WFMU: The Last of The Great Rock Radio Stations
When I was about 13 years old, I used to turn on the radio right before I had to leave for school, then I’d hit the record button so I could tape 45 minutes of random radio on one side of a cassette tape (remember?).
One day when I got back home from school, I sat on my brother’s bed and listened to that morning’s recording. I heard something amazing: A crazy lead singer stuttering through his lyrics; whining feedback from a twangy guitar; and the most manic, ferocious drumming I’d ever heard. And wait, what on Earth is this, a bass guitar solo? What was this beautiful, intense and dangerous-sounding music?
After a few days of feverishly asking around as to the source of the song, I found out it was “My G-g-g-generation” by The Who. The song wasn’t entirely new at the time (1977), but it was sure new to me and was like nothing I’d heard on standard Top-40 radio. It completely blew me away.
Sadly, it seems my generation was one of the last to grow up, en masse, discovering great new music on the radio.
The Who performing “My Generation” live
Great discoveries, like The Who and “My Generation,” that’s what radio was all about for me back then – a wide-open resource of new music – and that’s what it continues to be about all these years later.
Hell, if I wanted to listen to my own well-worn musical selections and tastes, I’d throw one of my albums on the turntable or a CD in the deck. But, when I want to branch out – when I want to go new places – I turn on the radio (to a specific FM station) to see what gold nuggets I can find. New music to feed the head.
It’s been longer than I care to remember since I first heard “My Generation” on the radio. The world has traveled light years. Technology has grown, evolved and quickened – drowning us in rivers of digital information, including music. But as the information and data has increased in volume, so has the confusion of how to navigate all this. Where’s the map?
The mainstream has always been dull yet loud. Now it’s bigger, fatter and louder but still as dull as ever – the same tired songs played over and over on some massive, maddening looped tape (the Coffeehouse on Sirius or XM Radio leaps to mind). Homogenization is the archenemy of discovery.
So with the overload of information that comes at us from all directions today, is discovering new music on the radio still possible? Can we still turn to the airwaves – in all its new formats and satellite iterations – to find new, earth-tilting Rock-N-Roll? Well, I’m happy to report that yes, we can.
There are last bastions of musical discovery. One such safe harbor is billed (by me) as “the greatest radio station on Earth” – that is, WFMU out of Jersey City, NJ.
WFMU is a real old-school radio station, broadcasting on 91.1 and 90.1 (FM) to the New York-New Jersey market, and beyond. They have the Internet covered with more ways to stream the signal than you can shake a guitar at. So anybody with wi-fi and a laptop or a smart phone can travel back to the good old days when you could cherry-pick mind-blowing new songs (at least new to you) from the radio. Check out the WFMU site here.
WFMU represents the Platonic form of the radio station, democratic (for the people, by the people) and prone to risk-taking. It is the polar opposite of what today’s radio has become, a form completely bereft of spontaneity and expansiveness.
The folks at FMU practice free-form radio, meaning the DJs have complete discretion to play, do, or say what they want (within FCC rules, of course). There are no restrictions on what is played. There isn’t even a whiff of formulaic playlists or stodgy, set-in-stone formats, which have become the meat and potatoes of contemporary broadcasting.
The result of WFMU’s freestyle approach is that on any given day, at any hour, you may discover something amazing and beautiful (e.g., “My Generation”) that you won’t hear anywhere else.
That throws the doors wide open to a whole world of passed-over music, and makes a visit to FMU airwaves akin to going to the School of Rock – you will get educated. And to me, that’s what radio is for. We’re not talking about pre-programmed, pre-recorded 20 songs over and over again. WFMU is the antithesis of pop radio, or rock radio, or anything else you normally hear at the deep end of the FM dial.
Anything can happen during an FMU show, and it does. How do they do it? No corporate involvement, at all. Funding comes entirely from listeners. There are no hidden puppet strings here. WFMU answers to no one but you, the listener.
Shows on WFMU may be genre-driven, like ’60s garage-infused shows, or metally-punk shows, or punky-metal shows. But a lot of the time you will end up hearing shows with no script whatsoever that can deliver anything from free jazz to Roma wedding music to Tuvan throat singers.
Of course, the majority of the programming is Rock-oriented with a focus on quality new music, but the good people there will not shy away from standards and classics if they feel so inclined. And it’s not just the LPs, 45s, CDs, MP3s, and 78s (yes, 78s) either – the station showcases live performances several times a week, loads of on-air interviews of anyone from Cheeta Chrome of The Dead Boys to Yoko Ono.
They also just opened a performance space on the ground floor of the FMU building. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and DC-based Ex Hex played recently.
Here’s “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion:
Ex Hex performing “Hot and Cold” live:
You may hear ’60s-influenced garage and pop blasting on the “Three Chord Monte” show with Joe Belock (check his past playlists here). Or you could hear noisy Rock from “terribly-played guitars” issuing from Brian Turner’s show (his playlists are here). On “Diane’s Kamikaze Fun Machine,” it’s melt-face time with various mixtures of metal and straight up punk rock (check out Diane’s playlists). And even Station Manager Ken Freedman gets in on the act with German rock, Russian jazz, and his beloved one-note-songs (see playlists). Or maybe you need to get funky on the “Duane Train” (playlists).
Now this may be too much of a good thing for the average music fan, but here’s the point: WFMU is engaging in what radio is supposed to be, which is a journey – an experiment in musical delivery and consumption.
The good folks at FMU are trying to turn you on to something the way radio tried to back in the early-’50s with that zany, fiery new music called Rock-N-Roll. “Here, try this band on, see how it feels. You might really like it.” It’s not the same-old beige band you normally hear – this band is stripes and polka dots mixed together. “Oh you don’t like that, how about this then?” Radio, like art, is supposed to take you someplace you’ve never been before. These DJs will do just that.
Many groups that are played on or who play live on FMU flirt with being the next big thing. Recently, Ex Cops made national headlines for posting a witty, well-thought-out response to McDonald’s for asking them to play for free at SXSW. Ex Cops played live on FMU in 2012. The free-form station quite often introduces bands to the world. Here’s a handful:
Ex Cops – “Separator”:
Parquet Courts – “Stoned and Starving” (although the footage is of the band performing at KEXP, WFMU initially introduced Parquet Courts to the masses) :
Eddy Current Suppression Ring – “Which Way To Go”:
Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best”:
Citizen Blast Kane – “Sandwich Time”:
Chain and the Gang – “Devitalize”:
WFMU finished up their annual fundraising marathon in March where listeners pledge donations to ensure the continued existence of this national treasure. (The station made their operating-budget goal of $1.2 million purely from listener donations.)
Did listeners receive a WFMU tote bag or coffee mug for your donation? Absolutely not! FMU would never dream of being that boring and staid. However, there was a trove of prizes available for pledgers to win, like the 45th anniversary, six-CD re-release of the Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album (at right), or Morrissey’s autobiography (titled Autobiography), or maybe the new Sleaford Mods album.
When you tire of robots deciding what you may like (Spotify) or corporate execs (Sirius), why not try letting the musical apothecaries at WFMU help you to something that may change your whole perspective on music, particularly Rock-N-Roll. You’ll be glad you did.