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Clearing the Airwaves 

Faced with lost equipment, budget cuts and temporary homes, community radio stations are trying to fine-tune their signal.

I've got my fingers crossed, my eyeballs crossed, my hair ... everything that can be crossed is, right now." It's Thursday, Dec. 15, and Tulane student media advisor Tel Baillet is -- theoretically -- only hours away from seeing WTUL radio send out its initial post-Katrina broadcast after almost 90 days of dead air. After everything the station's gone through in the months that followed the storm, Baillet can't be too cautious. The Monk Simons building on Tulane's Uptown campus, which housed the station's temporary studio, was demolished due to flooding (the second-floor studio was undamaged). Just over two weeks ago, with only four days' notice, WTUL's volunteers had to clear out equipment and recordings. The plan for now is to set up temporarily on the mezzanine level of the Rue de la Course coffeehouse at the intersection of Oak Street and Carrollton Avenue in the Riverbend neighborhood, with a live remote broadcast that's been created out of a potluck of volunteer efforts.

"We've had to beg, borrow and not quite steal a bunch of equipment we didn't have to do this," Baillet says. "Our engineer helped us work out an agreement to get the broadcasting software we need in advance of actually paying for it. People lent us computers and a mixer. One of our DJs gave us a table to put everything on. A listener is donating some shelves to keep the music on, but I'm not sure if we can keep them."

Although WTUL is a university-affiliated station -- Tulane's Board of Administrators owns the FCC license and provides the on-campus location -- the station's presence in the New Orleans alternative-music community resonates far beyond the bounds of campus life. Since its inception in 1959, WTUL has been a vital part of the New Orleans music scene, championing local underground rock, avant-jazz and electronic music that might otherwise be drowned out by the more traditional jazz, R&B and funk favored in New Orleans clubs and on the airwaves. More practically, although the station receives funding through Tulane student programming like any other student organization, its annual marathon fundraising broadcast generates half of the station's operating budget of approximately $45,000. At the end of the day, though, the station is ultimately dependent on the university, which made the return to the air the challenge it's been.

"For one, WTUL's accounts are tied up through Tulane, so right now they're not active," says Baillet. During the months following the storm, the station saw its student, staff and alumni DJs scattered throughout the country; communication was hindered by the temporary loss of the university email server. "Tulane hasn't hindered our efforts, but they have a whole university to get going," says Baillet. "And [WTUL] simply has no full-time people."

That made the comeback that much more challenging.

"WTUL is an all-volunteer organization, and nobody's paid but our engineer, which is FCC policy," says Brian Denzer, WTUL's classical-music director. "Which is the principal reason we're maybe not as organized as we could be. It was difficult to locate people immediately after the storm, because the email server was down, but right around three weeks after, a bunch of us started coming back and getting together and talking. We wanted to power up the transmitter and go, but the school wanted to demolish the building. So there was the issue of finding a temporary space.

"It's too bad," Denzer notes, "because we really could have been a voice for the community, a voice for Tulane, to let the city know what they were doing. It was a missed opportunity for them, but it is what it is."

For other, seemingly better-positioned nonprofit community stations, it took an effort that was full-time and then some to stay on the air after the storm. WWOZ General Manager David Freedman, who even before the storm faced a serious threat to the station's pocketbook with the 2004 loss of a grant from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, has found himself in a three-month-long tap dance just to maintain funding, airspace and physical space for the venerable jazz and heritage station.

After the station went off the air at midnight on Saturday, Aug. 28, Freedman found himself in a motel room in Hot Springs, Ark., fielding calls and emails from the stations' thousands of supporters around the world. Temporary help came via Ken Freedman (no relation), station manager at New Jersey's WFMU radio, who offered WWOZ a home in exile via an Internet broadcast using WFMU's broadband space.

