WFMU: A Radio Treasure Buried in Jersey City
Editor’s note: This week, WFMU did something it had never done before: It put on a 24-hour fundraising marathon to help raise much-needed funds to go towards securing a new lease for its transmitter and building a booster antenna in Manhattan. The good news is that the station met its pledge goal, but if you didn’t donate, please consider pitching in to help keep one of Jersey City’s crown jewels going strong.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon late last month, there were two lines on 18th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan. One line was made up of well-heeled hipsters and other fashion conscious folks: this was a trunk sale for some clothing designer. The other, much longer line a few doors to the west included, among others, a guy on crutches, a dapper young fellow who looked like an extra from the set of The Great Gatsby, a blind guy with his seven-dollar entry fee at the ready, and the record producer of Nirvana’s first album. This was the line for the WFMU Record Fair, which is hosted by the legendary Jersey City-based radio station that broadcasts at 91.1 on the FM dial. During the three-day music extravaganza, held this year from Oct. 23-25, 4,000 people showed up to shop, sell, kvetch and hang out with fellow fans of the station and station staff.
The record fair line was going slow because the floor of the Metropolitan Pavilion was at capacity. Inside were 500 retailers — a good 90 percent of the merchandise was vinyl LPs, though there were rare 7-inch singles, old 78 rpm 10-inch discs (dapper guy spent his time with a dealer who specialized in this vintage format), and CDs as well as artwork, T-shirts and rock posters.
For music collector geeks with money in their pockets it was Christmas, a birthday and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one. For the weak not used to looking through thousands of records for an armful to take home, it was enough to send them running for the hills. Even the hardiest crate digger needs to take a break, so there were live performances in the far corner, ranging from The Trashmen (who recorded the ’60s classic “Surfin’ Bird”) to Nelson Loskamp’s electro sonic haircut performance. Those needing sustenance but not willing to leave the floor could count on Two Boots Pizza, which was selling slices, and beer was available at an ad hoc bar in the room’s coat check area. And of course the station was broadcasting live from the fair throughout.
Whereas conventional public radio stations raise money by hosting on-air fund drives two or three times a year, WFMU holds its record fair as compliment to its annual fund drive. According to station manager Ken Freedman, who has been with the station since 1983, the reason is simple. “If we did it more than once a year, everybody would hate it,” he says “We can’t have that.” Actually, Freedman is probably talking about the staff that runs the station instead of its listeners, but it makes perfect sense that WFMU does a record fair — this is a station that goes out of its way to go its own way.
The Freeform Formula
A high-water mark by which open format radio stations around the globe measure themselves, WFMU has been called at one time or another the best radio station in the country by the Village Voice, CMJ and Rolling Stone. Such high-profile people as Lou Reed, the Simpsons‘ Matt Groening, Sonic Youth, filmmaker Ethan Coen and Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant are all avowed fans of the longest running freeform station in the country.
The station changes it’s schedule twice a year but one thing that doesn’t change is the sheer creativity and variety of the music heard, which can range from avant-garde jazz to zydeco, old time music from the dawn of recording technology to the latest sounds of electronic avant-gardist Kevin Blechdom. About the only thing you won’t hear is top-40 (unless its from decades past) and classic rock (unless the DJ is going for something ironic).
To hear music director Brian Turner talk about the station’s DJs, it is apparent that creativity is a prerequisite for great radio. “For me, hearing a juxtaposition of two disparate things in a song mix unexpectedly, or just getting lost in something I hear on the air makes me appreciate freeform radio more than anything,” he says. “Hearing something in a context other than what you have normally been exposed to it in; not shying away from taking chances or approaching new ideas.”
If there is one unifying factor for this freeform station where each DJ programs his or her own show, it’s an offbeat sense of humor. The DJs are some of the most knowledgeable people you’ll ever find, and many work in the worlds of art, music and television, but there is also a certain wackiness to the WFMU world. Classic oddball moments that jump out include the 100 hours and 41 seconds DJ Glen Jones spent on air in 2001 — this got him into the Guinness World Records for longest consecutive radio broadcast. And who can forget underground songwriter Daniel Johnston’s 1990 performance via telephone from his parents house in West Virginia while Yo La Tengo (regulars of the station) backed him live in the studio?
“We do get a lot of lip for the goofus factor of the station, though I should say that it’s one element and not all-encompassing,” concedes Turner. “I don’t think a DJ has ever been encouraged, per se, to be funny in their on-air demeanor, just open-minded. And I know a lot of them really want to project a more scholarly approach to things, or just plain be themselves. The comedy end holds up pretty good though with 7 Second Delay and Tom Scharpling, shows in the past like Kenny G or Incorrect Music.”
From Upsala to Jersey City
Originally opened in 1958 as the college station for Upsala College in East Orange, WFMU took on a life of its own by the ’80s that had little to do with the college. So when the school went bankrupt in 1995, the station was bought by a newly formed non-profit organization and moved to Jersey City in 1998. Now located in a small building just around the corner from the Downtown post office, the station occupies the four floors above a real estate agency on the ground floor.
During the day, not only is the DJ on the air but office staff and volunteers are busily getting mailings together, fielding phone calls, updating the music archives and doing whatever else it takes to keep the station running. The heart of the station is a living room sized booth where DJs spin. The rest of this floor is dedicated to a library that holds tens of thousands of titles. Photos of famous and not-so-famous musicians, black velvet paintings and other WFMU ephemera occupy the walls throughout. There are offices and a DJ lounge, as well as a second broadcast booth next to a live music studio, complete with gear for bands to use when they play at the station. In sum, it’s a bigger version of the college radio station that many of the station’s staffers once worked at.
While the music played in the studio is broadcast on a signal that reaches east to New York City, north to the Hudson Valley, west to Eastern Pennsylvania and South to Trenton thanks to 1250-watt transmitter in East Orange, WFMU has an even larger presence on the web through its broadcasts, archives, playlists, blogs and chatrooms.
“We already have more listeners on the internet than over FM,” Freedman points out. “We’ve already crossed the line [to] where I see the FM signal as a promotional tool for the website, rather than the other way around, which is how I originally saw things. We have no plans to turn off our FM signal though!”
Many staffers make the commute from the other side of the Hudson for their shifts, and the location near the PATH train was key to why the station is where it is. Freedman says another reason was Jersey City’s tax abatement for nonprofits, which is absent in Newark and Hoboken. The city even tried to secure loans (which didn’t work out) to help with the station’s move.
As the record fair and occasional live WFMU hosted concerts prove, an active, eclectic and diverse group of listeners gravitate to the station. It happens locally, and thanks to the web it also happens well beyond signal range. Public radio stations by nature are community oriented. Yet at the same time, much of that community is created through broadcasting.
“I was at a show in Paris last summer, wearing a WFMU T-shirt, and some French fans of the band Apparat saw the shirt, then when they found out I was the station manager, they got excited and wanted to pose with me,” Freedman recalls. “This kind of thing happens, to a lesser degree I suppose, to lots of people who wear WFMU shirts and run into other WFMU listeners. People react to each other in situations like their members of a secret tribe, which I suppose they are.”