Sound & Vision #28: Ken Freedman

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. Generally speaking, radio today is not terribly adventurous. Whether stations are part of a commercial conglomerate or independently owned and operated, you tend to hear a lot of rigidly formatted, repetitive programming. A notable exception is one of my favorite stations: Jersey City-based WFMU. I recently had the chance to visit and talk with WFMU’s general manager, Ken Freedman. WFMU is freeform and 100% listener supported, which means it doesn’t have a governing institution like a corporation or college that provides it with funding. WFMU also doesn’t accept underwriting, which means it has nothing on its airwaves that resembles a commercial, and it holds only one on-air fundraiser annually. Nevertheless, WFMU is the longest-running freeform radio station in the US. The key to the station’s success has always been its commitment to non-restrictive programming and its unique approach to audience engagement. As Freedman explains, the station’s just-launched morning show will take this approach to an exciting new level.

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The Rumpus: So much ground to cover here! I thought I might start with the biographical stuff, like what you were listening to on radio when you were growing up, and how you got from there to here.

Ken Freedman: Yeah! I grew up listening to Top 40 radio, but when I was a kid I was also really into Alice Cooper and progressive FM in New York City—stations like WNEW in the mid to late 70s. After I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1977 for college, I got involved with a really great freeform student-run music station, WCBN. I found out about WFMU from listeners who said, “Your show sounds just like this station!” And they came down in the middle of the night and gave me a cassette of WFMU. When I came home to visit my parents, I realized that I’d grown up on the outskirts of the FMU broadcast signal! After college I traveled for about a year before settling down, and then I got a show on WFMU. About a year after that I became the station’s general manager.

Rumpus: Tell me more about what the station was like back then, and what early changes you brought as the GM.

Freedman: I felt that WFMU had amazing personality and really talented deejays, but the musical scope and the service it got for its record library wasn’t very good. So those were the first areas I really wanted to beef up. There was so much great music coming out in the early 80s on so many independent labels all over the world, and we weren’t getting it. People were going out and buying these records and bringing them in—experimental music, world music, all kinds of stuff! We needed to expand our library. We also expanded our programming, when I started we were only on the air twelve hours a day but I took us to twenty-four hours.

Check out this WFMU broadcast from 1982:

Rumpus: This was back in the so-called “consultant era”—when other stations were doing the opposite, abandoning diverse programming for tight formats, formulaic playlists—

Freedman: Yeah—this was when all the mom and pop stations all over the United States were going to fewer and fewer hands, and then that trend really exploded in 1996, when the Telecom Act expanded the number of stations that could be owned by a single company. But it was already happening in the 70s and 80s…

Rumpus: So that’s interesting—while the overall trend was toward formatting and consolidation, you went veering off in the other direction.

Freedman: Yes, but to be fair I should say that compared to other formats, Top 40 radio at that time was very progressive because although it was limited to only forty songs, which is obviously a tiny, tiny playlist, the songs were from all different genres. You heard soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, ballads, and novelties, even spoken word and sometimes international music.

Rumpus: That’s true, but were you worried that bucking the overall trend might not prove financially viable?

Freedman: Well, it was clear from about six months into when I started at FMU that the college that owned it, Upsala, was at risk of going out of business, so pretty early on we decided to protect ourselves. We set up a not-for-profit corporation—a 501c(3)—so that we could be an entity that could vie for the license if that happened. And then it did happen.

Rumpus: As I understand it you’ve faced challenges all along the way.

Freedman: Yes, we also had a terrible legal battle from 1989-1993 with four NPR-affiliated stations from the Jersey shore up to Connecticut. They found a geographic error on a US government map going back to 1962, and they tried to use that as a pretext for getting our power cut way back, and coincidentally they would all get power increases. It was a really awful power play, and spent us into the ground.

Rumpus: Having survived the collapse of the college, and that signal turf war, how does a station like this continue to survive in the age of Spotify and other streaming/on-demand services?

Freedman: There’s a lot to comment on there. [Laughs] For one thing, there’s algorithm versus human recommendation. When there’s a human involved, you can be thrown an interesting curveball, a link that’s not necessarily direct or obvious.

