Rising out of the thick scratchiness of an ancient 78-r.p.m. record, the sound of a stringed instrument travels through the darkened bar, vaguely bluesy, yet with a distinct Middle Eastern tonality. A rich male voice joins in, singing something garbled and foreign. In a cramped booth in the back, the disk jockey, a manic Allen Ginsberg look-alike, stands behind a pair of turntables and a stack of machinery, furiously pulling records and CD's, squinting to read the labels. "This is Greek hashish music," he yells at me. "In the late 20's, they'd go to these clubs and take these drugs and then they'd go elsewhere and sing about it all night. There are places like this still in Queens. I went to a nightclub once and interviewed this 87-year-old musician for two hours, and at the end of the interview he asked me where he could score! It's unbelievable." He grins and turns up the music.
We're at Barmacy, a hipster hangout located in a defunct East Village drugstore. The D.J. is Citizen Kafka, a 51-year-old former gem prospector and sometime antique dealer. He is also a regular on WFMU, the semilegendary New Jersey FM radio station staffed by a cadre of idiosyncratic obsessives, each possessing extraordinary record collections, encyclopedic knowledge of cultural arcana and a talent for radio as an expressive medium. Every Monday night, Barmacy spotlights a member of the listener-supported station's all-volunteer D.J. staff; tonight is Kafka's turn.
Humming to himself, he cues up his selections, following the Greek tune with a recording of music from the carousel in Brooklyn's Prospect Park (a Wurlitzer band organ, he says, offhandedly adding that he recorded it himself); "I Never Will Forget," a rhythm-and-blues waltz by Shirley Ellis; and a cracked piece of country harmony by the Delmore Brothers. Then he leans over to me and announces, "Now it's time to get crazy -- this is an Inuit song, Eskimos singing into each other's mouths!"
Needless to say, no one is dancing. Kafka's selections do, however, elicit the extremes of response frequently provoked by WFMU disk jockeys. Ensconced in a nearby booth are two very stylishly dressed young women, deep in conversation. As the song changes, one of them walks over to the stage. "Excuse me," she says. "I have no idea what you've been playing, but whatever it is, it's just great!" Kafka blushes a little bit and stammers a response. "No, really," the woman says, gesturing to her table. "I'm really enjoying it. So, if you put on anything that's kind of long, and want to come over, we'd love to talk to you." Minutes later, a cocky postcollegiate type swaggers up and requests "Emotional Rescue" by the Rolling Stones.
Jaime Wolf's most recent article for the magazine, about Hollywood script doctoring, appeared last August.
Clearly, then, the concept behind WFMU remains elusive -- perhaps as elusive as the dinky 1,250-watt signal emanating from the station's transmitter on the Watchung ridge in West Orange. In much of New York City, those who want to listen in usually need first to attach an FM antenna to their receivers and then perform microsurgical feng shui adjustments just to achieve half-decent mono reception at 91.1. By the station's best estimates, it draws about 300,000 listeners in a given month. That's a figure that's grown a bit in recent years, but a tiny blip on the radar compared with the 1.2 million who listen to Howard Stern in a given week on K-Rock.
But the interesting thing about WFMU isn't so much how many people are listening as who they are. A self-sustaining, ad-free independent in an age of radio corporatization, it's a station whose name has become like a secret handshake among a certain tastemaking cognoscenti. Lou Reed, Matt Groening, Jim Jarmusch and Eric Bogosian are avowed fans. The critically lauded bands Stereolab and Yo La Tengo have headlined fund-raising concerts for the station. At FMU's semiannual fund-raising record fairs, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth regularly mans a table. The founder of Matador Records, Gerard Cosloy, and the Warner Brothers Records senior vice president and director of A&R, Joe McEwen, have done D.J. stints on the station. Many of New York's most prominent pop-music critics are regular listeners -- perhaps one reason the station has four times been named the best in the nation by Rolling Stone. "You'll see people in parts of the country far from a metropolitan area with an FMU bumper sticker," explains Byron Coley, a writer whose influential 80's zine, Forced Exposure, established him as an important arbiter of rock credibility, "and you'll think, They're O.K."
