Home Culture This Jersey City Radio Station Couldn’t Happen Anywhere Else

This Jersey City Radio Station Couldn’t Happen Anywhere Else

by Sarah Griesbach
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The crux of what makes Jersey City-based station, WFMU unlike other community radio stations is in the programmatic design. What’s on offer truly depends upon the hour. The variety is dumbfounding. There’s just no pigeonholing a radio station that plays one-up-against-another: Irish soul, Afro-Cuban R&B, Malaysian queer anthems, West African synthpop, Danish post-punk, Icelandic grunge, ambient surf, classic jazz, afro-futurist avant-garde and… well, you name it. We did a deep dive into WMFU to learn more about its history, mission, and what makes it special.

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The Vision

The incomparable success of radio station WFMU is a result of vision, commitment, and location, location, location.

Many cities and college towns are home to unstructured-format radio stations where volunteer DJs are encouraged to put together radio shows based on their sound expertise — however, niche and sometimes challenging those sounds may be. Often, however, years roll by and a narrowing of the scope those DJs bring naturally occurs.

In many free-form radio station programs, the results of DJs retaining the choicest time slots as they gain seniority means that the listenership begins to expect only what those DJs are giving them. Audiences that might have dug something new never even tune in. And new DJs with new music interests can’t break in beyond the graveyard shift.

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This is where WFMU beats the competition in the long game. At WFMU, nobody can lock into a specific time slot and keep it. Newness is valued and nurtured. And, because the schedule is never stale (like that one community radio station that somehow ended up becoming nothing but bluegrass), new listeners tune in all the time.

Those new listeners bring new energy. The most engaged listeners in the live chats for each WFMU show are those who tuned in most recently and realize that their nuanced sound obsessions are shared by a whole community of other people.

Decades ago, while running his Ann Arbor University of Michigan station, WFMU General Manager Ken Freedman observed the pattern of DJ territorialism turning free-form radio into something prescribed and predictable. He realized that supporting serious diversity in DJs is key to pulling in truly wide listenership. It’s his vision that keeps our Hudson County airwaves fresh and very unboring.

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Its Commitment

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It’s one thing to say: We play it all. It’s quite another to stand by DJs who love music that other people complain about. At times, listening to what airs on WFMU requires an open mind, about what music is, and about how long that track can possibly last. Management can not be faint of heart, and cannot make choices based upon worry about retaining station support.

That’s where WFMU’s vision becomes a commitment. The station takes no underwriters. They are beholden to no major foundations. Read that again, because it’s not at all usual. All of the funding that keeps the station’s transmitter running atop the First Watchung Mountain in West Orange, the Jersey City broadcasting building, and their events space, Monty Hall, happens through the small donations of the station’s listeners.

While many radio stations require subscribing members to send in a twenty every month, you’d be hard-pressed to find another that functions entirely from pledge drives and old school record fair fundraisers. It takes serious commitment not to let big donors take a chunk out of the major dollars required to run something as massive as WFMU.

Location, Location, Location

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The commitment required to see the vision come to be is centered in the very special qualities of WFMU’s Hudson County home. Ken Freedman credits a measure of the love that listeners feel toward WFMU to its Jersey home. “New Jersey has an underdog attitude. We are proud of being from New Jersey, but not pretentious.”

The truth is, a radio station located in Jersey City, broadcasting in NYC and upstate and into Pennsylvania has a built-in advantage in terms of listenership. There are few US regions as dense as the WFMU listening areas. Small donors abound. They just have to be reached and pulled in.

With its almost shocking degree of out-there music interspersed with esoteric interviews and generally clever content, WFMU has pulled in quite a number of celebrity listeners who happen to live, at least part-time, in the shiny city across the Hudson.

Not to mention, WFMU has access to all the incredible bands trying to make it here. This region offers an embarrassment of riches for a radio station that wants to broadcast wild and winsome content to blow your mind.

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You’re Invited to the Party

So, join the cult-following.  

WFMU broadcasts locally at 91.1 Mhz FM, in the Hudson Valley — the Lower Catskills, western New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania from Mount Hope, New York at 90.1 WMFU — and to New York City and Rockland County at 91.9 FM. But you can stream the station live or listen to your favorite DJs on your own schedule.

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