the French Market.


Jazz Fest and Beyond


In 1987, the Brock brothers transferred WWOZ’s broadcasting license to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s newly created Friends of WWOZ. This alliance would help to subsidize the station and advance both of their missions to preserve and promote local music. The OZ had already broadcast live from several Jazz Fests at that point, so making the station the official and only station allowed to do so helped take the station to a new level of popularity.


Never ones to sit on their laurels, the WWOZ broke new ground in 1996 when they began to stream music worldwide over the internet. Commonplace now, at the time this kind of forward-thinking was rare. But the gamble paid off and brought in new listeners from all over the globe.


An Archive for the Masses


After Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed much of the station’s recordings, they partnered with the Library of Congress’ Recorded Sound Research Center. WWOZ donated over 2000 individual pieces of media to be digitized and archived by the Library of Congress with the agreement that OZ would get copies of all the media back for their own use. This benefitted the station greatly as it ensured the thousands of rare performances they’d spent decades curating would be safe from calamity and also available to anyone who wished to visit the Recorded Sound Research Center in Washington D.C.


Festing in Place


Being sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation comes with its perks. While Jazz Fest is postponed until October this year, the OZ is still helping us all to Fest in Place with two weekends of music from Jazz Fests past. So, why not tune in to the most unique community radio station in America this May and enjoy some music that can be found in no other place on Earth?