One of the little-known facts about local public radio station WWOZ is what the station’s call letters stand for. Its founders chose an abbreviation for the “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” from the namesake book and feature film.
After 35 years of making her own kind of magic happen at New Orleans’ leading public television station, Beth Arroyo Utterback continues her magical journey at the helm of the city’s leading public broadcast outlet. As the newly appointed general manager of WWOZ (90.7 FM), she happily agrees that, like Judy Garland in the movie, “’There’s no place like home.’ That’s what it feels like to me.”
Since leaving her longtime employer at WYES Channel 12 earlier this year and taking her new position at ‘O-Z’ on June 1, Beth has already unveiled a creative vision for the station in the years to come: especially with New Orleans celebrating its Tricentennial next year.
For starters, she has conceived an ambitious project calling for a series of over 100 “mini-documentaries” highlighting the city’s storied musical history. The one-and-a-half to two-minute vignettes will feature voice-over narrations by some of New Orleans’ leading musical icons and other celebrities. And there’s still more exciting innovations to come, Beth promises.
With a worldwide audience of more than 900,000 homes in about 200 countries through streaming on their website, plus more than 100,000 local radio listeners weekly and 86,000 Facebook followers, WWOZ’s numbers have Beth in awe. So much so that she was inspired to coin a catchy slogan: “If you can’t live in New Orleans, let New Orleans live in you.”
Photo by Charlie Steiner
Commenting on her first two months at the listener-supported station that was founded in 1980 and specializes in indigenous New Orleans music, Beth said, “It’s a wonderful, very exciting place to be. There are so many great things going on here. So much incredible talent that comes to our studios and we broadcast them live on Facebook and on the Internet all around the world. It’s really an amazing experience. I get up and I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.”
With family roots dating back more than two centuries – to the Spanish rule of New Orleans in the late 1700s – Beth is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the city. Born and raised here in an artistically creative family, she acted in local stage productions for more than 25 years, as did her sisters Maria and Vicki and her brother Sidney Arroyo who was also the longtime lead singer for Vince Vance & The Valiants, as well as a highly sought-after political consultant before his recent retirement.
“They called our family ‘the Barrymores of New Orleans,’” Beth said. Her mother formerly hosted a children’s show on WDSU Channel 6 titled “Mother Goose on the Loose” and her father, Sidney Sr., acted in the movies.
At WYES, where she started while still in college in 1981, Beth was steadily promoted to various positions with the station, ending as executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I went there for what was supposed to be a three-month job and, for the next 35 years, I never left,” she recalled.
“I loved working at WYES but, after 35 years of that, I was ready for a change. Now I’ve landed in the exact right place for me,” Beth said.
Lavishing praise on her staff of 17 full-time employees and a rotation of approximately 70-75 volunteer deejays, Beth said, “They are so dedicated and committed to what we do here.” She recounted how some of them made their way to the station to do their jobs despite the flooding that occurred this past August.
“They spent hours trying to get here but they all found ways and made it,” Beth continued. “Their dedication, their love of WWOZ and their love of music - that is really so inspiring to me. And how they all take their shows so seriously. They want to teach people and tell people all about the music they love. WWOZ is so lucky to have such an incredible cadre of talented people who are from all walks of life. Many of them are musicians themselves. We also have engineers, attorneys, retirees, bartenders, teachers, carpenters and a fitness guru, and the one thing that brings us all together is that we all love New Orleans and its music.”
Photo by Charlie Steiner
Expounding on her project of touting New Orleans music, Beth said the station has already lined up such luminaries as actors John Goodman, Wendell Pierce, Harry Shearer and Bryan Batt; singers Aaron and Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Leah Chase Kamata and Tarriona “Tank” Ball; former WWL newscaster Angela Hill; opera superstar Bryan Hymel; and writer Lois Eric Elie, with still many more celebrities to come.
Among the subjects they’ll be discussing in the vignettes are musical icons Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Allen Toussaint and others; landmarks like Preservation Hall, The Warehouse, Congo Square, the Dew Drop Inn and the Mother-in-Law Lounge; and musical traditions like second-lines, Mardi Gras Indians and high school marching bands.
Beth is the executive producer overseeing the project and helping line up celebrities and subject matter.
Another project she plans to initiate is “WWOZ in the Schools.” Drawing historical information from their website feature titled “A Closer Walk” (https://acloserwalknola.com/), Beth explained, “It’s an app you can look at on your computer or phone and it can be a walking tour or a musical history lesson. You can look at famous places in New Orleans and learn all about the history of the site. We’re going to be bringing that into the schools and helping to teach kids about the history of music in New Orleans.”
In addition, the station will be continuing its popular “Cuttin’ Class” program which highlights area-wide middle and high school students playing their music. This is also streamed worldwide.
Noting the difference between TV and radio, Beth said, “At WYES, if I wanted to premiere something, I’d say ‘We’ll put this on such and such date at such and such time and we’ll repeat it.’ But we don’t have a TV station to do that here, and anyway, it would be too limiting. The only people who would see it would be people in the New Orleans area. With streaming, our audience is worldwide. The beautiful ancillary effect we have here (at WWOZ) is that we’re bringing New Orleans to the world.”
Summing up her new assignment at ‘OZ, Beth said, “It gives me goose bumps just knowing that we can do something in this little tiny studio right here in the French Market and people are tuned in all over the world to us; people who love New Orleans.
“Andy Warhol said we were the greatest radio station in the universe,” Beth continued. “We are flattered and honored by that. It’s just a great place to work and I consider it an incredible privilege to be a ‘Guardian of the Groove.’”