Radio Done Right. An Interview with Ken Freedman, station manager of independent freeform radio station WFMU

Despite the fact that I often rail about the state of radio these days, all hope is not lost. There still exist hundreds of non-commercial radio stations run by dedicated and talented people who still see radio for what it should be: illuminating, entertaining and fun. Of all these stations, perhaps the station that can be considered the blue riband of non-commercial listener-supported radio is WFMU FM broadcasting out of Jersey City, New Jersey USA to metropolitan New York, the Hudson Valley and the world over the Internet. Station manager Ken Freedman was kind enough to take some time out of his incredibly busy schedule to answer some questions about WFMU, non-commercial radio, the current FCC crackdown on "indecency" and the future of radio in this day and age of the iPod nation. If you are interested in listening to radio that truly dares to be different I hope that after reading this interview you check out FMU for yourself. If you like what you hear, consider kicking in a few bucks to support these radio maniacs as they march to their very different, distinct and eclectic drummer.


Ken_record_librarydimThe Rock and Roll Report
:    For those readers not familiar with WFMU, could you explain in a nutshell the history of the station and the philosophy behind WFMU? How are you organized?

Ken Freedman:    We are a DJ-owned and operated non-commercial station. The philosophy is to give the DJs total control of their programs, but that can mean anything, in FMU’s case, we have a long-standing commitment to humor, experimentation and rock and roll. We’re organized in a pretty straightforward way, the station is owned by a not-for-profit group, the majority of people on the board are actual on-air staffers, and I (as General Manager) report to that board. The 7 full-timers report to me, and we have an additional 100 volunteers.

R’nRR:    WFMU has managed for the most part to stick to its freeform programming philosophy with support coming primarily from its listeners and you have just concluded a very successful fundraising marathon that exceeded its goals. With FMU’s rough financial history, have things settled down somewhat on the financial front? Are the station’s finances at a place where you feel comfortable that the medium to long-term stability of the station is assured seeing as how you do not accept underwriting or air commercials?

KF:    No, unfortunately I still can’t feel too confident that our financial problems are gone forever. We almost went bankrupt in the years following our sudden independence (the college that used to own us went under itself). The thing that saved our ass was webcasting and the increased audience which that brought to us. If we make it though Fall 2005 / early Winter 2006 without running out of money, then I will feel more confident. We want to remain a one-fundraiser-a-year station, which is VERY important to keep the fundraising fun and exciting. But as a result, we usually run out of money just in time for Christmas.

R’nRR:    Does programming reflect the tastes and interests more of the DJs on the air or that of the listener? Put another way, are programming decisions based more from what you perceive people want to hear or from what the WFMU personnel would like people to hear? How do you determine what shows stay and what shows go?

KF:    Well, the programmers ARE the listeners. All of our DJs got their start first as listeners to the station. But the DJs play what they want. Listener comments and requests have an effect if they are positive – negative feedback tends to be ignored for better or for worse.

R’nRR:    What are your thoughts on satellite radio? I know that FMU has pursued a possible place on one of the two satellite radio systems to no avail but do you think that satellite radio is the future of radio, another avenue of spreading the radio word or a technical dead end?

KF:    I still don’t think that satellite radio is the future of radio, but it is indicative of what’s happening in radio in general – multiple channels aimed at narrower and narrower niches. The future of radio is on-demand audio and multiple channels, but that can happen on a number of different platforms – satellite, the Internet, digital radio, etc.

R’nRR:    WFMU began streaming on the ‘Net early on and you continue to offer Internet streaming Wfmu_staff in a variety of formats and levels of quality. What kind of impact has the Internet had on WFMU, its programming, its listenership and its bottom line? What do you see as its future for radio in general and FMU in particular?

KF:    The Internet has had a huge and positive effect on the station, and I only see that continuing. As much as we’ve done in the online world, I feel like we’ve only just begun to tap our potential there. Broadcasting on the web has attracted tons of listeners all over the world, many of whom interact creatively with the station on a regular basis.

R’nRR:    Podcasts and blogs are the new "big thing" and WFMU is active on both fronts. How should a radio station in this day and age approach new technology like this? Should they embrace it or are things like blogs and podcasting merely a fad?

KF:    Blogs and podcasting are both fads in their present incarnations, but they both represent real trends that are NOT going away. Podcasting as it presently exists may go away, but the idea of on-demand audio being automatically deliverable is not going away. And blogs are just the latest incarnation of what the web has long made possible – the amateurization of publishing, journalism, broadcasting, filmmaking, etc, which is a great thing. We no longer have to rely on fake experts for any of this stuff. Every radio station has to do what’s right for it – I can’t speak for other stations. But our blog has been enormously successful. The jury is still out on podcasting – we’re severely limited in what we can do on that front by copyright laws, and that situation is not going to change. I’m hoping to develop a podcasting license of our own so we can freely podcast a lot more musical material.

R’nRR:    Do you think that listener supported radio can thrive in this day of iPods and satellite radio where it seems that the role of knowledgeable DJ is being replaced by the "shuffle" function of an MP3 player? Have you seen an increase in all around listenership in spite of these factors or is the iPod nation taking over?

KF:    Well, we have seen an increase in our listenership, but that’s only because we’ve heartily embraced all this new technology. There’s no question that iPods, the Internet, satellite radio is whittling away the audience for AM and FM radio, we’ve seen it ourselves. Fewer people listen to FMU over the air, but the number of new online listeners has more than compensated. The old model of broadcast radio is disappearing, but I’m thrilled about that. Most people in the industry – commercial AND non-commercial – aren’t quite as happy about all this as I am.

