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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

New Orleans Radio chronicles the history of the city's airwaves

Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2014 at 10:36 AM

click to enlarge Sonny and Cher with former WTIX-FM DJ Bob Walker. - COURTESY DOMINIC MASSA
  • Sonny and Cher with former WTIX-FM DJ Bob Walker.

Dominic Massa is the executive producer and special projects director at WWL-TV, and the author of New Orleans Television, a look at the city's broadcasting history. His new book, New Orleans Radio, charts the development of radio in New Orleans with more than 200 rare images. Massa will sign New Orleans Radio at Garden District Book Shop Nov. 6 from 6 to 7:30 p.m., with special guests from New Orleans radio history Bob Walker, Keith Rush, Ed Clancy, and "Pal Al" Nassar.

He answered Gambit's questions about the book via email.

How long have you been working on New Orleans Radio, and what gave you the initial idea?

If I said I’d been working on this for a lifetime, that’d be an overstatement, but I have always had an interest in local broadcasting history, so I guess that deep down I’ve always had the idea of a book about radio – the medium that started it all. Because my day job is in television, though, it was more natural that my first book in this series would be about local TV history. That one came out in 2008. In the years since, I kept returning to the idea of doing one on radio, and it really materialized in the past two years or so. The research is always the most important part, but since this is a photo book, tracking down the visuals is also key and with this one it was challenging, but in a fun way.

What time period does the book cover, and why did you choose to end it there?

It starts with practically day one of radio in New Orleans, with WWL signing on in 1922. We travel through the golden age of radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and then the rock-and-roll era in the 1950s and 1960s. There’s not a definite ending point, but we cover through the late 1970s and early 1980s, which is when corporate ownership became the rule and I think most people agree radio started changing dramatically. I would have loved to include more stations and personalities, but obviously there’s no way to include everyone. There’s always a chance for a sequel, though!

There are hundreds of archival photographs in the book, which are fascinating. Did you find any images or information that surprised you as you went through the archives? And which photo struck you as the most rare or remarkable?

While the subject of my previous book, television, is a visual medium, radio history was much harder to document. But I’m proud of the more than 200 photos I was able to track down. That starts with the image on the cover, which is a great shot from Loyola University’s archives of WWL’s “Dawnbusters” troupe, featuring the show’s biggest stars at the microphone and a young Al Hirt in the orchestra.

\I was also pleasantly surprised to find some rare shots of “Nut and Jeff,” stars of WSMB, and a photo of Sid Noel from his WWL radio days, which pre-dated his stint as “Morgus the Magnificent.” I also have a great shot of Dr. John and Poppa Stoppa, a legendary name from 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues radio. That was a great find from the Michael P. Smith archive at the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Another personal favorite is the one of longtime local broadcaster Maury Magill, alongside Al Wester and Joe DiMaggio inside Tulane Stadium during a sports broadcast on WWL.

click to enlarge Vernon "Dr. Daddy-O" Winslow was a pioneer on New Orleans' black radio and a DJ on WWEZ. - COURTESY DOMINIC MASSA
  • Vernon "Dr. Daddy-O" Winslow was a pioneer on New Orleans' black radio and a DJ on WWEZ.

What former New Orleans radio personalities were you able to track down? What are they doing now?

Some of them are still on the air – Tom Fitzmorris, Robert Mitchell and Scoot at WWL and 3WL; Bobby Reno, “Pal Al” Nassar and “JD the DJ” at WTIX-FM; and Alan Smason and Andres Calandria at WYES. Others, like Bob Walker and Keith Rush, have retired, but were a great help with their own photo archives or putting me in touch with other contacts for the book. Some others, like Ed Clancy and Dan Milham, have left day-to-day broadcasting but still dabble in it from time to time.

There’s a whole chapter about the history of black radio in New Orleans. Can you talk about some of the black pioneers in New Orleans broadcasting?

I thought it was important to highlight the pioneers of black radio, since that has really never been done in book form like this, as far as I know. Vernon “Dr. Daddy-O” Winslow was a key figure. He gained fame in his own right, as the city’s first black disc jockey on WWEZ, but has an important story behind the scenes as well, training white DJ’s to “sound black” in the days of segregation. Obviously it was a different time and some of that history is regrettable, but the impact that DJs like him had on local broadcasting and music is undeniable. Other important figures were Larry McKinley, Tex Stephens, “Okey Dokey” Smith and “Ernie the Whip” Bringier.

WBOK signed on the air in 1951. Today, of course, it’s an African-American focused talk radio station, but how did it go from a music station to talk?

It switched to a talk format after Hurricane Katrina, which badly damaged the station’s studios, which are located in Gentilly. Prior to that, WBOK played mostly gospel music, which you can still hear some on weekends. It signed on in 1951 with an integrated staff and diverse programming, including country, gospel, and rhythm and blues. It also offered a spotlight to local African-American prep athletes with sports programming. We highlight some of that history with photos of Champ Clark, who hosted sports shows and was a pioneering black sports journalist in New Orleans.

Most of the broadcasters in the book are men, but who were the women pioneers in New Orleans radio?

Margie O’Dair is one of the stars on the cover, and she and her sisters were early stars of WWL in the 1930s and 1940s, as “girl singers,” to borrow the term of the time, with the “Dawnbusters.” Terry Flettrich, who is best known for her local TV history, started in radio and is featured in the book, along with the wonderful Jan Carr, always alongside her husband Bob. Jill Jackson is also one of my favorites, as one of the country’s first female sportscasters on WWL and WSMB, and also host of celebrity interview shows on WWL. I was proud to track down some great photos of her with some of the celebrities she interviewed, including Bob Hope. 

click to enlarge neworleansradio.jpg

Tell us about the battle between WNOE and WTIX in the 1960s.

That probably could have been a whole book in its own right. Those two stations battled it out for New Orleans’ baby boomer audience, just as they were becoming teenagers and rock ‘n’ roll was coming into its own. WTIX’s personalities, which included Bob Walker, Bobby Reno, Robert Mitchell, Buzz Bennett and Tommy Cheney, were known as the “Boss Jocks.” WNOE’s stars, including Dan Diamond, Jim Stewart, C.C. Courtney, and Hugh Dillard (later “Captain Humble”) were the “Good Guys.”

One of my favorite quotes in the book is from Beatles author and historian Bruce Spizer: “You listened either to the ‘NOE Good Guys or the ‘TIX Boss Jocks. You didn’t switch the dial or punch the button on your car radio. And kids would get into playground fights stemming from arguments as to which station was the best.”

You’ve published New Orleans Television and New Orleans Radio. What’s next?

The way our business changes every day, it’s hard to predict what the next chapter of media history will be. But that’s part of what makes it interesting. I love New Orleans history, though, so I’m always looking for the next new topic to learn about and share what I learn with others. Stay tuned!

— Dominic Massa will discuss and sign New Orleans Radio at Garden District Book Shop Nov. 6 from 6-7:30 p.m. Several New Orleans radio personalities will attend, including Bob Walker, Keith Rush, Ed Clancy and "Pal Al" Nassar.

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