WFMU is a listener-supported, independent community radio station headquartered in Jersey City, New Jersey, broadcasting at FM 91.1 (at 90.1 as WMFU, and at 91.9 as W219DQ), presenting a freeform radio format (in which the disc jockey is given total control over what music to play, regardless of music genre or commercial interests). It is the longest-running freeform radio station in the US, commencing broadcasting in 1958, licensed to Upsala College in East Orange.

Although originally a student-staffed and faculty-administered college radio operation, by the 1980s most of the station’s staff had no affiliation with the college, and management, though hired by the college, had little involvement with the academic community. Shortly before Upsala’s bankruptcy filing and closure in 1995, a group of station executives, personnel, and supporters formed Auricle Communications and bought the license from the college, making it a fully independent radio station. In 1998 the station’s studios and offices were relocated to a Jersey City facility purchased with listener donations.

WFMU has a stated commitment to unstructured-format broadcasting. All programming is created by each individual air personality, and is not restricted by any type of station-wide playlist or rotation schedule. Experimentation, spontaneity and humor are among the station’s most frequently noted distinguishing traits. Unlike most commercial broadcasting and non-commercial educational radio stations, WFMU does not offer regularly scheduled news, weather, traffic, sports, or financial information. WFMU does not belong to any existing public radio network, and nearly 100% of its programming originates at the radio station.

WFMU’s annual operating budget is approximately US$1,800,000, and is funded primarily by its listeners through an annual 14-day on-air fundraising marathon, as well as a Fall record fair and other events. WFMU is unusual in its philosophy that on-air fundraising drives only take place once a year, unlike most other public and listener supported stations which have multiple pledge drives throughout the year. WFMU’s air staff are unpaid volunteers, many of whom have been with the station since the 1970s and 1980s. In a 1990 interview, WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman stated, ‘we’ve always rejected underwriting on principle.’ The station rejects any type of direct underwriting from governmental institutions or from for-profit corporations. Historically, WFMU has occasionally accepted financial support from private foundations, although such support has never funded WFMU’s general operations.

WFMU hosts a wide range of programming, from all-inclusive music broadcasts (with a focus on alternative rock) to entertainment programming like radio improv and cooking programs to curiosities like hand-cranked wax cylinders and classic radio airchecks. WFMU’s Music Director is Brian Turner (voted ‘Music Director Most Likely To Never Sell Out’ at the 2006 CMJ College Radio Awards). WFMU was named ‘Best Radio Station in the Country’ by Rolling Stone magazine for four consecutive years (1991–1994) and has also been dubbed the best radio station in either NYC or the US by ‘The Village Voice.’ A ‘New York Times’ magazine feature article called WFMU ‘a station whose name has become like a secret handshake among a certain tastemaking cognoscenti,’ and cites Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, ‘The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and playwright Eric Bogosian as avowed fans of the station.

Although WFMU has traditionally eschewed news-oriented programming, the station volunteered its airwaves in September 2001 to become the temporary home in the New York area for Amy Goodman’s ‘Democracy Now!’ program (which was renamed ‘Democracy Now! In Exile’), after it was ‘banished’ from WBAI and the Pacifica Radio Network during a highly controversial ‘coup’ of WBAI’s station management by Pacifica’s national Board of Directors. In a similar example of its support of community broadcasting, WFMU began voluntarily hosting the webcast of legendary New Orleans jazz music station, WWOZ, when its studio and transmitter were destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. WFMU also received worldwide attention in May 2001, when national and international media outlets covered DJ Glen Jones’s successful attempt to break the Guinness World Record for longest consecutive radio broadcast, staying on the air a full 100 hours, 41 seconds.

A famous 1990 telephone performance on WFMU by outsider artist Daniel Johnston was the primary inspiration for filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig to create the documentary film, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston.’ The late Jeff Buckley made his radio debut on WFMU in late 1991 and returned numerous times before signing with Columbia Records and achieving international stardom. In 2006, WFMU was awarded a grant from the New York State Music Fund, a program created by the Office of the New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to make contemporary music of all genres more available and accessible to diverse audiences in New York State. WFMU’s grant included funds to create a podsafe (freely distributable) online music library known as ‘The Free Music Archive,’ which launched in 2009. The website describes itself as ‘a social music website built around a curated library of free, legal audio.’ The Fund grew out of settlements with major recording companies investigated for violating state and federal laws prohibiting ‘pay for play’ (payola). Grant winners were chosen on criteria that included, among other things, their record of broadening awareness of artists, genres or styles with limited access to commercial broadcast or other mass distribution vehicles.

In 2005, WFMU expanded its online broadcasting efforts by offering 15 hours a week of Internet-only live programming (‘free of the FCC’s incomprehensible language restrictions,’ explains Station Manager Ken Freedman), as well as an independent 24 hour-a-day webcast of Nachum Segal’s ‘Jewish Moments In The Morning’ program. The official WFMU blog, ‘WFMU’s Beware of the Blog,’ was launched in 2004, and has become very popular even among non-WFMU listeners. Original content for the WFMU blog is contributed by station personalities as well as a variety of listeners and associates such as Otis Fodder and Kliph Nesteroff. Blog items are regularly featured on the front pages of high-traffic pop-culture sites such as Boing Boing and MetaFilter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.