With WFMU's electronic files of New Orleans music and archived shows sent in by WWOZ DJs, the station was able to get a 24-hour Internet broadcast up and running by the first week of September, with program director Dwayne Brashears converting files on a laptop in a CC's Coffeehouse in Baton Rouge. By the end of October, WWOZ obtained access to a satellite hookup with which to actually broadcast live on the air in the New Orleans area using a signal sent from Louisiana Public Broadcasting's offices in Baton Rouge that eventually returns to the WWOZ transmitter atop the 25-story Tidewater Building on Canal Street.

"There was no electricity in the Tidewater Building, so we literally had to use a very long extension cord, going 25 stories up," says Freedman. "The guys trying to fix the electricity kept having to turn off the generator, so every few days our engineer, Damond Jacobs, had to run up 25 flights of stairs to turn off the transmitter and turn it back on. Our DJs were commuting to Baton Rouge in crazy traffic, driving sometimes four hours round-trip to do a two or three-hour show. Late at night, when we had no people, we'd just use a carousel CD player, with whatever we could get. So we weren't operating on full OZ-ness, but we were at least providing a musical service."

WWNO radio, New Orleans' NPR affiliate, which operates out of the fourth floor of the Earl K. Long Library on UNO's campus, also found ways to make do in exile. General Manager Chuck Miller had moved to New Orleans from Atlanta to assume responsibilities at the station on July 13. Without even two months in the city under his belt, Miller found himself hunkering down in the station the Saturday before Katrina hit with sleeping bags and non-perishables to broadcast through the storm. "On Sunday morning, we saw it had turned into a Category 5," says Miller. "I got permission from my boss to shut down, and went back to Atlanta."

WWNO stayed off the air until Sept. 21, as Miller fielded offers and messages of goodwill from former listeners and, like Freedman, considered how to get his station back on the air. "The offers of support from public radio listeners was unbelievable," Miller says. "People were offering transmitters, engineers crews. Extra funds came in from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Then we were offered a portable satellite downlink, and I realized that Georgia Public Broadcasting had an uplink. I asked if we could move in, and they said yes."

The station kept its connection to the Crescent City via Program Director Fred Kasten, who built a studio in his home in New Orleans after returning from the evacuation. "Fred's been reporting almost daily as well as doing live jazz programming on Saturday nights and really keeping us anchored in New Orleans," says Miller, who provides sometimes-hilarious NPR station breaks and news reports along with producer Jack Hopke. WWNO returned to the Earl K. Long Library, which wasn't damaged by Katrina, on Dec. 19.

Although WWNO got to return home, WTUL and WWOZ currently aren't sure if they have homes. Before Katrina, WWOZ had plans to relocate to the Krauss building on Canal Street, but that plan was waylaid by the storm. Although its studio inside Armstrong Park wasn't significantly damaged -- some water made it into the first floor, and the roof of the second-floor studio was damaged -- power has not yet been restored to the park. Because the city currently keeps the park locked and closed to traffic and the security officers who had patrolled the park at night can no longer get in, late-night DJs are concerned about safety.

"First we decided to just put the station in my office (in the Creole cottage across the street from the park)," says Freedman. "But the police can't get in, and part of the fence around the park is knocked down, so people can get in there that have no business in there. We're seeing condoms and needles, and people just don't feel safe being there at 2 or 3 a.m. for an overnight broadcast."

Currently, WWOZ is getting set up to broadcast out of the French Market Corporation's offices in the French Quarter and plans to stay for about a year.

WTUL, meanwhile, is getting used to being nomadic. Crystal Kile, until recently, juggled her shift as "DJ Poptart" with her duties as the program director for the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. "Remember that WTUL relocated to Monk Simons only for the duration of the renovation of the Tulane University Center," Kile says. "As it turns out, the move to Monk Simons is what saved us. Had the station been housed in the basement of the old University Center during the catastrophe, everything would have been lost."

That stroke of luck notwithstanding, WTUL as a station is learning to live like many of us did during the evacuation -- on the fly. Half the station's music is already in storage following the move out of the University Center; DJs have had to cherry-pick further to put together a modified collection to keep at their new digs at Rue de la Course, which, although welcoming, is less than ideal.

