If you've taken the time to stop and listen to the unusual sounds coming from 91.1 FM, the frequency may already be a favorite pre-set station on your radio.
WFMU, the self-described "freeform station of the nation" whose studios are located in Historic Downtown Jersey City, specializes in broadcasting kinds of music that aren't played anywhere else, juxtaposing styles such as rockabilly, soul, electronica, funk, world music, indie-pop, gospel, folk, and pretty much anything that has ever been recorded to vinyl, tape, CD or digital file.
"We try to encourage people to be as open-minded as possible," says WFMU's Program and Music Director Brian Turner, "leaving the door wide open to explore whatever you're trying to convey."
The station, which also broadcasts on 90.1 FM in the Hudson Valley, Lower Catskills, Western New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, is completely commercial-free, financially supported by listener pledges during its annual two-week fundraising marathon each March.
Originally a college radio station for Upsala College in East Orange, WFMU gained complete independence prior to the school's 1995 closure. The move of WFMU's studios to Jersey City in 1998 - the transmitter is still in the Oranges - dropped the station smack in the middle of its core market, the cultural hub that is the New York City metropolitan area.
"We're closer to our artistic center in New York and Hoboken and Jersey City," Turner says. "What we do has become increasingly enjoyed, thankfully, by a large amount of people."
Included in that crowd of faithful listeners are quite a few music and entertainment industry big shots, from musicians such as Robert Plant, Lou Reed and Sonic Youth to Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Rolling Stone named WFMU the best radio station in the country for four consecutive years, and other publications such as the Village Voice, College Music Journal and New York Press have likewise heaped praise upon the station.
A DJ's life
But even with all the attention, WFMU's DJs carry on their modest mission of digging up the best unknown recordings and broadcasting them for the public. Spinning obscure records, it turns out, isn't a likely path out of obscurity.
"It was never really part of a thing where you were coming in because you wanted to be a professional announcer," Turner says. "Sure, they may get some attention for what they do here, but I don't think anybody has the illusion that FMU is here to make them the next Casey Kasem."
And if any of the station's DJs are secretly hoping to break into commercial radio, chances are they've been waiting a long time. As Turner notes, many of the DJs joined up back when the station was still young.
"There's still a very big core of people who have been here since the 1970s, a couple back to the punk days," Turner says.
Turner also notes that most of the station's DJs started as lowly volunteers, stuffing envelopes or manning booths at the station's annual Record Fair each November, who joined up just to lend a hand to the small station that they loved.
Others, however, have been culled from Turner's regular searches of Manhattan club DJs. But Turner warns any prospective job applicants that being skilled at working a turntable doesn't necessarily make you right for WFMU.
"Being the best club DJ doesn't always mean you can put together the best cohesive radio show," he says. "We ask for people that are incredibly knowledgeable, but that can adapt that to compelling radio."
As Turner admits, determining what is compelling can be a matter of opinion. WFMU DJs sometimes digress into monologues on music arcana, such as which little-known 1970s punk band's bassist later became a little-known 1980s electronic music pioneer. Likewise, the station's frequent aural experiments often cross the line into dissonance.
"It can get self-indulgent, but it can also get really, really riveting," Turner says. "We've always kind of just stuck to doing our own thing and let people discover us."
That laid-back, love-it-or-hate-it attitude seems to infuse all aspects of WFMU - it is, in fact, a hearty part of the station's mission. Recently, the station's website (www.wfmu.org) proudly carried the disclaimer, "If you hate what you hear, come back in 15 minutes and you might like it. Five minutes later, we'll drive you away again."
The station's eclectic schedule is constantly in flux, with regular rotations occurring every six months - the current schedule took effect at the beginning of October - but some perennial favorites have either been around for years or seem to keep popping up from time to time.
An old favorite that returned to the airwaves last summer, "Aircheck" contains all sorts of bizarre, often amusing radio moments. In one memorable episode, WFMU re-aired the original broadcast of an Eskimo janitor who took over a striking radio station and sang karaoke to Rolling Stones songs. In another, a pirate radio DJ continues his broadcast while his station is raided and set on fire by federal agents.
"Week by week we kind of isolate these strange things that have happened in radio history," Turner says.
Other popular shows include a weekend kids' music program known as "Greasy Kid Stuff" and a vintage gospel music program called "Sinner's Crossroads" produced and hosted by Alabama resident Kevin Nutt, who culls much of his show's material from old 45s and homemade tapes.
"He's kind of immersed in this whole scene of going out to live revivals and digging up these bizarre radio commercials that aired down there," Turner says.
Aside from the music programs, WFMU regularly schedules talk shows, such as the decade-old "Seven Second Delay," which features conceptual radio stunts, such as inviting callers to each sing a verse of "100 Bottles of Beer" or conducting an on-air treasure hunt in which listeners try to pinpoint the location of a hidden prize somewhere in the tri-state region. The show is hosted by WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman and Andy Breckman, creator of the TV show Monk.
Other popular talk programs on WFMU include "For the Record" hosted by "anti-fascist researcher" Dave Emory, and "The Speakeasy" featuring guests from the worlds of art, politics, science and the media.
On the air, online
WFMU is one of the few independent radio stations that have fully embraced technological advances such as the Internet, streaming live audio online for anyone in the world to hear. A large and growing percentage of the station's listenership actually tune into WFMU on a PC instead of a radio, and the station's call-in shows are frequented by listeners from across the country and abroad.
Besides the live audio feed in multiple digital formats, the station archives all of its content for access at any time. Did you miss that live appearance by art-rock band Deerhoof back in May? A quick search on wfmu.org will reveal not only the May gig, but also the band's two other live sets on WFMU in 2002 and 2003.
The site's immense archives - some playlists go back nearly a decade - can act, as Brian Turner notes, as an education tool for die-hard music lovers.
"It's another thing that is a face of the station that people might come across," he says. "That's pretty exciting to us right now."
The station's website also features a web journal called "Beware of the Blog," as well as a monthly newsletter, a growing archive of podcasts, an online merchandise store, and the station's current program schedule.
Touch that dial! Tune into these other radio stations that have their studios in Jersey City. KTU, 103.5 FM, "The Beat of New York"; Z-100, 100.3 FM, "New York's #1 Hit Music Station"; WWRU, 1660 AM, Spanish-language radio.