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WWOZ's old studio building visible through palms, Freedman smiling in foreground New Orleans' WWOZ was heard only on the Web for months after the storm, but its studio and music archive escaped harm, Freedman discovered. (Photo copyright 2005 Kerry Maloney.)

Devastated like their city, pubcasters look to future

Twelve days after flood waters from Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans and its eastern suburbs, WWOZ General Manager David Freedman returned to the city in a convoy with a TV news crew from CBS affiliate WWL, a roofer and a photographer for Rolling Stone.

Freedman came with an official-looking document on Louisiana Public Broadcasting letterhead, hoping it would help persuade authorities to let him enter devastated Orleans Parish, which was then under mandatory evacuation orders.

On this second post-Katrina journey into the city, Freedman’s goal was to bring the roofer to repair the WWOZ building in Armstrong Park near the historic French Quarter.

Man-made lagoons once characterized the park, but Katrina reshaped it as a “nature-made lagoon with a park in it,” Freedman later wrote on his WWOZ recovery blog. Luckily, ’OZ’s studios stood on what remained of the parkland in less than a foot of water. The equipment and irreplaceable record collection escaped damage, but without a patched roof, another storm could incapacitate the station.

All four pubcasting stations serving the Crescent City have been off the air since Katrina pushed waters through its overwhelmed levees. WWOZ and the news/classical outlet WWNO fared better than the heavily damaged public TV stations, WYES and Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s WLAE.

Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, Mississippi Public Broadcasting took two of its TV stations off the air after the hurricane to conserve fuel for its emergency generators. The TV network has resumed broadcasts, though one transmitter is operating on a generator, according to Marie Antoon, executive director.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting, headquartered in Baton Rouge, became a central production hub for television news coverage of Katrina recovery, opening its facilities to WWL-TV, the only New Orleans TV station still broadcasting after the storm.

"We’re in total stress overload,” said Beth Courtney, LPB executive director. “We’re doing so many things on so many fronts. People are covering the story when they themselves are homeless.”

Submerged in Crescent City

For public broadcasters serving New Orleans, the challenges of resuming service are numerous and daunting.
Restricted access to the city makes it difficult to assess and fix damage to their facilities. Dire predictions about the city’s long-term recovery leave everyone scrambling to cobble together services while employees are displaced from their homes and dispersed across the country.

CPB stepped in quickly with emergency financial assistance—and numerous pubcasting entities are also helping—but progress is slow.

"Part of our roof is gone and the water went from the fourth floor down into our offices, editing suites, master control and studio,” said Mark Coudrain, WLAE general manager, who entered the building when Jefferson Parish opened for damage assessments two weeks ago. “It’s pretty much devastated. . . . Everything that was wet has already turned to mold.” An aerial photograph of WLAE’s transmitter site in Chalmette showed the transmitter submerged, he said.

At Current’s deadline last week, two WYES staffers were to be transported by airboat to inspect the station’s studio building, according to Randy Feldman, g.m. “It’s probably under around 6 feet of water,” with ruined studio equipment and cameras, he said. Feldman, who set up temporary offices at HoustonPBS, didn’t know whether the roof was intact, and he hoped that flood waters didn’t reach the second floor, which houses the master control and production control rooms. [Feldman told the CPB Board Sept. 26 that the flood had ruined most of WYES's program archives and one of its two big mobile production vans.]

The WYES transmitter, also located in Chalmette, was operable but lacked electrical power and a working air conditioner, Feldman said. Damage to the transmission lines had yet to be assessed.

Coudrain and Feldman plan to rig up a system to beam LPB’s television service into New Orleans, but it’s unclear how they will proceed after that. Before Katrina hit, the stations planned to build a shared facility and were scouting several locations, according to Feldman. “Mark and I are working hard to figure that out,” he said.

WWNO-FM, located on the University of New Orleans campus near Lake Pontchartrain, appears to have been spared water damage, but winds wrapped 250 feet of its transmission line around a guy wire.

An engineering crew went into the city Sept. 14 to repair the line and hook up an emergency downlink to the transmitter, according to Chuck Miller, who joined WWNO as g.m. just seven weeks before Katrina hit. If the plan works, WWNO may resume broadcasts into the city this week, feeding its programming by satellite. Late last week, Georgia Public Broadcasting offered a fully equipped and dry studio in Atlanta, with technical support. “In theory, we will be a regular radio station doing a remote broadcast,” he said. [WWNO returned to the air in New Orleans Sept. 22, sending its signal from a GPB studio in Atlanta.]

Miller hopes to continue remote broadcasts until staff members can move back into their studios on the fourth floor of the UNO library, but he doesn’t know how soon that will be. Although WWNO could move back as soon as electrical power and the sewer system are working, there would still be problems finding housing.

"A lot of the staff will have their houses bulldozed,” he said.

Take me back to New Orleans

To get authorization to return to the WWOZ studios, Freedman worked all his contacts with city officials and publicized his plight in the Times-Picayune. He got nowhere until Courtney offered to send him in with a TV crew from WWL.

After several nervous moments heading into Orleans Parish on Sept. 10, Freedman and his entourage made it through a police checkpoint and split from the WWL crew at Poydras Street, driving toward the French Quarter and Armstrong Park. The roofers quickly got to work, and the photographer snapped pictures while Freedman surveyed wet, moldy carpet on the studio floor. Water hadn’t reached production equipment in the studio. Upstairs, the master control room was dry and the record library intact.

"The roof is covered and the contents are protected,” Freedman said last week after returning from the repair job. “We’re in better shape than I could have imagined two weeks ago. We’re picking ourselves up.”

WWOZ is appealing for donations on its “WWOZ in Exile” website (, and it won’t hurt that Rolling Stone is planning exclusive coverage of the station’s recovery. A sympathetic pubradio station in New Jersey, WFMU-FM, is hosting the website and processing donations for its friends from New Orleans.

Freedman crossed the street from the studios to check out the tiny cottage housing WWOZ’s office. Its floor was high enough to stay dry, while the transmitter building was surrounded by toxic muck and the tower visibly bent. “We fear the worst about our transmitter,” he said.

After weighing several scenarios for resuming broadcasts, Freedman last week planned to establish a modest production facility in Baton Rouge where volunteer deejays from New Orleans can produce shows for WWOZ in Exile. His engineer was pursuing an offer from the University of Tennessee to donate a transmitter and tower.

"We are looking at a timetable for re-entry into New Orleans,” Freedman said. He predicted that 40 percent of the city would be functioning before December, though without running water. “If we can get into the city, we want to operate from there.”

Web page posted Oct. 5, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


WWOZ profiled: The station that the Times-Picayune called the most important in town.


Exiled from the coast, news broadcasters originated inland.

Stations raised hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece for storm relief.


Backup generators: When the power goes out, broadcasters start counting the gallons.

Advocates for pubcasting and storm-damaged states seek millions to restore stations.

Eight months after the floods, stations are still in crisis mode, 2006.


WWOZ in Exile, broadcasting only on the Internet.

Photos on WWOZ's website show an empty Jackson Square, a cry for help from residents, the general manager's damaged home and another view of WWOZ's headquarters.

WWNO announces it has returned to the air, broadcasting from Atlanta.

WYES, like the others, is seeking recovery funds.

NPR commentator Cokie Roberts' family home in Gulfport, Miss., was destroyed by the storm and her mother driven out of New Orleans.


Storm season