"We'll be set up there for a month or two with a very reduced selection," says Brian Denzer. "They are running a business there, and we're hoping not to get in their way." When the coffeehouse isn't open, WTUL will broadcast using an innovative piece of broadcasting software, called a CCRMA broadcast, that allows it to send a high-speed signal to its transmitter in New Orleans via a broadband connection donated by Stanford University, with a similar effect to that of the satellite linkups used by WWOZ and WWNO. Currently, WTUL's plans are to move into a modified media suite in Uptown Square after a month or two at Rue, which it will share with all student media -- a gang that includes the Hullabaloo student paper, the campus television station, and several other student publications.

Getting on the air doesn't mean WTUL is out of the woods yet, though. Although Tulane's extensive cuts did not include student programming -- in an effort, says Baillet, to provide support for an undergraduate community returning to an injured city -- loss of a semester's collected activity fees means WTUL will have to operate for a year on half a year's funding. "The general manager is requesting more funding from student programming," says Baillet, "and if we don't get that, there is a small -- very small -- cushion from past marathons. Mostly, there are things we had been talking about, like digitizing our music library, that will have to be on the back burner." WTUL will hold its spring 2006 fundraising marathon as planned, starting March 17, although this year part of the proceeds will also go to the Maxwell Music Library at Tulane, whose collection was destroyed when the basement of the Howard-Tilton Library flooded. To entice donors, this year's "Songs From The Basement" CD premium will actually be a two-CD set: one disc containing songs by local artists and another featuring donated tracks from national artists including Jello Biafra and Drive-By Truckers.

All three stations depended heavily on community support. A full 78 percent of WWNO's annual operating budget of $1.8 million comes from donations. Approximately 65 percent of WWOZ's budget is generated by its two annual fund drives, each of which raises about $250,000. Although both stations benefited from extra funding from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting during the months following the storm, as well as sympathetic public stations in other parts of the country who held remote pledge drives or set up donation portals on their websites, the reduced fundraising landscape in New Orleans is daunting.

"We weren't able to do our fall fund drive as usual," Miller says. WWOZ was also unable to conduct its regular drive. "There were more important things going on on the ground than public radio -- we didn't want to ask somebody to put down their hammer and send us money." Both stations will run their spring fund drives as usual.

Now that the most pressing challenge -- getting on the air -- has been dealt with, all three stations find themselves addressing a more nuanced issue: how to serve a city very different from the one they left. "I see it as a new employee, new to the city," says WWNO's Chuck Miller. "We started a news department in Georgia, and we'll continue that. We're going to be more responsive to the community, whether that will be leading a cleanup mission or continuing with public service messages. We want to be part of the rebuilding in any way we can, and we don't really know what that's going to mean yet."

WTUL is also, for now, doing air breaks to announce open area businesses and general news for the community as a free service. WWOZ, historically an ambassador and keeper of New Orleans' music traditions, has an even greater stake in the evolution of the city.

"WWOZ is dedicated to reigniting the spirit of New Orleans, and we'll do everything we can to agitate for that," Freedman says. "But there are decisions being made now that may create a New Orleans that none of us want to live in -- I don't want to live in a museum. I guess my comment on that is just to come back, get on the air, and give it my best damn shot."

If music is what people think of when they think of New Orleans, then a live, local voice on the airwaves is a dedicated step forward in healing the wounds our city sustained. "After they called to say we were going back on the air," says Crystal Kile, "I literally wept with joy for 15 minutes. It was like crying at a wedding."

click to enlarge WTUL's return to the airwaves was an emotional one for - its members, including Crystal Kile, aka DJ Poptart. "After - they called to say we were going back on the air," Kile - says, "I literally wept with joy for 15 minutes. It was like - crying at a wedding." - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • WTUL's return to the airwaves was an emotional one for its members, including Crystal Kile, aka DJ Poptart. "After they called to say we were going back on the air," Kile says, "I literally wept with joy for 15 minutes. It was like crying at a wedding."
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