Perfect Sound Forever


Exposé by Jason Gross (March 1997)

Since the Internet covers a little more than the New York/New Jersey area, why should anybody not from the area, give a damn about a local radio station? Don't say that to anyone who is from the area and knows that WFMU happens to be the hippest thing on the air. Why everyone else should or might care is that WFMU is more than a collection of good play lists. The flurry of extraordinary CDs, books and other amazing merchandise that they unleash on an unsuspecting world, their many on-air experiments (see below), the bevy of bands that have done live shows in their studios (including Yo La Tengo, the Bats, Original Sins, DelMcCoury, Gary Lucas, the Silver Apples, Oblivians, Dump, Bunnybrains, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Guv'ner, Giant Sand, Stereolab, the Raincoats, Faith Healers, Hasil Adkins, Jad Fair, Run On, Lisa Germano, Sun City Girls, Jeff Buckley, Universal Congress Of, Bingo Gazingo, Cowboy Junkies, They Might Be Giants, Bob Mould, Lisa Germano, Amy Rigby and hundreds more) and their heroic battles just to survive ought to make them at home in the heart of any real music lover. Acutally, the station should be going to a 24-hour-a-day Real Audio broadcast of their programs so that anyone online can tune into their merry-ment and mind-expanding broadcasts.

With much appreciated assistance from James Dye, we were able to corner Station Manager KEN FREEDMAN and Musical Director BRIAN TURNER to get the whole truth and nothing but the truth (or a pretty reasonable fascimile). Most of all, as Brian noted, "we are 100% listener supported radio. Our only means of self-support is contributions from our listeners, an ilk so fine we are very proud."

PSF:How/when did you get involved in FMU?

KEN: December of 1983 I did my first show, May of 84 I got a weekly show, August of 85 I became Station Manager. August of 91 I quit for two years, came back in May of 93.

PSF: How has station changed over the years?

KEN: Don't know where to begin on that one... it's more diverse musically now than it's ever been. There are more DJs now - in '85 when I first became manager, there were only about 25 DJs - lots of folks did 2 or 3 shows a week. Then nobody wanted to do more than one, all of a sudden. Now there are 60 regular DJs. The air staff is older than it was ten years ago. The music scene has changed, the audience has changed.

PSF: How so?

KEN: There's definitely been some ossification of attitude in all three. People seem to have decided ahead of time what they like and what they don't like rather than letting their ear and their heart decide. Also, rock and roll is definitely going trough a real bad time right now. Ain't much creative happening there these days. But there certainly are more good records released every week than I have time to listen to, so I shouldn't be whining.

PSF: Is there any inherent philosophy behind station?

KEN: Here's our "mission statement," as it were. "WFMU is funded largely through listener contributions and, as such, has a special relationship to the people who pay the station's bills. WFMU chooses to serve a diverse group of listeners by emphasizing diversity within many programs, as opposed to a reliance on numerous special interest programs ("coalition based" scheduling), which is the approach most American college and community stations choose. We attempt to broaden through exposure, and not reinforce the strict classifications of style and genre that exists in the marketing of music. In doing this, it is our hope that biases can be overcome and our listeners can expand their horizons. If we are successful in this approach, then we have achieved our goal of providing an alternative service not only to commercial radio, but to other non-commercial stations as well."

But there's so much more to our many (and often contradictory) philosophies than that. Here's some more pertinent stuff from a forthcoming fundraising brochure:

"When WFMU's signal inhabits your radio, you're giving that device more power than an appliance should reasonably be allowed to have. At its best, FMU makes you ransack your own home in search of a blank cassette on which to capture the magic of our programming. Or your radio might pull you across the room like a magnet because you can't turn it off fast enough, so horrid is the discharge spilling out of our meager little transmitter. Then there are the times when your crystal set compels you to increase the volume because the music we're playing needs to be heard L-O-U-D. Or s-o-f-t, as you clench your teeth and wait out a somewhat irritating phase of programming that wouldn't be so painful if it would-simply-move-on-to-something-else. Soon. A radio tuned to WFMU has these abilities because good radio requires good listeners who are active participants in the programming. WFMU's survival is a testament to the quality of listeners we've been able to attract. And what's so amazing about WFMU is not that we've survived an eight-year string of potentially deadly crises, but that we've done it without selling out."

I also think that WFMU is a place where contradictions can and must exist. And I agree with Marshall Macluhan when he said "Art is whatever you can get away with." Substitute "great radio" for art, and that's about the size of it. Radio is something/someone to hang out with for a few minutes or hours. Whatever works, works. FMU is a station that....doesn't take itself too seriously, that takes chances, that succeeds wonderfully one minute and then fails miserably the next. WFMU has achieved one of the hardest things for a station - it has an overall personality.

