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Independence Pulses in the Ever-Changing Sound of WFMU-FM

The small New Jersey station has won fans by playing just about anything, from distortion to French pop.

November 16, 2001|TRINITY CANTY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

JERSEY CITY, N.J.--Some people say art exists where money does not, and if that is true, then it must be that there is little art in radio, an industry driven by what makes money and what doesn't.

But a core group of listeners contends the art of radio happens every day at WFMU-FM, in a nondescript, red-brick building here, surrounded by commerce, with New York City on the other side of the Hudson River.

WFMU exists in a world in which experimentation and eclecticism rule, and radio consultants, playlists and formatting are just a bad dream.

"It's almost a different radio station every couple hours," said John Warner, a freelance film sound editor.

Indeed, it's almost a different radio station after every song. The station's unpredictable style lures an estimated 300,000 weekly listeners to its tiny 1,250-watt signal and Internet broadcast (www.wfmu.org), including director Ethan Coen and "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.

"I think there's a real deep honesty about the station," station manager Ken Freedman said. "DJs don't have to say or play anything they don't believe in. Ever."

Freedman's philosophy has translated into critical acclaim for WFMU, including a nod from Rolling Stone as best station in the country four years in a row. Programming tends to be spontaneous, with little regard for musical boundaries--what is known in the industry as free-form radio. A couple of CDs might be by the decks while a DJ runs out to the record library and quickly chooses from almost 50,000 possible selections with less than a minute before the next song.

But free-form radio isn't just about not having rules, it's about musical connections, about having an ear for songs that ordinarily wouldn't be heard side by side, much less in the same set or even the same radio station.

"We tend to look for DJs into all kinds of music who can create really interesting sets," said Brian Turner, the station's music director.

On Tuesday nights, for instance, DJ Small Change might mix a set of obscure '70s funk and Afrobeat records with French pop crooner Serge Gainsbourg, Sun Ra's jazz and the digital hard-core of England's Ec8or, along with tracks by Olivia Newton John, LL Cool J and Ray Charles. The next week, he'll play punk rock, noise distortions from Japanese recording artists, early electronic music and Marion Williams' rousing gospel recording of the Hare Krishna chant.

Some shows are solely dedicated to a musical genre, such as vintage soul and R&B, world music, punk, rockabilly or international 78 rpm records. Others open up a genre, like the children's program "Greasy Kid Stuff," which airs songs by Jonathan Richman and Berkeley pop-punks the Groovie Ghoulies, instead of the usual Raffi and Barney.

Unlike most publicly funded radio stations, WFMU has rarely aired politics, with the exception of an hour of conspiracy theories once a week and Jewish programming on weekday mornings that highlights, between sets of Jewish music, troubles in Israel. Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" political/talk show airs weeknights, in the wake of Sept. 11 and after it had been dropped by New York's Pacifica station, WBAI-FM.

Talk shows, interviews with novelists, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, and taped lectures of the late mystic philosopher Alan Watts also figure into the station's mix.

"We actually try to encourage [DJs] to take chances and challenge themselves and the audience," Freedman said.

Although music director Turner listens to new releases and makes recommendations, there are no mandatory playlists like those that tend to govern mainstream commercial radio and limit the number of songs played each day.

The notion of free-form radio developed in the late '60s around the country and thrived at WFMU until album-oriented progressive rock emerged in the early '70s, an era that 26-year WFMU veteran Irwin Chusid refers to as the "dark ages." But in the mid-'70s, the burgeoning punk movement helped regenerate an interest in alternative and seldom-heard music, and WFMU resurrected free-form on its airwaves.

"There are a handful of full-time free-form stations around the country," said Freedman, whose hair turned prematurely gray while struggling to keep the station afloat.

WFMU began as a college radio station in 1958 at Upsala College in East Orange, N.J. After a long and indifferent association with the college, the station secured its independent status in 1994, with the radio license purchased the next year, shortly before the college closed its doors due to financial difficulties.

The station, formerly housed in a century-old Greek Revival mansion, purchased a 10,000-square-foot, red-brick, four-story building at the edge of the waterfront financial district in Jersey City in 1998.

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