For the 48th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Vanessa Murphree about the rocky and trailblazing history of one of the first community radio stations to offer online streaming, WWOZ 90.7 FM in New Orleans.
Vanessa Murphree is a full professor in the School of Communication at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she teaches courses in Media History and Public Relations. She is the author of “Universal Localism: WWOZ Community Radio, 1980-2006” in the March 2020 issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi School of Communication.
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history.
This episode is sponsored by the University of Southern Mississippi School of Communication. The school offers educational opportunities in mass communication, communication studies, and media and entertainment arts. We take pride in our successful internship program and career placement as well as undergraduate research and collaboration opportunities.
For almost forty years, the sounds of New Orleans have aired over WWOZ 90.7 FM, a pioneer in community radio. The formula has always been the same:
the focus is never on the deejays but on the music itself – traditional and contemporary jazz, swing, blues, R&B, Caribbean, folk music, and any other sounds unique to the Big Easy. If ever an on-air personality is tempted to spend more time on talk than tunes, they need only remember the station’s call letters. WWOZ stands for the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the wizard spoke one of the most famous lines in film history when he told Dorothy to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Since 1980, that philosophy has guided WWOZ through a rocky existence, marked by internal conflict, financial peril, and a devastating hurricane that forced the station to relocate. Today, WWOZ is recognized as a trailblazer, one of the first community radio stations to expand its listenership through streaming and webcasting technology.
In this episode, we enter into the Land of Oz with Vanessa Murphree, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Vanessa, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Vanessa Murphree: Thank you, Nick. I’m very happy to be here.
Nick Hirshon: Well, we’re very glad that you’re here. You have written a really fascinating piece of community radio history, and I want to ask you a few questions. Before we get into the station that you wrote about specifically, WWOZ, you mention in your paper kind of the significance of some other stations that came before it, including KPFA in Berkeley, California –.
Vanessa Murphree: Right.
Nick Hirshon: The first station to have a community radio license that was not affiliated with a church or a school. I found that very interesting. The involvement of educational institutions or religious institutions in the history of community radio. So could you give us some background just on the early history of community radio before we get to WWOZ?
Vanessa Murphree: Uh, sure. It started out on the West Coast, and Lou Hill was pretty much the founder of that, and he was really focused on more free-form programming.
And it sort of has roots in World War II progressive politics, activist politics. And from there, from his first station, he started a few more through the Pacifica Foundation. And these were nonprofits. People donated money and some people had their own money they invested in their stations. And that was around 1949.
And then in the early ’60s, Lorenzo Milam started the KRAB, K-R-A-B, station in Seattle, and then he moved on to develop more stations and had one in Texas. And that’s actually where the Brock Brothers got involved in community radio and they’re the ones who started WWOZ.
Nick Hirshon: So as we move forward to talking about the Brocks in 1978: Walter Brock, a former director of a community radio station in Dallas –
visited New Orleans, and you write in your study, he “sowed the seeds” of WWOZ, the station that we’re gonna focus on today, and Walter Brock became the station manager with some help from his brother, Jerry, who was a former executive from CBS Records.
So what was the Brocks’ vision for the station? What did they want to accomplish with WWOZ?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, I think that initially they had a record collection and they brought that to New Orleans, and there was just one station left. So they knew they needed to come here and get the license for that community radio station. And I think initially they thought they would be playing sort of all kinds of music, not just New Orleans music. But when they got here, they discovered that there were so many varieties of New Orleans music. They knew about Louis Armstrong, of course, but they found out about Cajun and Zydeco and different varieties of blues music and different varieties of jazz music that they decided –
that they would focus primarily on New Orleans music.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m gonna ask you, obviously, more specifically, some things about this station. But if we could just take kind of a break here to say what made you decide to research WWOZ? Are you from New Orleans? Or what’s the connection between you and this station?
Vanessa Murphree: Yes, I’ve lived in New Orleans on and off, but mostly on since 1993. So I have a pretty long history here, and the station’s just been near and dear to my heart, and I think that’s true of most anybody who lives in New Orleans.
Nick Hirshon: Mm.
Vanessa Murphree: And then as we’ll talk about, we’ll get to later on in the paper, Hurricane Katrina had a huge impact on the station and the community, of course. And so I was living through some of that and knew some of the people involved in the station.
Nick Hirshon: Okay, well, for sure. And, definitely, we want to get to Katrina. Looking at the early history of the station, I had mentioned in the introduction that I’m recording, before I get on the air here with you, that the Brocks –
wanted the station to be driven by the music, not the people playing it. That whole idea of wonderful Wizard of Oz, not about the man behind the curtain, it’s supposed to be about the music. So how did that –.
