David Freedman has a head full of analogies on the state of New Orleans music. One compares the widespread looting of architectural treasures to lost musical traditions. Another describes the music scene as a fragile ecosystem out of whack. But in his most haunting analogy, French Quarter music performances resemble bouquets of flowers.
"That music is being presented to tourists as reflective of our culture, but in a way it's already dead like cut flowers are dead," says Freedman, general manager at the listener-supported jazz and heritage radio station WWOZ. "They're still beautiful, but they have no roots. The roots are in the outlying areas, and that's where the culture develops because that's where people express the way they live."
As the very neighborhoods that once served as incubators for New Orleans music struggle to repopulate and rebuild, Freedman has become a man on a do-or-die mission: Find housing, health care and work for musicians. Otherwise, they will leave, and the city's "very special musical soul" will fade into memory.
To help keep musicians living, working, collaborating and creating here, Freedman has added a tool to the WWOZ arsenal -- a cultural news service called Street Talk. With the help of a $10,000 Ralph Gleason Award from the Rex Foundation, Freedman teamed up with two local reporters to create the program "from scratch" in late April. As Street Talk has developed, reporters have taken a grassroots approach to sustainability issues, often illuminating social and infrastructure issues though a cultural lens.
"What we wanted to do was to create a news service connected to the rebuilding of our community, where people can hear about individuals who have come back to make a difference, or about people who are hurting and need to be helped, or who are dealing with issues that relate to our ability to, in a sense, do damage control," Freedman says. "Because we're going to have losses, there's no question in my mind. The question is when do we reach the tipping point? When is New Orleans culture so marginalized in New Orleans that it's no longer more than just a memory?"
The Street Talk team sees the current recovery effort focused almost entirely on the physical rebuilding of the city, whether it's levees, homes or the sewage system. While they acknowledge the necessity of these efforts, they fear cultural issues are an all-too-often overlooked aspect of the city's recovery.
"It's very hard talking to officials about culture in New Orleans because a lot of them say, 'Well, we'll worry about that later,'" says Eve Troeh, a Street Talk reporter and a contributor to Gambit Weekly and National Public Radio. "Our approach is: [culture] has to be considered. It can't just be swept under the rug and dealt with when the time comes. The time is now. New Orleans is what it is because of its culture, and if we remake it into this blank, boring city, it won't be worth living in for most of the people who live here now and for most of the people who come to visit."
Street Talk stories also focus on how money slated for cultural programs is spent, while at the same time informing listeners of potential resources.
"There's a communications problem between the people who are making the decisions and distributing the money and the people who need it the most," says Alison Fensterstock, a Street Talk reporter and a regular contributor to Gambit Weekly and the English music magazine MOJO. "We feel like Street Talk can bridge that gap, hopefully."
Stories don't seek to scrutinize public officials or government agencies, however. Instead, the program tries to generate dialogue and analysis of challenges facing the city and its world-renowned rhythms.
"Rather than beat up on the nonperformers -- which there are many around us -- we'd rather try to find the examples of people who are making a difference, or could make a difference, or need help or recognition for the difference they are making," Freedman says. "Basically, we're taking a step forward here rather than just looking in the rearview mirror."
Until recently, Street Talk aired Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays at 6 p.m. The Tuesday evening interviews have since been cut until the station secures new funds.
Some interviews are recorded on location, but most are aired live at the station. The interviews, as well as short background articles, are then posted to a blog linked to WWOZ's Web site. Because Street Talk was launched during the station's busiest time of year -- during French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest and the station's fund drive -- reporters created the blog as a temporary way to post stories. WWOZ is restructuring its Web site this summer to integrate Street Talk directly onto the site.
The Web site dramatically expands the station's reach, and thus Street Talk's effectiveness in creating local, national and worldwide awareness of issues threatening the city's musical fabric, Freedman says. At least 4,000 people log on each day. Although most are from the New Orleans area, others come from around the country and the world.
"They (online listeners) come from everywhere," says Christian Kuffner, the station's Web master. "There isn't a country in the world where we haven't had listeners."
While some WWOZ listeners were apprehensive about music being interrupted by news, feedback has started to trickle in. Comments are posted on the blog, and listeners have begun to call the station with questions or responses after on-air interviews.
The growing support from listeners, coupled with an ongoing need to keep cultural issues on the radar, has prompted the Street Talk staff to think big. They would like to model their storytelling style after NPR's program Kitchen Sisters. They also would like to see Street Talk syndicated.
Until then, Freedman and his staff continue to navigate technical and funding issues that more mainstream stations don't have to contend with. But the station's general manager believes in learning as he goes. The stakes are too high not to try.
"We just can't sit on our hands and hope that issues get resolved," he says. "It's just too important to not do the most we can. Frankly, as small as [Street Talk] is right now, it's what we can do, and I'm convinced it will help."
Anyone with stories linked to the recovery of the city's culture is encouraged to contact Street Talk at 568-1239 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Eve Troeh (left) and Alison Fensterstock produce Street Talk on WWOZ to look at the city's rebuilding issues through a cultural lens.