The Internet vs. The Airwaves

In New Jersey, an unwieldy radio station toes the line between going back in time and racing against it.

🌐RAVIOLI! RAVIOLI!🌐

(PHOTO: WFMU.org)

BEN ARTHUR

You turn the dial frantically, searching for the right station. There – you found it. From a wall of static, sound emerges. Songs crackle and swell around you as a DJ guides you through a journey of eclectic noises from across the globe.

In my early years, sonic experiences like these took form exclusively via the stereo in my mom’s minivan – tuning to the local country station, where each song sounded like a slightly augmented Rascal Flatts track. When I started middle school, I graduated from 99.9 to 96.9 and 106.5, the respective classic and alternative rock stations in my town. Through the former, I found artists like Fleetwood Mac and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and through the latter, Green Day and The 1975 – primitive bases of the sounds that influence my taste in music to this day. This routine would also materialize in video games: sitting on my friend’s floor, controller in hand, as a click of the D-pad transported me to Grand Theft Auto’s Space 103.2 or blonded radio.

Freeform radio, a programming format that allows DJs total reign over the music they play, I met under completely different circumstances. Honestly, I don’t even remember the specific moment I found WFMU, but odds are, it was a late night, characterized by insomnia and forgotten homework. The station, broadcast from its Jersey City studio across the Hudson to New York and across the globe through the internet, was founded in 1958 but came to exist in its current form in 1995, when the college associated with it went bankrupt and — after a series of consolidations — became independent. 

Ken Freedmen joined the station in 1983 and became its general manager two years later, overseeing its transition into independent territory. Since then, he has organized the day-to-day operations of WFMU, along with hosting various radio shows. “I started doing a weekly radio show my junior year of high school,” Freedman told me in a Zoom call. “When I went to the University of Michigan, I continued doing radio there, along with other stations in Ann Arbor and Detroit. I became program director of my student station in 1980, and that’s when I first heard about WFMU. They brought me down airchecks from the station, and when I finished school and moved to New York, I got a weekly show at WFMU.”

As I combed through their seemingly never-ending broadcasts and archive, I realized how shockingly little I knew about music – every genre I could imagine, and everything I didn’t even know existed, had (in some form) been played at WFMU. It was through their radio shows that I found the beauty of theremins, krautrock, and a Boston post-punk band that, for some unknown reason, has a song dedicated to immortalizing ravioli. The track, appropriately titled “Ravioli” by The Vinny, begins with a blistering barrage of compressed drums, electric guitar and what sounds like cowbell, before soaring into its chorus: “I had my fingers in the sauce, and I knew I got caught. We started doing the ravioli! Ravioli!” 

WFMU specializes in the weird, freaky and strange. The dedication that its cast of volunteer DJs has to finding the most eclectic shit on the planet is astounding. In a single day listening to the station, you might hear broadcasts dedicated to decaying Z-List celebs (the Luke Askew Radio Hour comes to mind), surveillance roundups on sentient Roombas that are destroying your homes, and spoken word poetry devoted to “my hamburger baby”… and that’s not even the music. A single day could also yield “Arabian fuzz,” Jamaican gospel, Hungarian “shaman punk” and, for good measure, Lawrence Welk and his Champagne Orchestra. 

In a 2007 compilation book on the station, independent film director Jim Jarmusch lauded its comprehensive approach.“WFMU celebrates the imagination and reclaims the gifts of expression often left laying around in the attics, basements, and ditches of our force-fed culture,” he wrote. “It’s freeform in the best sense and 100% freeform.” This remains sixteen years later: as fleeting trends hyper-accelerate into oblivion, WFMU remains focused on the overlooked and underappreciated – filling in the gaps left by mass culture’s force-feeding machine.

“I DON’T USE SPOTIFY. I DON’T NEED AN ALGORITHM TO TELL ME WHAT TO LISTEN TO.”

Since the early 1990s, Freedman and fellow DJ Andy Breckman have hosted Seven Second Delay, a show dedicated to eccentric stunts and exploits. One of their most heinous stunts includes “outbidding the tooth fairy,” where Breckman bartered with a listener and their child for a recently fallen tooth. There was only one stipulation: they needed to get to the studio before the show ended to claim their prize.“It was really a race against the clock,” Freedman said. “They’re in literally our elevator – the slowest elevator in the world – as the closing theme is playing. But the kid took it really seriously, and when they got there seconds late, this kid is literally crying.”

