Monday, June 9, 2008

George 'Loki' Williams of Radio2020 talks to me about Music, Radio, and New Orleans

Another interview blog folks! This time, I'm honoured to be talking to George 'Loki' Williams, who heads up the Radio2020 blog. For those of you who don't know it, Radio2020 is the official blog of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and the HD Alliance (HDA). While I don't know everything about these organizations, I would have assumed that any communication these organizations have with a schmo like me would have been vetted through a 100 or more lawyers.

And this is why I was pleasantly taken aback by George's candour and effusive love of radio when he first contacted me a few weeks ago to syndicate a blog entry I'd written.

George has made the Radio2020 blog (and by extension the blogging voice of the radio giants [NAB, RAB, HDA]) into something that I feel captures the essence of radio. Namely, something - like George, and like radio - that has real personality. But George also has some real pedigree worth noting: He lives and works in New Orleans - a place that as most of you know went through one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, and where radio was instrumental in saving lives. George has also DJed for (KLSU, Baton Rouge, LA) and has worked to help modernize the community station WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans. In fact, New Orleans was our second choice after Nashville, TN for a US City Dial, mainly due to its important musical heritage (especially jazz). So I find it most apropos that Mr. Williams holds the post that he does.

UPDATE: George is a busy man, and has just written to tell me that over this past weekend he has begun working with the Soros Foundation's pen Society Institute as the online organizer and content producer for His new blog will be kicking off within a few days to a week from now. The site recently won a 2008 Webby Award, and is one of the most powerful reactions to Hurricane Katrina, with its mission:
"... to spark a national debate around poverty and racism in America beyond the Katrina anniversary. The site is devoted exclusively to the aftermath of the hurricanes as documented by investigative reporters. Very few news outlets have the resources to do this."

Q1 Neil: Hi George. First off, thanks for taking this time for an interview! I want to first talk about New Orleans the city. You've mentioned before that it played a major role for you after the storm when you returned. This topic deserves more space. But for now, briefly tell me your story, and what part radio played.

A1 George: Hey Neil, thanks for having an interest in what we are doing. It's odd to think back on those days, the weeks following the levee failure were a blur of emotions for all of us. My wife, then my fiancée, and I were exiled with our five cats and little else comparatively close to your location. We ended up in my home away from home: New York City. I had a broken hand and was unable to do any real work for the six weeks of our "exile." It was at about this point that we discovered that the BBC had written an article about our blogging of the evacuation and the aftermath on my New Orleans team blog HumidCity.

Its amazing how time's passing can feel like broken glass in your brain when you have no idea where or how your friends and family are. Think about that for a moment, everyone you know and all of your family members missing with no way to verify if any of them are alive or dead. It took almost three weeks to find my immediate family. Being a native New Orleanian the lack of "home cooking," and strong creole coffee just aggravated the situation. Then, one evening while I was blogging away on a borrowed laptop I did my nightly check to see if WWOZ was back up. As the stream connected and the sounds of Dr. Michael White's horn came wafting out of the tinny little speakers I felt as though a sixteen ton weight had been suddenly lifted from my shoulders. Immediately I emailed the webmaster, who i knew on a personal level having worked with his band The Zydepunks in the past. After a few quick exchanges I had found a focus for all of my frantic emotional energy. For the next few weeks until our return I scoured the Internet for reports of missing musicians and music industry people from NOLA as the station attempted to find the missing members of our music community. This gave me purpose while in a limbo of red tape and conflicting news reports. Enforced idleness and, quite frankly, fear had been a wicked combination for me until then. I cannot properly express how much it helped to hear "our music" again.

Q2 Neil: On a lighter note, tell me about the musical history of New Orleans, and how radio has played a part of that.

A2 George: New Orleans musical history impacts almost every aspect of modern music. It was in Congo Square that the percussive backbeat met the European style melody lines creating a contemporary sound. Everyone thinks of Jazz and Blues in relation to the Crescent City, but without the union of those two factors we would not have Rock 'n Roll, Punk, Swing, or almost any other genre. I know it sounds egotistical, but if you do a bit of research you'll find that I am right.

As to radio's place in that history i must confess that I am rather ignorant of details that fall before my own memories growing up. My parents had little interest in the local sound so I grew up around a lot of Classic Rock and Prog Rock. (Yes, I am in my 40s. Lets move on.)

Once I hit high school age I began to notice a difference in sound between the homegrown musc and the records my parents played at home. Soon I was listening to The Meters and Dr. John as well as local underground acts like The Normals (New Orleans first ever punk band).

It was about this time that WWOZ started up. Between their Jazz and Heritage programming, the indie sounds of college station WTUL, and the Classic Rock offerings of WRNO (which has now switched formats to talk radio). I immersed myself in a muti-genre program of self education. Being a kid I could not just run out and buy a record album at whim, so radio was my introduction to music of all kinds.

