WFMU: Land of the Freeform Radio
This story appeared in the 2012 Winter issue of NEW Magazine (Now JCI).
Widely revered for its eclectic programming, independent spirit and eccentric sense of humor, WFMU FM has been called the best radio station in the country by Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. It would be no exaggeration to state that every record collector, rock and roll obscurantist and fan of non-commercial radio in the Tri-State Area is aware of the station. But it seems less widely acknowledged, even in Jersey City, that WMFU is in fact our local radio station–broadcast out of a converted teal storefront row house on Montgomery Street.
Posters of diners and WFMU artwork, including a glow-in-the dark map of New Jersey, cover the walls of the studio. Toys litter the common area, and station manager Ken Freedman (pictured above) keeps a collection of more than two hundred kitschy velvet paintings on the second floor. Detroit garage-rock veterans the Sights were recording a live set for the show Three-Chord Monte when I met with Freedman, a 53-year-old silver fox in a plaid shirt.
With the rest of the staff on lunch break, Freedman scrambled to resolve a transmitter issue as we spoke. “It’s always something,” he said. He eventually fixed the issue, restoring the uninterrupted stream to WFMU’s upstate New York listeners. Freedman and screenwriter Andy Breckman co-host Seven Second Delay, a live call-in show broadcast from the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. “The station has a real Jersey identity,” Freedman said, “even though we have more listeners in Brooklyn.”
In fact, WFMU broadcasts to both Jersey City and upstate New York but has twice the amount of listeners online. It offers a progressive variety of options for your listening pleasure — among them, live streaming, podcasts, archives and apps. An internet radio programming pioneer, it has six different streaming channels on its website.
While WFMU’s online presence accounts for twice as many listeners, Freedman maintains that a radio broadcast signal remains vital to the station’s identity. “People still listen to radio,” he said. “That perception [that they don’t] is a myth.” And he remains equally adamant about the station’s connection to the Garden State. “We’re very proud of our Jersey identity,” he said.
Freeform or Death, a documentary about WFMU slated for release in 2013, features Freedman as the protagonist struggling to keep the station operating while simultaneously advocating and fundraising. The documentary’s Kickstarter fundraiser for post-production received more than $80,000 from over 700 backers, far exceeding its initial goal of $50,000.
The film’s director, Tim Smith, claims he just wanted to the world to know more about the station. “It highlights an American tradition that values freedom and independence above all else — that’s why people went West, so they didn’t have to answer to anyone,” he says. “That’s what WFMU is doing. There’s a lot of conversations in this country about corporations and government in our lives. WFMU’s success shows that you don’t have to have either.”
In the world of freeform radio, DJs maintain complete control over their playlists and program content, unencumbered by any mandate from the station or corporation with a stake in it. The format became popular in the 1960s, mostly at college stations. WFMU started broadcasting in 1958 from Upsala College in East Orange, and within 10 years became the first full-time freeform station in the New York area. When the university went bankrupt in 1994, the station stayed on, broadcasting from the abandoned campus at the only occupied building left, Avatar House, until 1998. At that point, it moved to Jersey City.
Freedman started out as a DJ but has served as station manager since 1985 and has dedicated much of his life to keeping WFMU alive. The station eschews advertising, a rarity in today’s radio landscape. With an operating budget of $1.8 million, WFMU relies entirely on listener support. Every year, the station holds a marathon fundraiser during the first two weeks of March. They usually raise about $1.2 million through that effort, and about $200,000 from the autumn record fair that they sponsor in New York City. A silent fundraiser held online in October accounts for further revenue.
Some of the stunts that Freedman has pulled for money include agreeing to get an Eagles tattoo on his shoulder if the station raised $23,000 within a certain timeframe. Freeman hates the Eagles, but proudly sports the tattoo today. In the 1990s, he danced naked on the roof as a result of “strip pledging,” removing an article of clothing for every $250 raised. Last March, he covered himself with melted LPs to appear as a vinyl Iron Man. Most of the money raised goes toward the salaries of seven staff members, and then for broadband fees and maintenance. Including all the DJs, the station boasts more than 200 volunteers who find time in their own schedules to help keep it running.
