Nevermind the Mainstream: WFMU Freeform Radio
I gave up on radio a long time ago. Commercial radio, that is. It’s been unlistenable for decades, ever since the corporations did to radio what they ultimately end up doing to anything that is good and decent in this world: they destroyed it. Mega-mergers led to most radio stations in this country being gobbled up by a small number of giant media companies, then homogenizing and watering-down terrestrial radio in order to maximize listenership and ad revenue. Blandness sells, and commercial radio has become as bland as Wonder Bread. There’s a very clear reason you can drive from one end of this country to the other and find the same 10 or 12 songs playing on every single commercial radio station; they’re all programmed for conformity, and since they’re all owned by one of a very few companies, they’re all programmed to sound exactly alike. And I’m sorry to say, but if you’re relying on radio to give you something new, something different, something interesting in the world of music, you are losing out.
There are pockets of resistance to the corporate takeover of radio. Public radio, community radio, college radio stations, even illegal pirate radio stations all offer something in the way of alternatives to the dreck that’s found on most commercial stations. (And when I refer to ‘radio,’ I’m mostly talking about internet radio. All radio stations broadcast online, and there are tons of very good internet-only stations.
But there’s one radio station that stands above all others. The mighty WFMU, broadcasting at 91.1 FM out of Jersey City, New Jersey, and online everywhere at wfmu.org has been around forever and stands as one of the last bastions of freeform radio, harkening back to the days when radio DJs programmed their own shows, picked their own music, and answered to nothing but their own musical tastes, or lack thereof.
WFMU: A Short Freeform History
WFMU is listener-supported. No corporate overlords. No university affiliations. No commercials. COMPLETELY INDEPENDENT. It’s the longest running freeform radio station in the nation. And it remains the best, if by ‘best’ you mean hearing music that A: you’ve probably never heard before, B: you will not hear anywhere else, and C: can be as challenging and difficult at times to stomach as it is enjoyable to listen to. WFMU is a music-lover’s dream, a haven for people (like me) searching for the different, the strange, the underheard, and undeservedly ignored music that is everywhere out there in the underground, buried under the layers of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Walmartized ‘bro country that’s stifling the airwaves. It’s a radio station run by volunteer DJs. They don’t get paid, they just love music and they love the idea of a radio station that allows them to play what they want, even if what they want to play isn’t exactly always what the vast majority of listeners doesn’t want to hear.
That sense of adventure, that sense of not knowing, not even possibly imagining, what’s coming up next, is what I love about the kind of curated experience that used to be the trademark of great radio everywhere before it was beat down by the number crunchers, and now only exists in a few remaining places like WFMU. As one of WFMU’s DJ’s puts it, “Comparing WFMU to a commercial radio station is like comparing National Geographic to People magazine.”
These two paragraphs from WFMU‘s website explain their mission statement pretty clearly:
“WFMU’s programming ranges from flat-out uncategorizable strangeness to rock and roll, experimental music, 78 RPM Records, jazz, psychedelia, hip-hop, electronica, hand-cranked wax cylinders, punk rock, gospel, exotica, R&B, radio improvisation, cooking instructions, classic radio airchecks, found sound, dopey call-in shows, interviews with obscure radio personalities and notable science-world luminaries, spoken word collages, Andrew Lloyd Webber soundtracks in languages other than English as well as Country and western music.
All of the station’s programming is controlled by individual DJs and is not beholden to any type of station-wide playlist or rotation schedule. Experimentation, spontaneity and humor are among the station’s most frequently noted distinguishing traits. WFMU does not belong to any existing public radio network, and close to 100% of its programming originates at the station.”
Much larger, more important people than me, people like Rolling Stone magazine and The Village Voice, have declared WFMU to be the best radio station in the country. And I’m not about to argue with them. I love the underdog. I love the weirdos. I love the unmarketables. I love WFMU.
WFMU: From New Jersey to the World
Being a small, independent radio station isn’t easy, but WFMU makes it work, somehow. Because their relatively small signal only reaches a small area around New Jersey and New York City, the station was one of the first to begin broadcasting its signal over the internet, way back in the 1990s. The internet has always played a large role at WFMU, and is the reason this kid from Michigan can tune in (I’m listening right now if you really want to know.)
In addition to their online radio stream, WFMU was also a pioneer in archiving the shows on the station. Go to their website, and you can listen to just about any show from the last decade (and beyond.)
In a way, WFMU is old-fashioned radio with a 21st century twist. They have embraced technology to archive and share its eccentric programming with the world, but it does radio the way it used to be done, and to many listeners, they way it should be done.