Check out this profile of WFMU deejay Clay Pigeon whose show features “street interviews, listener call-ins, vinyl gluttery, sporadic normalcy, original floperas and fiktion, blatant talking over songs, politix, tenderness, and a vague undercurrent of angst”:

Rumpus: Tell me more about how WFMU has used technology, but in a way that retains that human element.

Freedman: One of the things I’m most proud of that we’ve done here at WFMU—after various failed attempts—is to create a really healthy online community that feeds into the physical real-world community. It’s spawned meet-ups in other cities. People even get married—they meet online from these chats that accompany every single program and are a really big part of what we do. We’ve also developed something called “Audience Engine” that takes the tools we’ve made for creating and nurturing positive online communities and giving them to other media makers and content creators.

Rumpus: Before these tools were developed, did you have a lot of call-ins? Were a lot of listeners coming out to pre-Internet events?

Freedman: Yes, we’ve always done events and benefits in New Jersey and New York—but sporadically. In the late 60s when the station came onto the scene we did tons of benefits, then again we did some in the 80s and 90s and then a lot more stuff recently. For one thing we have our own venue now, Monty Hall, which is a ground floor club right here at the station—without a liquor license, which makes it hard to make money—but we’re working on that. [Laughs] But we are here for the public. We do tons of in-studio sessions and maybe two evenings a week of live music. It’s just another way of building community, supporting artists, bringing everyone together. We’ve been incredibly lucky that one of our deejays, Todd Abramson, was owner and booker of Maxwell’s. Our opening of Monty Hall coincided pretty well with him selling Maxwell’s. He taught us how to run a venue, and he’s also our chief booker.

Here’s a great recent performance by Wreckless Eric at Monty Hall:

Rumpus: Before the Internet, you also used a lot of telephone technology to stimulate audience engagement?

Freedman: Yes! We actually got a start on the Internet long before there was an Internet. We had an FMU volunteer named Brian Redman who was one of several people who was really instrumental in the 80s in advancing our technology. In his twenties Brian had been one of the people who invented the videophone. He retired very young, and started hanging out at WFMU, but he still had experimental research and developmental contracts with what was then called Bellcore. He developed these weird telephone keypad-supported services based around the radio station. Beginning around 1988 you could listen to WFMU by calling a 1-800 number—it could support like twelve people at a time.

Rumpus: Sort of like a party line for radio?

Freedman: Yeah. And another one was Brian filled up these databases with sound bites, effects, and phone memes. So you could call up and using your telephone keypad you could edit audio, putting together different pieces to create unique strings. He also set up a wake-up service, so you could use your telephone keypad to enter a time in the following 24 hours to receive a wake-up call, and then when your phone rang it would be WFMU. We thought these services were wacky and fun but we didn’t publicize them widely. Then one day I walked into my office—at the time I had four analog answering machines—and they were all filled up. When l listened they were all people who were upset because the 1-800 number that allowed you to listen to the station for free had been cut off. These were people all over the country, from LA, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. It was a huge moment for me, realizing there were people listening at work over their boss’s speakerphone on the 1-800 number. And they were often doing it for the same programs every week, they had favorites, and they would plan their schedules around listening to them. There was also a bunch of folks who would trade mix-tapes of WFMU air checks.

Rumpus: Oh, that’s incredible! When did you transition from phone to Internet?

Freedman: Shortly after that, in the early 90s, I was reading about what was then called ARPANET, and it really interested me that it was said to be able to deliver audio and video. We had another wacko experimentalist named Henry Lowengard who was involved with Echo-NYC, which was an early bulletin board community (similar to The Well in San Francisco). We had been putting out a zine called Lowest Common Denominator and Henry put the issues online on a pre-web technology called Gopher. Then he started putting audio files up too. Then when the web came out, there was an early browser called Mosaic and we migrated our content over there. We had a website very, very early, which included audio.

Rumpus: And these days your app makes WFMU programming available on demand?

Freedman: Yes, both what we program live and our past content. We have five channels of 24-hour programming, one of which is WFMU proper (which is live) and others which are automated, plus access to the last month of our archive. If you want to access beyond that, you can get it from our website. We’ve kept basically everything we’ve broadcast for the last sixteen years. We were early to stream music too, with very high quality because we were using satellites. Then we were one of the first stations to make the entire content of the station on demand in 2000. When the iPhone came out in 2006 or 2007 we hacked it and had the first cell phone stream before Apple started supporting it. We were also among the first to start podcasting.