When Freedman and music director Brian Turner rotate the programming schedule twice a year, they seek out people who fit into WFMU’s ethos — DJs with spontaneity, creativity and humor who might be willing to push the envelope and take the station in new directions. “We like talk shows and music shows that represent our sensibility, which is pretty weird,” said Freedman. He used the show Miracle Nutrition with Hearty White as an example, describing White as a “stream of consciousness, backwoods, Kentucky-accent man with old-timey country music who talks about food.”
One DJ, Therese Mahler, says she’s honored to be at the station, having been a fan since high school. “The people I have met and the opportunities I have had as a result have made my life better in more ways than I can count… WFMU DJs have showed me that there’s no wrong way to put a show together,” Mahler says. “I love each and every one of those weirdos.”
Adam Horovitz, better known as Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, applied at one point for a time-slot and underwent training in the studio — after he was told he might have to work as a volunteer for year, as DJs are usually required to do — but the show fell through eventually due to his focusing on other projects and, presumably, being busy and famous.
But the most notable WFMU volunteer might be Tom Scharpling, who hosts a comedy call-in show called The Best Show on WFMU—by far the station’s most popular show, according to Freedman. Jon Wurster, drummer for Superchunk and the Mountain Goats, plays most of the characters who call in. Since it began in 2001, dozens of well-known comedians, including Patton Oswald, Todd Barry, Jon Hodgman, and Kurt Braunohler, have made guest appearances.
Scharpling also directs videos, with credits including the video for Ted Leo’s “Bottled in Cork,” a parody of Green Day’s musical for Funny or Die, and Titus Andronicus’s “No Future Part 3: No Escape from the Future,” which ends with a scene on the roof of the Iron Monkey. He claims that some calls take weeks to write. While he could be doing paid gigs in the time he spends working on the show for free, he chalks up his willing enslavement to his belief in freedom.
“It’s a place that, when you consider the way things work in the 21st century — that it should’ve been co-opted or taken over — it’s still a single entity that still exists without corporate takeover. It’s its own thing,” he says. He raised $206,000 in six hours during this year’s marathon fundraiser.
Despite the accomplishments of these dedicated volunteers, Ken Freedman’s vision for the future of the station seems particularly ambitious. The “Studio of Tomorrow,” as he has dubbed the proposal, is still a million dollars and at least two years away. But if all goes according to plan, it will comprise a unique, technology-driven cultural endeavor that fills a longstanding need in our community.
For many years, Jersey City’s lack of a dedicated music venue has raised complaints from local residents who want see live music without having to travel far. Freedman has developed a potentially exciting solution to the issue: expand WFMU into a public studio venue for performances, broadcasts, lectures, talk shows and other programming, all of which will also be streamed online.
The station is working with the Division of Cultural Affairs and mayor’s office on its plans, but at this point, the Studio of Tomorrow exists only on a promotional brochure. In theory, it will be located on the first floor of the station, with 64 seats and no liquor license. Despite the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked an estimated $400,000 worth of damage on the existing station, Freedman has no intention of abandoning the project, though he said has said his main goal is to recover.
The Studio of the Future will be a testament to freeform and creative expression. It will also be a way for the station to give back to its longtime home. Patrick Stickles, frontman from Scharpling’s Titus Andronicus video, feels strongly about the station’s connection to New Jersey. “You people out there, you think you know New Jersey?” Stickles fumed. “You think because you’ve seen The Sopranos, The Real Housewives, The Jersey Shore, you heard about the garbage dumps, you’ve smelt the Meadowlands when you were driving down the Turnpike, you think you know New Jersey? You don’t know anything about New Jersey.”
For years, WFMU has been working to change that. And if the station successfully opens a new venue, its offerings in our corner of New Jersey will get better still.
For more information visit wfmu.org.
Photos by Farooq Alihassan