When my father would take driving trips, he would always pack a portable radio into the trunk of his car. Most days the radio stood on the bed stand, but for a trip, it was always part of the travel accessories.
Each evening, he would adjust the radio dials, through static and faint signals from distant radio stations, until he heard the words he cherished. We were all called to attention to hear the announcement, “Live from New Orleans...” as carried through the cosmos by WWL, 870 AM.
In those days, radio stations did more than just play music and read news off the telecopiers. They also provided live programs. Several would feature big band music, usually from a hotel lounge, as did WWL. The station presented the sound of the Leon Kellner band from the Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel. (Conveniently the station was located in the same building.) Meanwhile those of us in a motel room somewhere near Denver could marvel at what home music sounded like from a distance.
This month, radio station WWL celebrates its 100th year. (The station was founded by Loyola University though its ownership has changed several times over the century.) In the early days of radio, the Federal Communications Commission was sensitive to there being coverage throughout the land, including rural areas that did not have a station. So, the FCC allowed a few select urban stations to broadcast at 50,000 watts (the maximum) and better yet, to be “clear channel.” That meant that no other station would cause inference by broadcasting on the same channel. Those stations would be recognizable by having three call letters (WWL) rather than the four mandated everyone else. So, the “clear channels” were the big guns in American communications.
Through the years to follow, radio would be shaped by outside influences, with the biggest shaper being television. Big Band radio broadcasts gave way to TV variety shows. In the morning, WWL had the “Dawn Busters” with live music, performers and general rowdiness. In the long run, such shows could not compete with the TV networks’ morning news shows. And so, they were gone.
During the time of the Cuban missile crisis, WWL’s mighty watts were targeted at night to the Caribbean island. Most of us didn’t know what was being said because the broadcasts were totally in Spanish, but the tone was certainly pro-American. Perhaps that explains why the broadcasts were allegedly linked to the Voice of America.
When you have 50,000 watts you can reach further than Cuba. How about every trucker in America? For years Charley Douglas’ late night country music program provided highway condition news and told drivers about the best truck stops for wherever they were headed. If the truckers’ world had an anthem, it might have been “Six Days on the Road” a celebration of a long trip coming to an end by truck song specialist Dave Dudley:
There’s a speed zone ahead, but alright
I don’t see a cop in sight
Six days on the road and I’m gonna make it home tonight
In modern times, the station’s niche has been honed to talk, sports (Saints and LSU) and news. The latter is major because the station is the voice of emergencies with the power to go along with it. In this year of celebration, there is one memory that will always stay with me. The date was August 29, 2005. Having evacuated to central Louisiana and tuned in to WWL, we were all feeling good that the early reports about Hurricane Katrina’s damage was less then feared, but then, the moment: news director Dave Cohen cut in to announce that the levees had broken and New Orleans was flooding.
That was the beginning of New Orleans’ worst period and WWL’s finest hour. For the months to follow, the station was the informed, around-the-clock voice essential for a dispersed population.
That is what radio can do best and it did it while still being that voice in the cosmos, “Live from New Orleans.”