WWOZ is Better Than Ezra's tenth song off the 1996 Elektra release Friction, Baby. It's one of the slower songs on the album, played almost like an acoustic love song with a few instruments backing the guitar up, except the guitar is electric and the entire band is playing. A quote from the lyrics is printed in the liner notes, with a picture of two pairs of feet lying on a couch watching television - which is pretty much a synopsis of the song: a lazy afternoon watching television that drifts into a lazy evening in the Crescent City listening to the radio. The song title, naturally, is one of a few references to New Orleans on this album.
WWOZ as a New Orleans institution was famous long before Better Than Ezra. Founded by brothers Walter Brock and Jerry Brock, WWOZ has been broadcasting at 90.7 MHz FM in downtown New Orleans since 1980. 'OZ - as the station is known by locals - benefited from the fact that it wasn't a commercial station and its DJs weren't constrained to a format beyond being told to play music culturally significant to New Orleans. Because the Jazz scene in New Orleans has always been strong, and was actually undergoing a rebirth of sorts at the time, the station flourished. Originally community members would record ninety minute shows in the Brock's living room and then carry the tapes to the broadcast tower's control room a few miles up the Mississippi River. As a result, WWOZ initially could only broadcast twelve hours a day.
WWOZ quickly outgrew its humble beginnings, so the station moved to its first permanent location on the second floor of an uptown bar and live concert venue called Tipitina's beginning December 4, 1980. The upstairs apartment was humble, requiring DJs to walk down a narrow alley and past trash cans to reach the station. To do live broadcasts of concerts downstairs, they'd lower a microphone through a hole in the floor. The station grew in popularity even further backed by its more central location (and thus better signal into downtown) and better promoting.
In 1985, WWOZ was relocated to Armstrong Park in downtown New Orleans where the jazz culture is celebrated and locals and tourists alike gather for the world-renowned live concert scene. The match was perfect for the non-commercial station: in 1986 the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation assumed control of the broadcast license and The Friends of WWOZ (a non-profit organization) was formed to administer the station. The partnership was mutually beneficial, with WWOZ receiving millions of dollars in funding from the foundation, and WWOZ generating the foundation's annual operating budget by producing the extremely popular New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival series.
Despite greater backing, the 'OZ began to flounder in the early nineties. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting stepped in and gave WWOZ a more polished approach and an emphasis on basic radio production as well as side segments such as weather and traffic reports. Initially, reaction from the purists was mixed, but the station's income doubled, listeners increased from 40,000 per week to 50,000 per week and the station began to see black in the accounting books.
Today, WWOZ is even beginning to outgrow its two story house-sized studio. Two plans exist for the station's new studio: moving into the old Firehouse-turned orientation building (preferred by the mayor of New Orleans, whose city will be funding the project) or building a new 8,000 square foot studio (preferred by the National Park Service). Either way, the new facility will feature more space for a larger music library, performing areas and meeting spaces. The cost could reach over six million dollars.
WWOZ can be heard worldwide. Its primary carrier is a 400 watt signal and is broadcasted high atop a tower in the business district of town. This allows for the primary signal to come in loud and clear for twenty-five to fifty miles from downtown New Orleans. But if you're not in Louisiana, you can still listen thanks to a 24 hours-a-day live webcast of the station over a 128 kbps, dual channel ISDN uplink. The webcast can be heard at http://www.wwoz.org/live_broadcast_stream_wm.html
More than anything else, what makes WWOZ so much a fan favorite is the DJs. These aren't the formulaic wise cracking middle aged 70's, 80's, 90's and today man, the flirty woman/doofus sidekick guy combo or too cool for school evening classic rock jock. Like 'OZ itself, they represent the distinct mixture of cultures that form the New Orleans music scene. There's Brown Sugar, a sweet talking blues aficionado who knows her callers by voice because she's been doing the show since the early 80's. There's Kalamu ya Salaam, whose Afro Beat show has a steady following despite occupying the graveyard midnight to 3 A.M. slot. Chris Lenois plays smooth, classic jazz on the drive into work each morning for the city's commuters. Lewis White plays everything but the kitchen sink in the afternoon, and with an extensive memory, he'll sing you the lyrics of any song from the 1940's onward that you can name, but his favorite is John Coltrane. Betty "Big Mama" Rankin plays gospel on Sundays, with Sean O'Meara's show full of Irish melodies on right after hers. Such juxtapositions can only happen on a free-format station like WWOZ, where each of the fifty volunteers who serve as on-air personalities bring fifty or so different styles into their shows, often with the only transition being a quick station identification.