A tongue-in-cheek program-guide description for Doug Schulkind's Friday-morning show boasts, "The finest in Micronesian doo-wop, Appalachian mambo, Turkish mariachi, pygmy yodeling of Baltimore, Portuguese juju, Cajun gamelan, tuba choirs from Mozambique, Inuit marching bands, Filipino free jazz, Egyptian Kabuki theater and throat singers of the Lower East Side."
At a WFMU night at Barmacy in New York's East Village, revelers enjoyed the station's eclectic, genre-busting mix of music and spoken-word recordings.
The truth may be even stranger than this Borgesian inventory. WFMU is a place where the Singing Dogs are just as important as Elvis; a place where you will, in fact, hear Elvis, but in close proximity to ritual disinterment music from Sumatra, the soundtrack from "Mothra," a theremin band called the Lothars and the intergalactic jazz improvisations of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
It's also a station where specialty programming can mean the scholarly treatment of obscure rockabilly records, interviews with Nobel Prize-winning scientists and mathematicians, or the recorded lectures of the Zen popularizer Alan Watts.
What holds all of this together is taste. Although FMU's individual D.J.'s display the broadest possible range of preferences and predilections, a coherent sensibility has nonetheless evolved out of their biases, expertise and prescient discoveries -- a sensibility that has put WFMU at or near ground zero in defining the late-1990's hipster esthetic.
In indie-rock circles, there's an old saying that hardly anyone bought the records of the Velvet Underground when they were originally released -- but that everyone who did went out and started a band. In the same way WFMU has come to wield an influence far out of proportion to its mere broadcasting power.
The process by which popular taste evolves is complicated and often mysterious -- sometimes certain things just seem to be in the air, and no one can quite say why. But in fact there are identifiable authorities -- people, publications, nightclubs, radio stations -- capable of pushing a look, sound or idea to steadily larger audiences. "People who start trends are usually charming and guileless," explains Geoffrey Weiss, a shaggy, hyperarticulate vice president of A&R at Warner Brothers Records in Los Angeles who has an unusually comprehensive grasp of the process. "And there really aren't that many people, but it only takes one or two in every town."
Within the music business, forward-looking record- company executives acknowledge a small handful of stations -- among them KCRW in Los Angeles, KJHK in Lawrence, Kan., and KCMU in Seattle -- that regularly alert them to fresh sounds. According to Weiss, WFMU is the most important of the bunch, not only because of its taste, but also because of its location: shouting distance from New York City's crucial nexus of fashion, advertising and media trendsetters with the ability to spread their sensibility out to the world at large.
For example, back in the late 80's, the collector underground rediscovered the lushly arranged "exotic" lounge music of the 50's and 60's -- a genre dubbed "space-age bachelor-pad music" by a Los Angeles-based artist and record collector named Byron Werner. One member of that underground was the FMU D.J. Irwin Chusid, who became particularly enamored of the out-of-print recordings of the Mexican-born bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel. A self-taught pianist and arranger, Esquivel experimented with extreme stereo imaging and layers of bizarre sound effects on top of his big-band charts, with choruses gently singing "Zu-Zu-Zu" or brassy passages punctuated with an energetic "Pow! Pow! Pow!"
Ken Freedman has steered WFMU, whose survival depends entirely on its listeners' support, through a number of financial crises without compromising its unique vision.
This music quickly caught on with the station's other D.J.'s. By 1993 Chusid was able to produce an Esquivel anthology CD for the indie label Bar/None. It became a surprise hit, playing a prominent role in the mainstream emergence of the lounge phenomenon. It and a sequel disk have sold about a hundred thousand copies. Fox Searchlight is now developing a film about Esquivel's life for the actor John Leguizamo. "FMU is ground zero," enthuses Glenn Morrow, the vice president of Bar/None. "When Irwin came to me, I had never heard Esquivel. But that put us right there at the beginning of the whole lounge phenomenon."