R’nRR:    WFMU has earned a well-deserved reputation as a radio station not afraid to take risks and to push the envelope. How has the recent FCC crackdown on "indecency" affected the station and its mandate? How do you tell the DJs what they can and cannot do in this environment or do you just let ’em rip and deal with the damage after the fact? I know that you have increased the time delay on your broadcast signal to 15 seconds but is this enough to satisfy the FCC? Will it ever be enough? Do you fear the urge to self-censor yourselves just to stay below the FCC radar?

KF:    Yes, the current indecency crackdown has had a huge effect on us. I feel like I’m managing a radio station in Nazi Germany now, because it’s not a question of just avoiding bad words anymore. You have to avoid anything that has sexual or excretory meaning at all. We’ve changed a lot of our procedures to deal with this, including the 15 second delay, and we’re still refining the process. The risks to us are too great to not take this seriously – the indecency crackdown is just another ridiculous political issue, and I don’t want FMU to get permanently damaged in the crossfire.

R’nRR:    As a big fan of community radio, what do you see as its future in this age of commercial media consolidation? Does truly independent media like WFMU have a future, especially in the US? I personally feel that people will increasingly turn to places like WFMU and Pacifica and community radio stations as a source of alternative news, entertainment and viewpoints but do you see that from your longtime involvement in community radio? Am I being too hopeful and naive?

KF:    I’m honestly not sure what the future holds for the old model of community and alternative radio. I don’t think it’s very bright actually, because most stations have been too slow to embrace new technologies.

R’nRR:    Has WFMU ever considered offering more news and public affairs programming or do you consider FMU to be more of an arts and culture station with stations like WBAI and NPR covering the news and public affairs beat?

KF:    I’ve never had any desire to add regular news programming to FMU’s schedule – it’s too costly and difficult to produce news, so I’d rather leave that job to others. The majority of our audience is in the New York area, and we have 7-10 other stations here doing news and/or political talk, so I prefer us not to add to that cacophony. The politics of FMU are implicit in the music and the overall approach of the station and from time to time, the politics and issues come out more, and then they recede into the background again. I like it better like this. I myself am every interested in news and politics but I prefer to avoid it on my show. But sometimes I can’t.

R’nRR:    I know in your last "State of the Station" segment you talked about increasing the web only content that FMU produces and I see that you already offer two podcast only shows ("Communication Breakdown" and "Coffee to Go"). Can you fill us in with any of your plans for the future with respect to web-only content as well as any other cool ideas that you and your cohorts may have cooking in the near future that we can look forward to?

KF:    We just added our first additional channel of web-only programming, which is a 24-hour-a-day channel for our morning Jewish show, which has a totally different audience from the rest of the station. The next step will be to eliminate the Jewish show from our live web streams, and replace it online with a morning web-only show, which would air Monday through Friday from 6-9 am, and then be archived as well. And parts of it could also be podcast. I hope we get started on this later this year. Such a show would also not have any FCC language restrictions, so we could play tons of great songs and comedy that is currently banned from the broadcast airwaves. I’m itching to take advantage of the free speech that still exists in the webcasting space, before congress decides to change that as well.

R’nRR:    I have always pointed to WFMU as "radio done right." A listener may not like everything that they hear but they know that the programming will be eclectic and adventurous and always interesting. WFMU is nothing if not fun, a concept sadly lacking in commercial radio these days. As a site dedicated to rock and roll, especially the stuff that you rarely find on commercial radio I find that WFMU has always been the champion of great rock and roll radio on shows like "Three Chord Monte" "Cherry Blossom Clinic" and "Teenage Wasteland" (to name just three) plus all your live in-studio performances by a wide array of artists and for that I must extend a debt of thanks. I mean even Robert Plant is a fan! Do you think that being adjacent to New York City and the talent that exists in that city is the reason for your success?

KF:    Having broadcast coverage of a huge metropolitan area Like New York is one important element of why FMU has developed the way it has. But the station’s personality is a real testament to the people who have programmed it – good radio attracts good listeners, who then become DJs themselves and so on.

R’nRR:    Any chance that we’ll see "Aircheck" back this summer?

KF:    Yep, it’s coming back, and I’m really excited about some of the stuff we’ll be airing on it this summer.

Thanks for your time Ken. The enthusiasm that everybody at the station has for what they do is clearly evident just by listening. WFMU is obviously more than just a radio station but a true community of radio and music enthusiasts doing what they love. These days, WFMU is truly a breath of fresh air.

WFMU broadcasts on 91.1 FM in the New York City area and over the Internet in a variety of formats. In addition you can enjoy their excellent Beware of the Blog, their interactive message board and their ever increasing roster of podcasts. Finally, if you are curious as to what you may have missed you can always access their playlists and archives and listen to the madness that has gone on in the past. For even more on WFMU’s mission and radio philosphy you can read the excellent interview with Ken from Perfect Sound Forever conducted in ’97 as well.
Later.

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading your interview with Ken Freedman of WFMU. I am a relatively new WFMU listener ( 3 years? via the web 20kbs stream ) and through your Q&A with Ken I have a deeper appreciation of the station.

  2. you should also check out a service called IM Radio by a company called mercora–killer app!!!

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