Don’t worry: Ken isn’t a monster. He gave the kid the money.

“It’s still a traumatic experience for him, though. We wanted to do a reunion on the air recently. But still, twenty or so years later, he didn’t want to revisit that.”

Freedman also looked back on his frequent “canoe streams,” where he “loads up a boat with a mixing board, microphone, laptop, hotspot, wireless connection, and large batteries” and paddles out to the middle of a lake in northern New Jersey. “We’ve got excellent wireless connectivity courtesy of AT&T: it’s a rock solid connection,” he said. Therefore, we’re able to broadcast for hours without any technical issues.” 

Although the last water-based broadcast was years ago, Freedman has his sights set on a return to Lake Owassa: “I want to do it on a very windy day. It can create really amazing sounds. You can create really cool sounds.”

Outside of their broadcasted content, WFMU’s sheer ethos alone reflects an absolute freak show. In the past, they’ve issued trading cards that feature the record that each DJ lost their virginity to, and encouraged listeners to donate their “broke-down jalopy” (read: your old car) to the station.

WFMU DJs often center their shows around live in-house recordings, like Daniel Johnston’s famed 1990 broadcast by telephone or Yo La Tengo’s annual request-a-thon, where callers request any song and the band attempts, in a humorous fashion, to render their memories of the melody and lyrics into a somewhat-understandable cover. The renditions, immortalized on the band’s 2006 EP Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, include “Favorite Thing” by the Replacements, “Baby’s On Fire” by Brian Eno and, for the finale, Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” intertwined into a melody with the Beach Boys, Sonic Youth and Glen Campbell. (Disclaimer: it isn’t exactly “great music” due to its rushed nature… but it’s incredibly enjoyable.)

Despite being the first radio station to make an iPhone app dedicated to broadcasting, much of WFMU’s online presence can be best described as geriatric. Their website embodies the ideals of Web 2.0 and early 2000s internet – where discussion boards of enthused fans exchange book recommendations, send links to long-forgotten appearances on late-night shows, and espouse advice regarding road trips (don’t ever go to the Cracker Barrel). Scroll back in the site’s archives, and you’ll find flyers to New Year’s Eve DJ sets in Williamsburg, discussions on the ratio of “boogie to choogie” in certain Southern Rock songs and opinions on the weight of vinyl records (“180 grams is the collective weight of 8.57 souls,” according to one possibly demonic listener). These discussions live next to a simplistic spreadsheet, where songs are updated with accompanying information as they are played (in various formats like 7”, CD, cassette, and most recently, mp3s courtesy of Bandcamp). 

“Freeform radio remains diametrically opposed to the ideals of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music; instead of artists ‘pleasing’ the algorithms that determine the music placed on playlists, DJs with abstract personalities and tastes curate uniquely human experiences, fighting back against the ebbs of an increasingly technology-driven industry.”

For me, the simple joy of these interactions – forever preserved on a fossilizing web server – is deeply intertwined with nostalgia: for a time where the music industry wasn’t peppered with labels forcing their artists to make TikToks, bands losing the financial ability to tour, and above all, a world where streaming feeds listeners never-ending, AI-generated cycles of lifeless playlists. Freeform radio remains diametrically opposed to the ideals of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music; instead of artists “pleasing” the algorithms that determine the music placed on playlists, DJs with abstract personalities and tastes curate uniquely human experiences, fighting back against the ebbs of an increasingly technology-driven industry. In this way, freeform radio acts as a utopia, a safe haven from the quasi-curation of “Discover Weekly” and “lorem.” In forming these playlists, a humanistic quality is lost. Because music discovery is inherently a loving and caring form (*cue scene from a rom-com where a high schooler crafts a perfect mixtape for their girlfriend*), we must ask: if music is created by and for humans, why take advice from an algorithm?