Vanessa Murphree: Right.
Nick Hirshon: Kind of play out on air? How was that philosophy seen by the listeners?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, it was pretty awesome, and I’m so glad I had a chance to be here in the early ’90s and I wish I could have been here in the ’80s. But it was – and it’s still true today, it’s volunteer deejays. So you know, there was management and those people are paid, but the, if you listen to WWOZ, the people that you’re gonna hear from are volunteering their time because they love the music.
And there is no playlist. You know, they would bring their own music in and play whatever they wanted to play and say whatever they wanted to say. And some of the deejays were also musicians and local artists, local personalities. Ernie K. Doe, who’s famous for the song “Mother-In-Law,” he was probably one of the more famous and more colorful ones.
I think there is a clip on YouTube of Ernie K. Doe on WWOZ that’s well worth a listen if you want to get a feel for what the old days were like. But it wasn’t a typical deejay. It was just people who knew the music, who loved the music and loved the city. And it was just a really great way to grasp the culture of the city by listening to this station.
Nick Hirshon: And so certainly your paper shows that this was a trailblazing station, pioneering station, but also it kinda had a rocky history. You described how the Brocks faced some challenges in running the station. For one, WWOZ did not have a physical location. Some hosts were recording programs at home and taking them to a transmitter shack in Bridge City, Louisiana, for broadcasting.
And in 1981, the station moved to a room above a music venue in New Orleans. In ’84, they moved into a three-room facility near the French Quarter. So how did all these moves affect the operation of the station? When they’re moving around did that somehow affect or even reflect the station’s evolution?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, I think it does, and each move, you know, they moved up to a much nicer place. Yeah, I love that phrase “transmitter shacks,” ’cause there really wasn’t even a station, but that was just for about six months. And then, uh – which I think was typical. It was very seat-of-the-pants. It was a lot of work to get the license and once they got it, you know, they had to go on air and they just had to move fast and do the best they could with, you know, very little money and very little staff. And then within six months, they were upstairs in Tipitina’s, a legendary music venue.
When you talk to people who were listenin’ to the station back in the day, they’ll tell you stories about, you know, that there was no air conditioning up there and the windows were open and you could hear the bus going by on the radio and things like that. But the most famous story about those Tipitina’s days was that the deejays had a hole in the floor and when the bands –
would come through Tipitina’s, they would just drop the mic down and have live performances on air. So that’s kind of fun. But those rooms are still up there. They’re used for other things now, but there’s a lot of history in those early days at Tipitina’s.
And then by 1984, they moved to a small two-story building in the corner of Armstrong Park, which was fine. It flooded in Katrina, so that was the reason for that move at that time, and then they did some fundraising and they were able to move to a very nice studio that’s in the French Quarter.
Nick Hirshon: And as you were describing that, it almost sounds like where they were located kind of added to the authenticity. You’re saying you can hear kind of the sounds of – the true sounds of New Orleans, not just the music, but actually maybe the street traffic, maybe what’s going on in the venue right beneath them. Does that kind of add to maybe why people from New Orleans love this station so much, it really reflects the sounds that they experience every day?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, that, that was true when they were in Tipitina’s. I don’t – and yes, I think when you talk – as I said, when you talk to people who remember those days, they almost inevitably will point that out, that, you know, the sounds of Tipitina’s, the sounds of Tchoupitoulas Street were, you know, part of what we heard on the radio, or part of what they heard. I didn’t get to hear it at that time.
And then when they moved to Louis Armstrong Park, it was more closed off and had air conditioning, so I don’t think that, you know, you had those same sounds. But it was cool they were in a place called Louie Armstrong Park, and now the location they have is much more typical of a radio station.
Nick Hirshon: Sure.
Vanessa Murphree: With studios and all that in it.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. Well, and then as they went into the late ’80s, they endure this tough stretch. You mention in your paper how a river barge knocked down the broadcast tower. All of the station’s employees resigned in protest of the hiring of an unpopular general manager.
Then a few years later, all fourteen members of the board of directors resigned. There were lots of other internal conflicts, financial emergencies, and it looked like the station might even go under.
But then you mention, in 1992, the station hired David Freedman as its general manager, and you describe Freedman’s hiring as “one of the best decisions ever made at the station.” Why was that one of the best decisions they ever made?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, it was pretty ramshackle up until the time that he came along. Uh, and, you know, as you pointed out, there were lots of internal conflicts. And when I read the news articles about those days and look at some of the papers of the conflicts, I’m very grateful that they survived because they just barely did survive because there was so much going on.