All of its programming is completely live. Most commercial radio DJs (satellite radio as well) do a thing called voice-tracking, which is basically pre-recording their voice, which is then programmed in between songs (and lots of commercials) for broadcast. You knew this, right? You knew that most of what you hear on the commercial and satellite stations isn’t live. It’s true. It’s quite common for me to be listening to satellite radio in the car and hear a DJ on a channel only to switch to a different channel and hear the same person there. WFMU radio is live radio. (You wanna know another dirty little secret of commercial radio? The corporations like to make money, but they don’t like to spend it, so a lot of what you might think are ‘local’ DJs are really pre-recording their work from a different city. A commercial DJ today can live in Texas and be a ‘local’ DJ on 10 or 20 stations around the country.)
The kind of freedom and autonomy WFMU and its programmers have simply doesn’t exist in radio anymore. And while streaming services like Spotify are cool for picking what you want to listen to, many listeners like to hear curated programming (i.e. ‘good radio’) from somebody who knows their stuff, and gives a shit about the music they’re presenting. If you’re always picking your own music on Spotify or Pandora, you’re never going to hear anything new. Or different. To many, that’s ok. And if you’re fine with the tried and true, that’s cool. But that’s not me. I’ve got to have new, and different. (Full disclosure: I do also like the tried and true. I’ve been known to sing along to Journey from time to time.) Music is a human endeavor, and, apologies to Pandora, but computer algorithms don’t cut it when it comes to putting together compelling radio for human ears. My human ears, at least.
Music for Misfits and Malcontents: Radio the WFMU Way
By not having to bow down to the corporation, or worry endlessly about ratings, or caring whether or not their programming will possibly offend an advertiser, and by not being pressured by major record labels to push the latest hit single (or being paid to play it,) WFMU programmers can introduce their listeners to things new and old that they’ve never heard before. And for that, I love this little station. They like to say that they exist for the ‘misfits and malcontents,’ and if that’s what I am, so be it. Our increasingly corporatized culture, from film and music to the very food we eat, means that most of what we’re subjected to on a daily basis has been focus-grouped and test-marketed and scientifically formulated to extract the most amount of money out of our wallets in the least amount of time, regardless of whether it’s good for us or not. So we end up with shitty superhero and rom-coms crammed down our throat, and shitty processed food from unhealthy plants and animals that’s making us sick and fat and dead, and the same shitty songs everywhere we go by so-called musicians. Nope. I’m not having it. I try my best to resist the mainstream, and it’s not easy. But when it comes to hearing the new, the different, the strange and weird, in the world of underground music, WFMU makes my job much much easier.
So check WFMU out. I’m willing to bet that many (most) of you who read this will not find their programming to your liking. And that’s kind of the point. Not in a ‘look at me, look how hip and cool I am’ kind of way, but more of a ‘look, there IS an alternative to boring, lowest-common denominator radio’ sort of way.
NO HITS, ALL THE TIME: New York Times article about WFMU
Sex and Broadcasting: An upcoming documentary about the wonderful world of WFMU. Here’s the trailer:
Here’s a Spotify playlist I’ve thrown together, sampling some of the stuff I’ve heard on WFMU in just the last month or so! It’s a newer playlist, but I think I’ll keep updating it.
WFMU’s Beware of the Blog: Esoterica and Ephemera from the WFMU staff. “A Radio Station That Bites Back”
Here’s a few other places I go to frequently online to hear creative, imaginative music programming. Don’t be shy! Turn off that crappy radio station you’re listening to, and find something new! And if you’re into different types of music than me (country, christian, classical, etc.) do your own digging…there’s a huge world of music out there waiting to be discovered.
Magic Transistor Radio: An exploratory collective of DJs, artists, and musicians based in New York, San Francisco, and London. They seek to shed light on exceptional artifacts of cultural significance, and are primarily focused on organizing and disseminating interesting and compelling music.
Magic Transistor Radio sources classic & rare recordings, digitizes out of print vinyl, and retains very high standards of audio quality. They are interested in the sublime and enigmatic relationships between seemingly unrelated media, and seek to cultivate a unique discovery experience for their listeners.
XRAY.FM: A new community radio station in Portland, OR.
Live365.com: User-created and professional stations in hundreds of genres. If you don’t find something to your liking, it’s easy and pretty affordable to start your own station! Be the media!!!
Mixcloud and Soundcloud: Again, thousands of mixes and playlists uploaded by pros and amateurs alike. DJ sets, radio programs, podcasts, whatever. I host my Christmas mixes on Mixcloud HERE. Or, check out my friend Kayle’s soundcloud page and listen to some of his amazing music!