BRIAN: Well, to try to avoid repeating the points that Ken has made, I can tell you about the musical philosophies. Basically WFMU's free-form ideology is one that has been in place more or less since the station's inception in the 1960's. Oddly enough, I still find coming across such stations an all-too-rare occassion these days, and I can't help but wonder why the free-form concept hasn't been embraced more readily. We've been kind of lucky in the way that WFMU has been consistent with a string of creative and talented folks who have been able to incorporate myriad of tastes into a general identity for the station. Why is freeform important? Well, for one thing, our programming isn't random, i.e. we aren't diverse for the mere sake of it. Anyone can put a 1930's Tex-Mex tune back to back with a new experimental record, but by creating a sense of cohesiveness out of chaos can be a thrilling experience for both DJ and listener. And the emphasis on playing all types of music is only positive for the musical community, members of which will NEVER hear their sounds heard on radio.

PSF: How is FMU different/unique from other stations?

BRIAN: I guess it comes down to the fact that we're kind of, uh, warped. We've got tons of programs to choose from for serious culture and music connoiseurs, but we've also got some highly unusual stuff, and for some reason the strangest notions and characters seem to gravitate towards us! The beauty is that it all bleeds together and truly allows people to find something they can really relate to.

PSF: Could you talk about importance of free-form programming?

KEN: It's an approach that doesn't really exist in any other form, really. Freeform radio demands that a listener employ different sensibilities to judge or appreciate the different components of the program. Nothing else does that - museums, records, books, etc. Freeform radio can make people realize that their musical biases are utterly full of shit, and once you realize that any of your beloved biases are baseless, then you're ready to make some real progress as a human being.

BRIAN: I think the free-form approach is probably most important now more than ever since so many people are being herded like goats into believing that something is "alternative" just because it is deemed so by higher "authority". Since a mass population seems to be embracing the term "alternative" (whatever it means) more and more these days, it's disheartening to see it become a viable format for slick commercial radio stations, not to mention just another marketing term. WFMU is committed to evading any categorization. "Freeform" could very well evolve into some kind of marketing term itself someday, but as long as radio opts to fulfill its commercial obligations, chances are it won't happen anytime soon.

PSF: Talk about on-air experiments that have been done at the station.

KEN: We've had...

The list goes on and on....

PSF: How about a brief history of the station's legal battles?

KEN: A clan of four opportunistic public radio stations tried to use a 30 year old surveyor's error as a pretext for cutting FMU's power in half and raising their own. The battle cost FMU over $400,000 in legal fees before the FCC essentially ruled in our favor four years later.

PSF: Is radio still an important medium with all the video today?

BRIAN: Sure is. Radio allows you to incorporate your own images with what you hear. Too much of the media of today is for the short-attention-span generation, and radio (when used well) provides unlimited space for good things.

KEN: I think it's more important today. It's still the only medium for delivering audio to consumers, whereas every other medium (print, TV) has been completely overhauled and fragmented. But radio will be overhauled and fragmented also.

PSF: What do you think is going to happen then?

KEN: I think that radio will become just one means (of many) for people to get live "real-time" audio. This is already happening - there's cable radio, Realaudio, Direct Broadcast Satellites. I dont know exactly how this will play out, but my guess is that it will mean more and more sub-specialization of format. (I recently heard about a 24-hour Grateful Dead channel on the net with Realaudio - that type of thing.) But FMU will always be catering to folks who resist specialization and "narrowcasting."

PSF: What's the future of the station?

KEN: I hope we continue to broaden our scope in all directions, and at the same time, reach more listeners who appreciate the strange things we do. By moving to Jersey City, we wil become much more of a real community station instead of a record club, which is what we have been at times. I hope we will also become an on-line station. I'd like to see more experimentation and more populist programming back to back.

PSF: What kind of things do you have in mind?

KEN: I just mean to say that I want to take the station into new terrain in many (and often "contradictory") directions. I would love to see more experimentation on the air that gets us away from the kind of standard "20-minutes-of-music-3-minutes of talk" format. People can use recorded sound from any source, they can use non-recorded sound, they can manipulate the hell out of whatever they want. I'd like to give airtime to people who really want to experiment. But I would also love to give air-time to somebody with a real populist bent who wanted to do the pop radio thing, but in a real accessible freeform way - a show of all "accessible" music, but from many different genres. That would be a new concept too.

PSF: You've had some famous/infamous DJ's/staff. Gerard Cosloy of Matador?

KEN: Gerard did a weekly show for two years or so.

PSF: R. Stevie Moore (the guy doing home-taping years before Lou Barlow) had been a DJ for a while, too?

KEN: Yep - for a very long time, and he may come back to do fill-ins. He's performing on the air live in a few weeks.

PSF: Someone from Run-On on Matador also used to work at FMU too?

KEN: David Newgarden, formely of Run-On, was Music and Program Director. He now manages Cibo Matto and runs John Zorn's Tzadik label.

PSF: The whole lounge retro thing (Esquivel, etc.) really started at FMU, thanks to DJ Irwin Chusid, who handled those Bar-None reissues.

KEN: 'tis true. We are to blame in many ways.

Also see our 2011 interview with WFMU's Brian Turner

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER