Register Tuesday | May 30 | 2023

Radio, Radio

WFMU keeps all us weirdoes tuned to the same wavelength

A few Saturdays ago I volunteered to work at the WFMU record fair. I got to sit at the cheap LP table where everything cost a buck and looked, to the untrained eye, like a bunch of junk. The eyes that found their way to my table however, were very well trained. One had to be fast if one wanted to get a place in front of a bin; people weren’t fooling around. If you thought against buying a record and were in the process of slipping it back into a crate, some other collector wouldn’t think twice about swiping it from your hands. These guys knew how to shake through the detritus to find the gold dust.

One man’s Randy Travis record was another man’s Raw Power. As the afternoon pressed on, I came to see the cheap LP table as a paean to those of us who couldn’t afford a first pressing of Raw Power (of which I saw many at the fair). And, oh god, did I want one. I’d gone to see Iggy and the retrofitted Stooges last summer. At a rock concert, I’m normally the guy standing in the back drinking beer and erratically bouncing up and down only during the good songs; but for the Stooges I made a complete ass of myself all night long. When Iggy Pop is right there in front of you killing himself (granted he didn’t spill any blood, vomit, or shoot up) then you’re a total asshole if you don’t lose yourself in the moment. But can I drop $350 on a first pressing of an album I already own just to say that I have it? Not anymore.

Working behind the table at a record fair made me feel a lot like Sam Malone, the pub owner on Cheers who was a recovering alcoholic. Yeah, there’s Norm making fun of Cliff and enjoying a pint, but I can’t partake. If I have just one drink—if I spend just $25 on one Thelonious Monk record that’s in better condition than the copy I already have at home—then I wouldn’t be able to leave until the bank account is empty. I’ll be left rummaging through the dollar bins for the one Jerry Harrison record I need to make my Talking Heads collection complete. Just one more drink, juts one more velvet morning, and then I’ll be straight. Or something like that.

Despite this temptation, I still volunteered to work at the record fair. Conventions such as these always bring out the weirdoes, and I wanted to be there amongst them. Thelonious Monk hated to be called a weirdo, but I’ve always found some comfort in it. A weirdo is someone who goes beyond the norm and operates entirely on their own frequency. Sometimes they happen to hear each other out there in the ether, but it takes a station like WFMU to bring them all together. Once you’ve got a bunch of weirdoes in one place, no one is really that weird anymore.

I also volunteered because I care about WFMU. It’s a freeform radio station, which means the DJs talk into the microphone as if they‘re speaking to another human being, not some pre-determined fraction of the market share. And it’s free—you don’t have to subscribe to a service or purchase an expensive doodad to tune in. It’s on the radio for those in the Jersey City/New York area and on the Internet for the rest of the world.

WFMU receives no corporate or government funding and is entirely listener-supported. It was once connected to Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, but broke off to experiment in freeform radio. According to WFMU’s “A Brief History of Freeform Radio,” their mode of broadcast is “a type of radio that encompasse[s] not only eclectic music, collage and satire, but also an intimate, live interaction with the listening audience.” This means that you can have a show where you discuss how you’ve found Jesus before descending into conversations with Satan interspersed with Led Zeppelin tracks—just so long as you remember to give a station ID every hour and refrain from cursing, you’re golden. I first heard of WFMU in the mid-nineties. I was in high school and lived in Ohio, which is pretty much like saying that I lived in the middle of nowhere. There was a comic book I liked by a guy named Evan Dorkin—it was called Dork!and came out whenever he could get it together. And in each issue he’d include a short playlist of the music that he liked right then at that moment in time. WFMU was always there.

I used to hate listening to the radio. I couldn’t stand the commercials—loud, repetitive and inane—and commercial DJs are all the same. Satellite radio may be a natural technological progression, but I don’t get a sense of community from it—it’s too big and vague, and I’m too cheap to pay for access. Part of the joy of radio is to turn the dial and find someone out there, within range, who understands what you need you to hear at that particular moment in time.

When I was in the fourth grade the DJ at the local pop rock station went nuts. He locked himself in the booth and proceeded to play Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet album over and over again for hours. Those of us tuned to the proper wavelength sat glued to the radio and analyzed it over lunch at school the next day. The guy kept playing the record until the station manager busted the door down. It was amazing radio—complete anarchy, total freedom. I was reminded of this when Tom Scharpling, the host of The Best Show on WFMU, did a tenth-anniversary tribute show to Kurt Cobain and grunge music, as hosted by Chubby Checker. It was original, endearing, and crazy—and to my mind, that’s something worth supporting.

Francis Joseph Smith reports on unpopular and underground culture from behind the sofa. His column appears every two weeks. Read more recent columns by Francis Joseph Smith.