Rumpus: Many firsts! But has the content of the programming changed much over time?

Freedman: I think it’s been pretty consistent, although we are now introducing a very big change, which is the addition of a new morning program. One of the reasons we’ve had so much freedom, and have been able to be so spontaneous and innovative and risk-taking is because we’ve had one or two shows that have been very successful and have helped our fund-drives immensely. One of those was The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, but he went and took his show commercial a couple of years ago though he’s still a good friend of the station. The other more recent loss was JM in the AM, which had been on air for forty-five years! Programs like that raised so much money, like a third of the station’s budget, that it freed everyone else up—including me as program director—from not having to think in purely economic terms. But having just lost one of our tent-pole programs, we’re trying to create a new one that fits in with the rest of the station.

Rumpus: Can you describe the new show?

Freedman: It’s going to be a formatted program—not forty songs but maybe 40,000 songs, with the emphasis on songs because WFMU is so experimental that you can go hours without hearing something that resembles an actual song. The new show isn’t geared toward a specific demographic group, but rather music connoisseurs across all ages and races who like soul, punk, funk, and hip-hop—the gamut.

Watch R. Crumb’s visit to the Antique Phonograph Music Program with MAC, where each week, 78s and cylinders are played on actual period reproducing devices:

Rumpus: Are you drawing from any existing morning shows as your model?

Freedman: Sort of. We’re taking as inspiration what WPIX was in the summer of 1979, when it was an amazing new wave/punk commercial station, maybe the best ever. And we also look to the old-school, full-service mom and pop station that wasn’t geared toward a narrowly defined demographic like radio stations do now, but toward everyone in the community. Very few stations exist like that anymore.

Rumpus: Will the new show include news, traffic, and other traditional “morning” elements?

Freedman: Yes, but we’re going to try to approach them in non-traditional ways. For one thing, I will be hosting the show for a while as we try out prospective hosts on air for months, and listeners can weigh in on the candidates. We’ll also be “crowdsourcing” material from listeners, maybe asking for their ideas about the show title, to favorite the songs they like, or to suggest new songs for the playlist. Maybe we’ll interview a different listener every morning about the weather outside his or her window. Then when it comes to other morning elements, maybe traffic is only certain roads that are important to our listeners but overlooked by other media. What we’re about is human spontaneous curation—that combined with live human interaction between the audience and the deejay as well as among audience members.

Rumpus: Is your audience still listening on FM or are they now moving to online/on app?

Freedman: Listen, I think FM is still really important. In fact I think AM is still really important. I think if you look at Donald Trump, he comes out of AM talk radio. More than reality TV he is a product of AM hate radio. I think people who say radio is gone or radio is irrelevant are way off the mark. It’s still by a huge degree the dominant medium. I know it’s changing but radio is still incredibly important. That said, there are more and more people listening online, and unlike FM radio where whether you have ten million listeners or ten listeners, the licensing is the same, online doesn’t work like that. We pay tons of money for bandwidth. It’s now one of our biggest expenses, but definitely worth it.

Rumpus: So would you say that the station’s longevity is a combination of being traditional in one sense—maintaining a freeform programming approach—and yet being forward thinking about matters like content-delivery and audience engagement?

Freedman: Yes. Being “traditional” about radio these days is downright contrarian because everything is voice-tracked and market-researched. The idea of a radio station that is still programmed by human beings where the actual deejay gets to choose depending on his or her own taste and interests is the way radio used to be, but is now a revolutionary concept—and something we’ve been committed to all along. At the same time we’ve very aggressively pursued digital technology and will continue to do that—on our own terms. We invite people into the community, and they really do participate in our programming.

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BONUS MATERIAL

Here’s a peek at Sex and Broadcasting, a recent documentary made about WFMU:

Check out this clever ad for a CD compilation created as deejay Michael Shelley’s 2012 WFMU fund raising marathon premium—twenty-two amazing bands covered Top 40 hits from the 1970s—recorded exclusively for this collection:

Kurt Cobain was among the station’s devoted fans—during a show he once famously read from a WFMU catalog before taking requests from the audience:

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Feature photograph is from Sex and Broadcasting. All other photographs courtesy of Ken Freedman.

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Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →