In broadcast begins responsibilities: The UNO/WWNO program Storyville needs to step it up

By Taylor Murrow

Storyville, for those who don’t know, was a regulated vice district (brothels, gambling, booze—the whole shebang) at the edge of the French Quarter in the early 20th century. It was shut down in 1917, but was memorialized in photographs by E.J. Bellocq and has made its footprint on the city’s cultural legacy. It’s one of the many eccentricities of New Orleans that are celebrated despite (or because of) their off-color history.

Today, the name Storyville lives on in a variety of local manifestations—an apparel company that prints New Orleans-themed clothes, a film production company housed in a historic manor, a hotel on Esplanade Avenue, an old-timey brass band, a 1992 film starring Galyn Gorg and James Spader, and, most recently, a new program on New Orleans’ NPR affiliate station, WWNO, that features creative nonfiction MFA students from the University of New Orleans reading their stories about the city.

The first Storyville episode aired last fall. Called “The District,” it summarizes the history of that notorious neighborhood and notes its legacy as a place where jazz flourished with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. However, author Robin Baudier also acknowledges that there was an inherent dark side to Storyville. “People were pushed to this periphery of society because of their race, class, or profession, and there are dark stories to be told about their lives,” she writes.

Public radio would have been an ideal venue to share those stories. Unfortunately, we don’t hear them on Storyville.

To date, the show has featured audio essays that run the tired gamut from navel-gazing by a new high school teacher (who seems a bit taken aback to discover that teaching involves selflessness) to a description of a Mardi Gras parade full of “misfits, poets, lunatics, artists and general quirks” (who knew?!) to a woman who moved here so recently she wrote an essay about visiting the city with her father years ago (and eating at Antoine’s and drinking at the Carousel Bar). This last example is not to hate on transplants, but there’s something wrong with providing a person a broad public platform and asking them to share something insightful about a city they know nothing about to an audience that knows a lot about the city—particularly when there are so many voices that have valuable insight that never get the privilege of being broadcast.

New Orleans breeds stories and storytellers. In coffee shops, bars, grocery stores across town, there are storytellers sharing their own personal recollections of New Orleans, past and present. The difference between these stories and the ones on Storyville is, of course, that Storyville is transmitted into cars, homes, and businesses all across the state. The significant platform this medium provides carries a certain amount of responsibility. People tune into WWNO and expect to be informed, or maybe entertained. Local storytelling programming doesn’t have to be hard-hitting journalism, but it should encourage listeners to examine their surroundings with fresh perspectives. WWNO’s listenership crosses eleven parishes and reaches 1.5 million people. When that many people are listening, you need to steer the conversation to more thoughtful terrain.

The view from Storyville contributor Woodlief Thomas’ porch. Thomas’ essay “Hollerin'” is one of the better pieces produced by the show.

But not all the stories are without merit. A few seconds into “Hollerin’,” it seemed like it would be another worn-out ode to New Orleans colloquialisms like “makin’ groceries” or “where y’at.” In this episode, author Woodlief Thomas describes another defining staple of New Orleans culture: residents who make a neighborhood feel like home, who ask you how you’re doing and really want to know the answer. Those of us who live here know that this sense of community is what separates life in New Orleans from bustling metropolitan areas. The warmth and congeniality Thomas ascribes to his former neighbors—some of whom were priced out of their homes, others who have passed away—is palpable. In some ways “Hollerin’” is another ode, but it’s a bit sad, hopeful, and at least urges the listener to consider the very real factors that shift the social dynamics of a region, when the “stoopsitters” and “hollerers” are no longer a part of that cultural space. “Listen, man,” Thomas says. “There’s new folks coming in.”

New Orleans loves to talk about New Orleans, which is just fine. But planting an occasional critical eye on the things that make the city great is a healthy part of that adoration, too. Sure, people want to hear stories, but they should say something new, something memorable, approach a topic from an angle that few may have considered. There are a lot of stories to be heard about this city, and with wide listenership like WWNO’s at your disposal, you’d better make your mark.

The recently aired “A Moveable Race” was a refreshing step in the right direction. Written and read by Lacar Musgrove, it touches on the history of bicycle racing in New Orleans in the late 19th century. By centering on one race between two men, C.B. Guillotte and A.M. Hill, Musgrove paints a lively, burgeoning moment in New Orleans history that doesn’t read like a Wikipedia entry. Her account is well-written and sounds great on the radio and will likely have people who have never given bicycle racing in New Orleans a second thought running searches on Google after hearing her story.

It’s encouraging to have a major media outlet like WWNO support local writers and students—the MFA creative writing program at UNO is the only one in the city. However, with that platform comes an important opportunity for writers to offer something a little challenging to the conversation about New Orleans. There are moments in Storyville that scratch the surface, but New Orleans is a unique, nuanced city that both embodies and defies stereotype. Let Storyville the t-shirt company handle the clichés. Storyville the radio program should attempt to transcend them.