But David Freedman just, you know, he had a plan. He had a vision. He was organized. He was good with people. He was a great manager and he just kinda took it by the helm and –
set the – set things straight and got things in order. So that was very awesome and he remained the general manager for many years.
Nick Hirshon: And you mentioned how under Freedman, the station became what you called a streaming pioneer. That’s one of the main ideas behind your paper here, why WWOZ is so important. When I was reading your article, I was surprised to find out that Freedman was pushing for a website with webcasting capabilities for the station in 1994, and online programming began in February of 1995. That seems really early, the very early days of the Internet, and yet Freedman somehow recognized that potential. So how did that kind of play into the history of WWOZ?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, it was an amazing, wonderful thing because a small community radio station of any sort, and this is an example, is constantly struggling for money, and there’s a limited audience. You know, the –
city of New Orleans supports the station but it’s just a constant struggle for money. So they would do on-air fund drives twice a year and that was their primary source of fundraising. But through the Internet, of course, they were able to capture an international audience. Of course, not much back in ’95, but now, and through the years, they began to collect more and more money outside of the city of New Orleans, whereas back in the early ’90s most all of the money was coming from the city because those were the only people who were able to hear the station.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. And, you know, you mentioned how streaming widened the listening audience and that led to greater fundraising success. The station’s website received an average of 700,000 hits per month and about 10 percent of the $250,000 raised during that year’s spring fund drive came from online listeners. So they certainly recognized that going beyond the geographic region of New Orleans would lead to –
maybe more financial stability for a station that had struggled with that over the years.
Vanessa Murphree: Yes, I think David Freedman, he had that vision and he knew that could happen. Of course, WWOZ is a unique station because it’s in a unique city. So, we also had a huge advantage because we were in New Orleans, visitors, you know, come here by the hundreds of thousands every year, large conventions, and people would become endeared to the station because it’s a very unusual, wonderful station, you know, without the typical commercial playlist or typical commercials, for that matter.
And so people who visited here could take the music with them through the Internet and would also be hearing the fundraising drives. So it was a way to kind of expand the New Orleans community throughout the world, even, and to raise money throughout the world.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, it certainly makes WWOZ stand out –
as a pioneer in this field, as you said. You also alluded earlier to this catastrophe that struck New Orleans that we’re all familiar with. In 2005, that August, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans was massively flooded. Many people had to relocate. WWOZ, for a while, had to move to Baton Rouge, and David Freedman was quoted as saying in your paper that the station’s mission expanded. “We no longer had to rebuild a community radio station. We had to rebuild our community.”
So during Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans was facing probably its most significant crisis in maybe its entire history, what role did WWOZ play in trying to rebuild that city?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, first, it played a huge role just in collecting people. It was a really interesting time in that – and I was, uh, I was actually in Mobile at that time, –
but back and forth between Mobile and New Orleans, and it – we all had cellphones pretty much. You know, we had cut our landlines by then, but the cellphone towers were all down so people couldn’t contact each other.
And maybe, you know, maybe we knew that our best friend went and stayed with her mother in Texas but, you know, we didn’t know the mother’s name. We certainly didn’t know the phone number. So it was really difficult to figure out where people were and connect, and people were feeling a great loss. And so for the, primarily the musicians’ community, it was the same, you know, where is everybody and are they okay? And people were scattered all throughout the country.
So, that was one of the first things they did was they had a blog that just kind of – for people to report in, and find out where they were and what they were doing and how we could – how people could reach ’em. So it kind of became, you know, a community without this physical –
community. It held the musician community together even though they were scattered all about the country. So that was a very significant thing.
Also, they became more focused on particular causes, looking out for the musicians, whether it be health care, health insurance and just thinking about how they can help the New Orleans community recover rather than just playing the music, which, of course, they continued to do throughout the crisis and for the years of recovery afterwards. Quite a few years of recovery going on.
Nick Hirshon: You know, we hear so much today about distrust of the media. Of course, sometimes stoked by politicians but lots of people who just feel that the media has let them down, has failed them, is maybe out to get them. It seems like, though, in this period, WWOZ was able to kind of show the community that it cared and really played –
a very important role in connecting people who were trying to find each other amid this terrible situation. I just wonder, do you think there is any lessons there about how WWOZ handled Hurricane Katrina and the communication in its aftermath? Maybe something that stations or news outlets can do today to try to regain the trust of the public?
Vanessa Murphree: Um, yeah, I kinda think of WWOZ and community radio as in a bit of a different category than the New York Times or the Times-Picayune or our typical newspapers, but – because I think it has always sort of been a friend to its audience, and I don’t think it gets too much criticism other than maybe people wish they played more of one kind of music and less of another. But yes, there was certainly a lesson to be learned –
about, you know, how the media can be used to bring people back together.