Longtime WFMU listener and Jersey resident Jack Silbert agrees wholeheartedly. He’s been listening since the early 90s and is considered by many to be one of the biggest fans of the station. His journey into freeform radio began during college and only blossomed as he grew up. “I’m a late adopter –  a Luddite, in that regard,” he told me over the phone. “I don’t use Spotify. I don’t need an algorithm to tell me what to listen to.” Silbert also lauded the community he’s gained through the station.“There’s a community of listeners and DJs alike. You can get to know them personally, which is nice. You’ll begin to recognize people or t-shirts around. You lose that – the social aspect – when you’re only using Spotify.”

“How much do you know about me?” he demanded. “Did you just read my Wikipedia page?”

Enter Irwin Chusid – one of those DJs that Silbert has bonded with. Chusid is an author, music enthusiast, Sun Ra’s official archivist and, since 1975, a WFMU DJ. Like many people — myself included — Chusid is a laundry list of adjectives: pretentious, enthusiastic, endearing, eccentric, sarcastic and the list goes on. But most of all, he’s dedicated to his craft and likes to hear himself talk: two skills necessary for a great DJ.

After much confusion over time zones, Chusid and I sat down (virtually, albeit), each surrounded by music posters and thick stacks of books – me in a dusty dorm room, and he in what I presume to be a study in a New Jersey apartment. Irwin began his interview by telling me what I was about to do – “you’re gonna record me, get some pull quotes and scatter them throughout the piece” – before launching into a soliloquy on transistor radios… an “important piece of context” regarding his affinity for the radio. In discussing this, he turned the question back onto me: “Why do you love radio?,” he asked in an impassioned tone. We launched into a smattering of topics before eventually landing at WFMU, where he discussed his philosophy regarding his eponymous weekly show.

From a 2022 WFMU live set. (PHOTO: WFMU.org)

“To me, the genre is irrelevant,” Chusid said. “I always bring a lot of material down to the station: usually stuff that I discovered that week. I don’t plan anything, I just walk into the studio and decide what my first track is. From there, I look around and say ‘what can I follow this with?’ There’s something organic. There’s a flow around it. It just becomes intuitive. I’m going to play something that sonically flows from Track A to Track B and then after that, it could be something completely different.” When asked about the future of radio, however, Chusid remained tight-lipped: “I don’t make predictions.” 

We then entered into his personal history. “How much do you know about me?” he demanded. “Did you just read my Wikipedia page?” 

On said Wikipedia page, Chusid is described as “leaning libertarian.” This, for example, could explain his disdain for NPR – “I’m so sick of those voices. My girlfriend turns it off when I’m with her” – or his long-winded tirade against cancel culture that blossomed out of a discussion on “separating the art from the artist.” In a March 18, 2020 broadcast, his show title stated, “I don’t fear the virus. I fear the mob.” “I won’t name names,” he said. “But all the artists I represent are problematic people. They all did things that would be viewed as immoral or amoral or bad, destructive or cruel or exercising unfathomably bad judgment. But of course, those are all human characteristics as well. We’re all flawed individuals, but with artists, these flaws sometimes seem magnified.”

As podcasts become the new “talk radio” and AI-generated playlists undermine DJs like Ken and Irwin, will freeform radio ever prevail?

You can decide for yourself whether he’s right or wrong: but alas, he is one of the most compelling characters at WFMU. Before closing, we touched on the wonders of Shazam, Courtney Barnett – “I was the first six DJs to play her at WFMU” – and of course, the FCC’s obscenity rules. For the record, if anyone is looking to broadcast across radio waves, you may say, “prick as in jerk, but not prick as in male member, and fuck, shit and the like are not allowed. If you’re on the web, they don’t care.”

In this continuum of traditional broadcast versus internet streaming, Ken Freedman believes “the digital side is going to be more dominant than the broadcast side.” “Contrary to popular belief, streaming our shows online has actually helped us,” he continued. “Over the pandemic, we saw a 30% increase in our audience, both streaming and in chat rooms.”

Streaming often feels like the snacks section of a grocery store. A seemingly never-ending barrage of selections. You freeze — what do I pick? From a list of thousands of options on Spotify, I gravitate to comfort albums, not ones that get me out of my musical comfort zone. In a world of choice overload, WFMU cures. Will this be enough to revive radio from its typically assumed position below other mediums like vinyl or Spotify? As podcasts become the new “talk radio” and AI-generated playlists undermine DJs like Ken and Irwin, will freeform radio ever prevail?

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