Chusid also played a central role in the renaissance of Raymond Scott, another wacky, unclassifiable composer and bandleader, whose music appeared in Warners Brothers cartoons of the 1940's and 50's. After several decades in oblivion, his music has now been re-released on compact disk, used in contemporary cartoons like "The Simpsons," "Ren and Stimpy" and "Animaniacs," sampled by alternative rockers like Soul Coughing and re-recorded by the jazz clarinetist Don Byron and the Kronos Quartet.
Over the last few years, disk jockeys like Jeffrey Cobb and Gaylord Fields began playing a lot of French rock and roll from the 60's on their shows, helping to create a new audience for period icons like Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy. Demand for this vintage material was met with a spate of domestic reissues, which opened the door for contemporary French bands (who are also played on FMU) like Autour de Lucie and Air; the latter's 1998 debut made a number of critics' top-10 lists for the year.
WFMU excels at exactly this sort of cultural Dumpster-diving, but the station has helped break contemporary artists as well. After Ken Freedman's discovery in the early 90's of the import records of a Japanese band called Pizzicato Five, their popularity with listeners -- and the station's other D.J.'s -- led to the band being signed by Matador for distribution in the United States. The resulting buzz helped Cibo Matto, a Manhattan-based Japanese girl duo (who had also become FMU favorites), land a major-label deal with Warner Brothers. Already endorsed by certified hipster-tastemakers like John Zorn, the Beastie Boys and Sean Lennon, the group's second disk, which will be released in early June, is generating talk of potential breakout success.
The collision and blending of musical styles high and low, from around the world and spanning the history of sound recording, has been the cornerstone of WFMU's philosophy since 1968, when, as the campus station of Upsala College in East Orange, N.J., it went free-form. At that time, coincident with the rise of FM radio and the heyday of album rock, free-form was enjoying a brief commercial vogue on stations like KSAN in San Francisco and WNEW-FM in New York. In that context, the concept rarely got beyond long-winded acid-rock jams and associated period cliches, and the bigger stations retreated to more strictly predetermined formats.
Over the years, FMU managed to hew closer to its ideal, but it is only comparatively recently that the station -- even while facing extinction -- really has come into its own. By all accounts, the genius domus responsible for the modern WFMU phenomenon is Ken Freedman, the station manager, who prefers to bill himself as the "Elder Scapegoat." A thin, reserved 40-year-old with a face reminiscent of the young Robert De Niro, Freedman arrived in 1983 from WCBN, a free-form station in Ann Arbor.
A 1989 challenge to the station's license (on technical grounds, from other stations looking to expand their broadcast reach) meant Freedman had to guide FMU through a maze of legal and Federal Communications Commission proceedings. In 1992, Freedman organized and incorporated a nonprofit organization called Auricle Communications and bought the station two years later -- ensuring the station's survival even when Upsala College went bankrupt the following year. It was a period of nonstop stress and financial brinkmanship, during which most of Freedman's hair went gray.
An exemplary free-form disk jockey, Freedman turned out to have an impressive business vision as well, using the adversity that FMU faced to raise the station's public profile and establish it as a distinct alternative-culture brand. Stepping up fund-raising activities, he established Lowest Common Denominator, a program guide in the form of a zine, filled with articles, essays and cartoons, and inaugurated the station's popular record fairs. Under his watch, the station's annual donations rose from less than $50,000 to nearly $750,000.
And its broadcast reach has spread. In 1996, Auricle bought the license to WXHD, an FM frequency, in Mt. Hope, N.Y., from which the FMU signal is now simultaneously transmitted to listeners in New York's Hudson Valley, western and northern New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania. The following year, FMU, under an arrangement with the Dallas-based company Broadcast.com, began broadcasting in real time over the World Wide Web at www.wfmu.org.