Now, of course, technology has changed a lot. It’s, now we sit here, it’s kinda hard to remember that as recently as 2005 we didn’t have social media. You know, a blog was sort of the cutting-edge thing and they did use the blogs to reach out to people. And, the other thing that was more emotional, I think was, you know, people were all scattered about and being able to listen to the station online really made them feel comforted and gave them a sense of being back home even though they were far, far from home.
Nick Hirshon: Mm. Well, and as someone myself who has studied the early history of television, I know it can be very hard to find sources that help us as historians tell that story. It just wasn’t recorded.
There were a lot of people in the early years of TV and radio, I imagine, who didn’t think to record these things, maybe those technologies weren’t even available, and so it makes it a little bit more difficult for you. How did you go about telling the story of WWOZ?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, first, I was fortunate enough to have a friend. Isn’t that a great way to start a research paper? And that was John Terry Cooper, who is mentioned in the paper. And he was the webmaster, as they called them back then. And I remember going to – WWOZ always had a tent at Jazz Fest, and I remember going there to visit him and just the excitement that – how excited he was to be doing these live broadcasts on the Internet, you know, in the late ’90s.
And there were problems and technical difficulties but I kinda got to watch, you know, some of that from the very beginning. So I realized, you know, that that was historical, –
you know, not just for WWOZ but really for all radio stations. You know, they had the possibilities of getting an international audience. So that was great. So I, of course, interviewed him.
And then he knew other people who worked at WWOZ and I interviewed David Freedman and David Cash, who also worked on the webpages and the web designers, and a couple more people who worked there. So I started with that and those were very interesting, enriching interviews.
And then the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, is thankfully the whole run of it is available online, so I was able – and it’s searchable, so I was able to go through that and pick out, you know, all the newspaper articles about WWOZ and piece together some of the history, particularly those early years, before David Freedman joined the station, when they were having so many conflicts and things going on.
Most of that, I think, came from Times-Picayune articles, but there’s also some other publications, Gambit and OffBeat are two – OffBeat’s almost a hundred percent music entertainment related and Gambit’s got some local news but also entertainment. They both had quite a few archival resources available as well.
And the station, WWOZ.org, the online page has some archival materials there that helped out too, so. So piecing the media coverage and the interviews and some of the documents that my interviews gave me were primarily how I found all the things.
Nick Hirshon: I’m so glad that you were able to find these unconventional sources, so to speak. I mean some of them, obviously, are traditional. We try to use oral history interviews, trade publications, but you know, you think you’re doing a piece –
on a radio station and your primary source would be maybe the archives at the station and all of these original recordings but when those are not available, I’m glad you were able to connect with some of the people who were so involved in its history. It really made that history sing in your piece.
Um, now kind of moving to the way WWOZ is set up today. By 2017, you mention in your paper, they had about 100,000 local weekly listeners, an online audience that reached about 900,000 homes in about two hundred countries. Just amazing numbers here. They had 86,000 followers on Facebook as of a few years ago. The staff had grown to seventeen full-time employees and about seventy-five volunteer deejays. So how is the station doing these days? Does it look like it’s going to have a healthy future?
Vanessa Murphree: Yes, it definitely seems like it’s much more stable financially, and healthier than it’s ever been. And, and I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s the global broadcasting that makes a difference, when you’re a nonprofit and you rely on –
listeners to donate money.
Nick Hirshon: Yes. Well, we’re glad that it is still going strong and hopefully will for many more years. You’ve certainly shown us how important it is not only to New Orleans but to anybody who maybe is a New Orleans transplant or just somebody who is interested in this kind of music, they can hear now across the world.
So as we kind of wrap up here, a final question we always ask guests on the Journalism History podcast, why does journalism history matter?
Vanessa Murphree: Well, in this case, I think it matters because it has really played a role in community building. It’s played a role in advancing the New Orleans culture around the world and it also played a role in helping manage a crisis. It played a role in helping people heal through a crisis. And it plays a role in just making local music and local culture something that can be –
Nick Hirshon: Sure. You certainly have shown through your work why the history of this station is so important for a community. I think that’s important. Like, yes, you’ve shown it is significant nationally, maybe internationally, its webcasting technology was a forerunner in that, but also just what it means to local people. I love research that’s about that, that’s about the community and we don’t see enough of it. So thank you, Vanessa, for doing this great work and thank you for your willingness to appear on our podcast.
Vanessa Murphree: You’re welcome. Thank you very much for having me, Nick.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the University of Southern Mississippi School of Communication. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”