Q3 Neil: You were instrumental in bringing WWOZ into the digital age. Most people don't know what it takes to accomplish this. Is this just a matter of buying new equipment, or does it also demand a change in the way the station is being managed and operated?

A3 George: I don't know that instrumental is quite the right word. The station was already streaming online before I ever entered the equation, a step that is hugely important in today's age. I have worked for them in several capacities since then including providing social networking consultations and acting as web producer for their main site. Thanks in great part to the efforts of Arianna Hall, who was my superior, each year has seen more advances into the digital frontier. Unfortunately she would have to be the one answering questions about how it impacts the management level of the station. I do know that there are consistently a number of projects in the pipe geared towards using the technology. Non profits are by nature slow moving creatures, I think 'OZ has managed to stay ahead of the curve in that regard.

Q4 Neil: You've told me in a past conversation that you've worked in a collaborative fashion with both commercial and non-commercial stations as a music and art promoter. I take it you've met a lot of DJs, and been to a lot of stations. You've got a broad perspective, and I'm curious about this. Were there any DJs that really stood out, and how did they stand out?

A4 George: Well, like other people most DJs stand out due to force of personality. Back in the late '90s there was one guy on KKND named Wolfgang. He impressed me with his constant efforts to bring the local rock scene to the mainstream airwaves. In New Orleans that is often harder to do than other places because the Jazz / Blues / Funk scene tends to overshadow everything else. Gina Forsyth, probably my favorite Cajun fiddle player and songwriter, had a long running show on WTUL that introduced me to an array of folk sounds that blew my mind. Her down to earth perspective and vast knowledge of acoustic music created the atmosphere of sitting in someone's living room playing one single after the other.

The great thing about New Orleans is it has always been full of characters. As a result we have better than average luck in the DJ department because character is what makes a show.

Q5 Neil: On that note, how would you describe the station/DJ sub-culture in general?

A5 George: In the immortal words of Mark Twain, "No generalities are true, including this one." Among the DJs I have know over the years the one unifying factor has been individualism. A stupendous array of personalities united by a love of music and a love of sharing it over the airwaves.

Q6 Neil: As a former DJ yourself how did you approach putting together sets and shows? What was your proudest achievement?

A6 George: I would often agonize over what to play for hours if not days beforehand. I ran a Thursday night show in the late '80s that ran from 3am till 6am and absolutely loved it. At that hour of the evening I could get as peculiar as I wanted in my choice of music, and if anyone called in they were usually drunk or entertaining or both.

I would have to say my proudest show was a memorial for Snakefinger. I was running from the control booth to the stacks (at that time way down the hall) and back frantically trying not to miss a segue. I pulled off a solid three hours of obscure music from his various efforts both as a solo performer and with The Residents bookended by all the trivia about him I already knew (and more that I swiped from the liner notes). It was manic, and crazy and born of an inspiration that his death from another DJ.

Q7 Neil: During your DJ days, have you had any weird or crazy callers. Did you ever put them on the air? How about guests?

A7 George: I had guests frequently. Mostly other DJs stopping by after the bars had closed, but sometimes local musicians would come by at random. I did get some pretty funny calls over the three years I did the show. Women asking me out, people so drunk they could hardly speak, and a few bizarre late night philosophers. On a few occasions I put people on the air, particularly if they were sharing some trivia about the artist playing. I had to stop doing that though after one guy dropped an F bomb on tha air. No digital delay back in 1988.

Q8 Neil: Tell me about the Radio2020 blog and what your mission is.

A8 George: The blog is one facet of a campaign to reawaken people to radio. I know that you and I are of similar mindset when it comes to this issue, but there are those who are not. It is not that radio's importance has diminished, rather it is the ubiquity of radio that has led people to take it for granted. I got lucky, when this contract came our way my boss knew of my passion for the medium and dropped it on my desk. There is a huge future for the medium, and that is inclusive of efforts like your own as well as other undreamed of permutations. Broadcast radio is important. In Africa they are using it to educate farmers on better growing techniques. This is something that computer driven media could not do, but for nations lacking literacy but based on oral tradition it is the perfect delivery mechanism. In New Orleans when we returned it was radio that kept us up to date on the little things, like where the water was safe to drink. All over the world are musicians whose careers were built off of the free air play they received at stations all over the nation. The love affair is not over. It's just in need of a "date night."

Q9 Neil: I'm sorry to have to ask this boilerplate question, but if there was a theme song or music for the Radio2020 blog, what would it be?

A9 George: Understand I am speaking only for myself here (as I have been throughout this interview), but I would have to fall back to the early days of Freddy Mercury and Queen: "We Will Rock You."

Q10 Neil: What does the future of radio look like to you?

A10 George: It looks like a string of adjectives: turbulent, exhilarating, innovative, growing, singing, dancing, toe-taping, and lasting!

Thanks lot for having me on, Neil. If you're ever in New Orleans the
first drink is on me. -George "Loki"Williams

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