Upsala's closing also meant the station had to secure a new home, so Freedman started the special "House of Tomorrow" fund-raising drive. This past summer, FMU moved into a five-story building on the edge of Jersey City's financial district, purchased and renovated entirely from listener donations. Steps away from the local PATH train, the station is now far more accessible to its staffers, and Freedman hopes that this will increase volunteer participation.
What he didn't change was the station's bold musical programming and its vision of community-based radio. WFMU is still a tiny, shoestring operation, run by four full-time employees on an annual operating budget of approximately $500,000, none of which comes from advertising, underwriting or Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants. Some of the disk jockeys have been on the air at college or other stations. But many were simply savvy longtime FMU listeners who heard the call and began volunteering -- stuffing envelopes, cleaning up or helping with the record fairs before auditioning for one of the coveted three-hour weekly slots.
Monica Lynch, a soft-spoken woman who does fill-in and overnight shifts, began volunteering in 1997 after arranging a sabbatical from her position as president of Tommy Boy Records. After 16 years at the label, she was burned out by the music business's overwhelming commercial imperative, as well as its constant extramusical annoyances. But working at WFMU, Lynch says, has helped her reconnect to her original passion. When she talks about her fellow D.J.'s, she quickly falls into a wonderstruck tone, describing their knowledge as "Talmudic." Being at the station, she says, is "like running away and joining the circus."
'Ordinarily, the idea of playing something that makes you turn off the station is like cancer,' says WFMU's station manager. 'We encourage it.'
It's the kind of feeling that makes the station's listeners so fanatically loyal -- and that attachment, in turn, only encourages more fearless programming. "Ordinarily, the idea of playing something that makes you turn off the station is like cancer. We encourage it," explains Freedman. "Because we know they'll come back." In fact, while much commercial radio remains bland and predictable, WFMU may end up as a kind of role model for at least a portion of the FM band: a pending F.C.C. ruling may allow the establishment of local low-powered radio stations of up to 1,000 watts with a nine-mile radius, opening up the dial to additional maverick mini-FMU's.
Certainly the spirit of outsider exuberance is in the air at the House of Tomorrow. A recent routine staff meeting is followed by the station's equivalent of a jazz musicians' cutting contest, as Freedman, the "Saturday Night Toe Jamz" host Kenny G. and Citizen Kafka gather around the library's turntable. Kenny G.'s first choice has the voice of the young Marie Osmond issuing from the speakers, reciting a Dada poem by Hugo Ball.
"I can match that," says Citizen Kafka, who is co-producer of "The Secret Museum of the Air," a weekly radio show devoted to ethnic music recorded before 1948. He brandishes a disk he has pressed -- or "burned" -- himself; compiled from different sources, its label reads "Americana Vox Populi."
The dissonant sounds of a poorly strummed guitar fill the air. It is something called "Fishin' Wire Eddy," a strange homemade doo-wop tune, with a female chorus crooning the refrain "Eddie, my love" while a man's voice brays: "You never write! You've changed! From most likely to succeed to poems against Presidents! From honor camper to orgone biker! Ya call yourself baroooooook! I don't like you anymore." Kafka beams as the others stand in awe.
Ken Freedman puts a seven-inch record called "Spin the Bottle" on the turntable. It sounds equally weird at 33 and 45 r.p.m. "We don't know what the right speed is," he says quizzically. Kafka is not impressed. "I have lots of records like this," he says.
"Then burn us some CD's!" Kenny G. tells him.
"Ha! That's too easy!" laughs Kafka. "I have guys screaming about the moon. Listen to this: this woman walks into a studio where you cut your own songs. Says, 'I'm a singer.' The guy who runs the studio says, 'Who do you sing with?' 'The Beatles,' she says, with a straight face. 'Which record?' 'All of them."'
He hits play, and his colleagues stand around him in eager anticipation, looking forward to sharing these finds with everyone else on their particular wavelength.