A big highlight of the CMJ Music Marathon was that I got the opportunity to visit community (formerly college) radio powerhouse WFMU in Jersey City, New Jersey. Thanks so much to Music Director Brian Turner for taking the time to give me the deluxe tour last week, especially since he was still knee-deep in record sorting for the massive WFMU Record Fair.
Despite their grand (in scale) digs, WFMU still retains the essential coolness of all underground radio stations. Hilarious kitsch is everywhere, from a spectacular collection of velvet paintings on one hallway, to fabulously painted LP covers on another. Disorder (bins of records, piles of unopened mail) also exists, as it should when faced with the huge volume of material coming to the station on a daily basis.
They have a large music collection, including tons of vinyl, CDs, mp3s and cassettes. The music library is off-limits to everyone except WFMU staff, which I'm sure is helpful in reducing theft. Perhaps in a nod to the freeform ethos of the station, the record library is not broken down into separate genre sections and is simply organized in A, B, C order (except for collections, which are categorized by genre).
WFMU Volunteer in their Record Library
Music Director Brian Turner told me that they even have cassette tapes in their "new bin." He is the main person reviewing music that gets sent to the station, although he gets some help from other staff members. WFMU is a freeform station, but for charting purposes, DJs are asked to jot their initials on the labels of music in the "new bin" when it gets played. Then, on a weekly basis, these "plays" are tallied in order to come up with the WFMU "tops" list.
Brian Turner told me that he's always been a big music fan and collector. When he was a teenager he hung out a lot at a record store and met people who were involved with college radio. That led him to his first radio gig at his college station WRKC at King's College (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). He eventually held a variety of positions there and continued to DJ after graduation. He's been Music Director at WFMU for more than a decade, and simultaneously did the job of Program Director from 1997 until May 2008.
I asked Brian how he managed to juggle the combined Music Director/Program Director role at WFMU for so long. He said, "I went for it really gung-ho." Brian added that one thing that made it easier was the fact that, "...since it's not a college station or a commercial station...[there's] not a huge turnover with staff." At the same time, he said that he challenged himself to "bring in new people" while simultaneously not alienating veteran staff members. One thing that he initiated was a twice yearly schedule change. All DJs have to re-apply for their shifts and nobody is guaranteed a slot on the schedule. He said that now DJs "expect it...it's not a big deal" and that this is a way to "bring in new talent" to the station. Brian tried really hard to broaden the schedule to include categories of programming that the station might be missing and his overall philosophy as Program Director was to "bring stuff into our orbit that maybe we didn't understand."
As Music Director, Brian spends a lot of his time searching for new music. He told me that he researches new music by reading magazines, blogs, record store lists, distributor lists, playlists from other radio stations (he mentioned KFJC and KDVS), and by listening to podcasts. In order to acquire some of the hard-to-find music at WFMU, he writes lots of letters and emails and listens to quite a bit of music on MySpace (in particular following links to friends of bands he likes).
Siltbreeze, Columbus Discount and Norton regularly producing vinyl. He told me that he's heard that vinyl is doing well, with pressing plants apparently backed up due to the demand. He also adds cassettes to the station and mentioned labels like Ecstatic Peace and White Tapes. Typically items are in the "new bin" for 6 weeks and although DJs aren't required to play new releases, Brian said that he still hopes that people do.
When I asked about his feelings about major label releases, Brian told me that it's actually harder for WFMU to get major label stuff sent to them because "they fall through the cracks" since they aren't a college or public radio station. Usually if he wants something off a major label he has to ask for it to be sent. Regardless, Brian said the amount of new music out there is "voluminous" and he added, "I'm really interested in things that no label puts out," such as self-releases.
Brian talked a bit about how much great music is being produced and that label status or presumed hipness aren't that important. He told me that the best radio shows are done by "people who aren't afraid to play what's uncool." He said that at WFMU, "we're just going to play whatever we want...we're in our own little bubble sometimes...we're just trying to push the ball along...help out bands...[and are] not really interested in [the] business side of things." In summarizing the WFMU philosophy he said that they are dedicated to freeform, "with a mind guiding it," which sets them apart from the randomness of an iPod playlist.
Thanks again to Brian and everyone else at WFMU for showing me around their fine station!
Stay tuned. During my trip to New York City last week I visited two other radio stations and I'll post summaries from those visits later in the week.