News from the Field

Board meetings, musicians & media: This is how we do it in New Orleans

It was a real privilege for the Media Impact Funders Board of Directors to convene its quarterly meeting this week in the Crescent City in the midst of Jazz Fest—the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Our new chair, David Rousseau, is a native son of New Orleans, and when he suggested a board learning experience in his hometown for our annual in-person gathering, the board readily seconded the motion.

The city was bursting with music and the many thousands of visitors who make the annual pilgrimage to the massive celebration taking place over two weekends in late April. For those who were not able to get to Jazz Fest, it’s possible to partake in a vicarious experience by listening to the online livestream broadcast via wwoz.org, the radio station of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation that also runs the festival.

In addition to routine board business, we had the opportunity to hear many thoughtful voices of local media makers, musicians and representatives of cultural and community organizations. Together, they are helping to inform the local community, working to enrich the local media ecosystem and serving the cultural creatives who make the city a special destination.

Longtime resident and world-renowned clarinetist Evan Christopher joined our entourage at the classic French Quarter eatery Galatoire’s, where he offered a sobering portrait of the artist in New Orleans (though it’s tough to do anything in a sobering manner on Bourbon Street). Christopher shared his own story of being drawn as a musician to study and stay in New Orleans more than two decades ago and how, even after departing in the wake of the horrific floods following Hurricane Katrina, he felt an irresistible need to return. But he also noted that musicians and other culture bearers, despite their fundamental role in creating the culture upon which the city’s unique attraction is based, are often overlooked and under-valued in government policies.

WWOZ executive David Freedman and MIF executive director Vince Stehle.

WWOZ executive David Freedman and MIF executive director Vince Stehle.

Christopher has joined with longtime New Orleans booster Harry Shearer, WWOZ executive David Freedman and other community leaders to form an advocacy initiative known as C5—the Crescent City Cultural Continuity Conservancy. C5 is intended to support the self-determination of culture bearers faced with economic and political exploitation, commoditization and dilution of their authenticity.

At our board meeting the following day, David Freedman provided insight into the growth of radio station WWOZ into one of the most successful community radio stations anywhere, a broadcast enterprise that has grown from a budget of $250,000 in 1992 to nearly $5 million this year. It’s truly a reflection of a broad array of community voices, drawing on the service of more than 600 volunteers, including more than 70 on-air presenters. The station’s unique success derives from its twin pillars of support, from local volunteer and financial support and equally from the financial support of listeners and evangelists for the station around the world, who are able to tune in via the internet.

We also heard about another unique New Orleans media resource—The Lens—one of the most successful new online news organizations. Founder Karen Gadbois told how she started the Lens as an amateur blogger, digging into the dark corners of city zoning and land use shenanigans after Katrina, revealing abuses of power and position by government officials and their cronies. Lens editor Steve Beatty, a veteran of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution pointed out that Gadbois skirted over the fact that she also won some of the news industry’s leading awards for her reporting, including a Peabody and others. And now that the Lens has grown into a more professional and formidable enterprise, which has also embarked upon award-winning collaborations with such leading news organizations as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Karen Gadbois, founder of The Lens, with Lens editor Steve Beatty (right).

Julia Kumari Drapkin offered a somewhat different view, in her role as founder of iSeeChange, an online platform where people all over the country report what they notice changing in their environment and the impacts those changes have on flora and fauna and other aspects of the natural world. A collaboration with public radio stations and NASA, iSeeChange enables the local experiences of legions of participants to be integrated with large-scale data sets to confirm trends and manifest the reality of climate change in personal stories. As if to underscore the point, at the exact moment Julia was delivering her presentation, a massive thunderstorm appeared and the experience was magnified by being inside the clouds on the 52nd floor.

Julia Kumari Drapkin, founder of iSeeChange.org.

Julia Kumari Drapkin, founder of iSeeChange.org.

We wrapped up our survey of local media voices with a presentation by Angela Tucker, an independent film producer and director who is perhaps best known for her popular PBS web series Black Folk Don’t, which takes a light-hearted look at some of the heavy topics of racial stereotypes in America. Angela also talked about trends and challenges in the burgeoning film production industry in New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast.

After our board meeting, we moved to a meeting with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic hosted by the New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Cultural Economy at nearby Gallier Hall, an ornate historic municipal facility on Lafayette Square, where we once again heard a passionate case for the health and well-being of the culture bearers of New Orleans. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic serves musicians and performers, artisans and dancers, many of whom face tremendous health challenges, both in terms of unhealthy behaviors that are sometimes the occupational hazard of their workplace, but also in the lack of access to affordable care and insurance.

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Clinic founder Bethany Bultman, along with a vibrant cast of clients and supporters, presented the curious history of the clinic, having been born as an idea that emerged from a Phish concert and supported in its early years by a young federal bureaucrat by the name of Bobby Jindal, who later became the governor of Louisiana. It must be noted that it was the same Bobby Jindal who declined to accept federal Medicaid expansion that would have greatly alleviated access to medical care for hundreds of thousands of Louisianans, and which the state’s new governor Jon Bel Edwards will implement this summer.

However daunting the challenges are for musicians in this great town, there is always the reward of the music itself. And so we all tumbled out onto Lafayette Square, after the storm had subsided, and enjoyed the sweet sounds of Trumpet Mafia and New Orleans musical icon Kermit Ruffins.

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