Freeform Radio Lives On in Jersey City
WFMU retains the same underground FM concept that started in the 1960s
by Al Sullivan
Aug 06, 2014 | 3626 views | 2 2 comments | 1 1 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WFMU
A WFMU DJ. Photos by Al Sullivan
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Anyone who listens to “the Glen Jones Radio Programme featuring X. Ray Burns” knows that WFMU-FM is about as pure New Jersey as Bruce Springsteen.

It is also much, much more, despite a weak broadcast signal (91.1) that many people even in parts of Jersey City struggle to get.

Glenn Jones and X. Ray, arguably WFMU’s most popular show, presents a healthy mix of tales from the ’burbs and extremely tasty music. The show is living proof that 1960s-style freeform radio—formats in which DJs have total control over content, regardless of genres or commercial interests—is still relevant to today’s audiences.

Glenn Jones brought international attention to WFMU in May 2001 when he set the Guinness World Record for the longest consecutive radio broadcast by staying on the air for 100 hours and 41 seconds.

“It must have been a very slow news day because we got a lot of attention from world media,” says station manager Ken Freedman. Although the record has since been broken, a commemorative plaque still graces one of the walls of the station.

The Playlist

Unlike many classic freeform radio stations of the past, WFMU has remained freeform—with a vengeance. “We’re always trying to fine-tune our programming,” Freedman says.

This sometimes means shows shift from time slot to time slot, forcing listeners to consult the station’s online program guide, often stumbling onto something new and equally interesting along the way.

There’s no end of variety, says music director Brian Turner. Shows come with curious names such as “Dangerous for the Brain,” “Why Oh Why,” or even the “Goddamn Dave Hill Show.”

The freeform format not only gives audiences what they like, it also introduces them to a variety of music they won’t hear almost anywhere else.

Shows dedicated to a specific musical genre, such as Reggae Schoolroom, offer a varied selection of songs. Peus’s Thing with a Hook presents songs with a heavy musical hook, regardless of the genre. Terre T, who plays a wide range of rock, can take you places you never expected to go, and Teenage Wasteland plays odd bits from several generations of teenage angst.

WMFU avoids the political diatribes of once-great freeform stations. Though it has also abandoned its 1950s Lutheran roots, you can still find religious programming and even some mystic stuff from the Far East by 1960s guru Alan Watts.

The station has 55 to 65 unpaid DJs who have regular shows, fill in, or do specials. It uses every media imaginable, including eight track and cassette tapes, reel to reel, records, CDs, and in the case of one antique music show, 19th century wax cylinders.

“The only thing I don’t think we ever used was a wire recording,” says one DJ.

DJs can highlight anything from garage to experimental.

“It all co-exists here,” Turner says. “Part of what we do is to show people the connections, when they might not be obvious.”

The wide age range explains the diversity of musical tastes. The music library is something to kill for: wall after wall of CDs, records, and cassettes covering a vast history and geography of music.

“We get more than a 100 new records in a week,” Turner says. While they include CDs and cassettes, there has been a resurgence of vinyl records, as well.

Freeform Roots

The station was launched in 1958, broadcasting lectures, classical music, and Lutheran services for Upsala College students. WFMU’s first freeform radio show was broadcast on Nov. 4, 1967, by legendary DJ Vince Scelsa. Prior to 1965, AM radio dominated the musical airwaves. Freeform competition came from WBAI-FM in New York City and a handful of other stations.

A staff walkout in 1969 shut down the station for about 10 months, but when it reopened in 1970, the station outlasted many other stations that succumbed to the commercialization of FM radio.

Freedman credits the station’s early involvement with technology for allowing it to stay two steps ahead of commercial stations. “We have a great internet presence,” he says. WFMU was among the first—if not the first station—to create a website, laying the groundwork prior to the actual launch of the web in 1993. “We recently received a grant from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation to help develop our open-source software to rewrite it for Princeton University and Seton Hall,” Freedman says.

The station was among the first to stream its broadcasts, reaching a worldwide audience of more than 250,000. Turner, who has been with the station since 1996, said music will come from anyplace in the world and include conventional and unconventional recordings from past, present, and future stars. Because of its international reach, the station gets things from countries like China, which has its own take on western music.

The station broadcasts in three areas: Rockland County, Hudson Valley, and Jersey City.

WFMU Digs

A tiny postcard-sized sign taped to the front door is the only clear indication of WFMU’s Montgomery Street home.

The building is reminiscent of the last scenes of “Batteries Not Included,” as skyscrapers rise around it on the waterfront.

Near City Diner, WFMU is a throwback to what artists hoped this part of the city would become, a haven for artists, musicians, and others seeking a Greenwich Village-like vibe.

On the wall inside are symbols of the station’s past and future: a sign reading “Music House/Upsala College” and construction materials, no doubt left over from the new performance space on the first floor.

Enter the vestibule and go up the painfully slow elevator, and you’ll find four floors housing one of the most successful public radio stations in the country.

The station started out in East Orange attached to Upsala College, a Lutheran-run university that went bankrupt and eventually closed.

The station held on for months after the college closed, eventually seeking a new home. Independent of the college since 1994, WFMU began to look for new digs in 1998, a scary proposition even for a sustaining station. They once considered Hoboken but settled on this building in Jersey City near the waterfront, the PATH, and the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.

Most staffers appear to use the stairs because it takes less time than the elevator. The inner sanctum of broadcast space is accessed partly by a spiral staircase, something you might find in a lighthouse.

DJs have lockers for their gear marked with record covers. The volunteers, who often work on the two fundraisers during the year, have a room of their own. Gifts for those who donate, such as T-shirts and bumper stickers, are stored in another room.

Near the backup studio called “edit b” is a room for broadcasting live performances.

But the real treasure is the soon-to-open public performance space on the first floor. WFMU will be leaning on Todd Abramson, music booker and co-owner of Hoboken’s legendary Maxwell’s, to help find musical talent.

This won’t be a night club where people hang out, but a performance space which will present shows by established and up-and-coming performers. With multiple cameras ready to capture it all, the website will allow video streaming.

Time Warp

Walking through the WFMU offices is like going back in time—everywhere you look, you see flashbacks. A collection of velvet paintings lines one hall, not the usual dogs playing cards or classic Elvis, but portraits of grunge music stars, movie stars like Marylyn Monroe (or an imitator), and some questionably rogue historic characters. Ronald Reagan’s felt portrait is in a corner of the room.

During the declining days of Upsala College, the chaplain asked Freedman if he wanted the collection. Freedman says that over the years he’s become more selective about additions.

“I look mostly for portraits,” he says.

Upstairs, one wall of another hallway is covered with record album covers, redecorated by local kids. Bob Dylan has something growing from his nose in one; others are equally sacrilegious.

The wall facing these contains scores of drawings that a listener routinely sends in.

“We have great listeners,” Freedman says.

“More younger people are listening to us,” says Liz Berg, assistant general manager. “We’re trying to build awareness about the station, looking for a way for people to find us. People generally discover FMU by word of mouth.”—JCM

Comments
(2)
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Zed321
|
August 18, 2014
Minor correction: its "Pseu's Thing With a Hook" with Pseu Braun.
HobRebeccaL
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August 07, 2014
I haven't had to struggle to hear WFMU since it began streaming its shows on the internet at wfmu.org long ago. I believe it was one of the first radio stations to stream all of its programming - and thank goodness it does!