On Patti Smith's seminal 1978 album, Easter, she sings, "Let's soar / up there, up there, up there / on the 25th floor." When Dave Freedman, station manager of WWOZ-FM thinks of the 25th floor, he doesn't think of soaring. The transmitter for New Orleans' jazz and R&B community radio station is 25 stories above the ground atop the Tidewater Building at 1440 Canal St. Unfortunately, when the building was energized, there was a panel underwater that Entergy didn't know about, so the master switch short-circuited. The station is on the air thanks to a generator provided by Tulane, but according to Freedman, "Every three days we have to turn the generator off to service it -- to change the oil, the filter, and to put fuel in."
Currently, programming is originating from the Louisiana Public Broadcasting studios in Baton Rouge, and the signal is relayed via satellite to the transmitter on Canal Street. "When we had the wind storm the other day, it blew it off its angle, so we were knocked off the air for 24 hours," he says. "Every time we do this, we have to run up 25 flights of stairs."
Freedman is talking by phone from Baton Rouge, the final stop in an evacuation that started early Saturday, Aug. 27. "I grew up in New Orleans and rode out (Hurricane) Betsy," he says. "At this point in my life, I have no interest in sitting in a house without electricity sweltering in the heat in the dark. If I think there's any chance the electricity will be knocked out, I'm leaving." When he went to bed on the Friday night before Katrina, the hurricane was a Category 1 sliding up the inside coast of Florida. "I go to bed, sleep well, then get up the next morning at 7:30 a.m. and it's a Category 3 headed right at New Orleans and gathering strength. At 7:30, I was making calls to see where I could get a reservation."
His evacuation was like that of many who left. Freedman fled to the closest room he could find -- in Hot Springs, Ark. -- then after a period of paralysis, he moved to the periphery of New Orleans, first to Franklin, then Baton Rouge, where he found an efficiency apartment -- "probably the last one in the city," he speculates. From there, he started the process of reopening the station.
His first trip in was arranged as officially as possible. "We had to go to the state troopers to get a piece of paper that specified exact places and times," Freedman says. On that trip, he assessed the damage to the studio. Water had started to come up so the floorboards had buckled, and the carpet had mold. His biggest concern was that tiles had been blown off a 30-by-30-foot patch of the roof. Water wasn't leaking in because the tarpaper was still intact, but he wanted to cover that patch to protect the station's music library.
From then on, entering New Orleans required creative means. Freedman found a roofer, then spent a few days unsuccessfully trying to get another entry pass. Using covert methods, he finally got a roofer into the city with a ladder and some visqueen to secure the building. Then after the roadblocks were gone, he sent in a crew to retrieve the station's 12,000-CD collection, leaving behind, for now, the cumbersome but apparently safe wall's worth of priceless albums.
Besides the damage to the studio building, WWOZ faced another obstacle in that Armstrong Park -- the home to the station -- lacks electricity. The city, not Entergy, provides power for the park, and the city has other, bigger priorities than the station. The transformers for the park are housed in pits, so no one's sure if they're operable, but Freedman stresses that he's not upset about the situation. "When the city'll get to the park is anybody's guess," he says, "but we don't want to burden the city."
In the meantime, WWOZ is looking for a new, temporary home in New Orleans. There's not a rush to get that studio established or open since few of 'OZ's volunteer DJs are in town. For the immediate future, Freedman plans to maintain the studio in Baton Rouge and start one in New Orleans.
"As the number of DJs in New Orleans hits critical mass, we'll shut down the Baton Rouge studio," he says. "There's no timetable for it because there's no need to have a timetable for it. The reality of the situation on the ground will determine the timetable." Still, he figures the DJs that will return will be back by the first of the year.
The station returned to the air Oct. 18, but Freedman concedes, "We're up and running, but just barely. We're an image of the city -- a third of it is there. The rest looks like it's there, but it's not." Officially, WWOZ is on the air 24 hours a day, but until the transmitter's Canal Street home is connected to the grid, the station will go off the air from time to time. On those occasions, someone has to climb 25 floors.