Ken Freedman is the general manager of Jersey City’s WFMU, the longest-running freeform radio station in the United States. Since the mid-1980s, Freedman and his staff have made WFMU’s name a byword for the modern freeform sensibility with a combination of, among other factors, early adoption of new distribution technology, avoidance of identity politics and pure, unadulterated unpredictability. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
I'm here in the KCSB studio in Southern California, and you're over on the other side of the country, almost as far as you can get in the U.S. — you're in Jersey. You wonder, why would a Southern California radio station want to broadcast about an East Coast radio station, but in a way it doesn't matter at all. This show podcasts and gets most of its listeners that way. FMU is online, it streams, it podcasts, it was the first to do all of that stuff.
How do you envision FMU's audience? There must be some kind of cognitive dissonance based on the fact that you run what is ostensibly a radio station but is in reality a cultural entity that extends anywhere.
I don't think of us as a radio station, strictly speaking, anymore. We've definitely metamorphosed into some kind of hybrid radio-online entity.
When did that shift in your thinking change? Was it exactly when you guys went streaming in '97? How long a process has this been in your mind?
It's been happening steadily since we first launched our web site back in 1993. Then we started streaming in 1997. There were a lot of skeptics among our listeners and our staff members who felt that radio streaming was going to be something more akin to CB radio, as opposed to a new form of media. A lot of people said, “It's not even radio!”
But it was pretty clear when we started streaming full-time that, in fact, it was radio, that we were picking up the same types of listeners as we got over the FM band. But it really wasn't until much later, in 2000 to 2003 when we started expanding the offerings online to on-demand programming and podcasting as well as the blog and forums and message boards and then Facebook and Twitter, that we started realizing it was becoming something different. It's not, strictly speaking, radio anymore.
One example I can give you is on my own Wednesday morning radio show. Besides doing a live show, I'm also posting pictures along with every song that I'm playing, and listeners can also comment with me and with each other on the playlist page of the program. I started realizing a few months ago that a fairly good number of people were logging on to that playlist page every week, and they weren't even listening. They were there to see the pictures unfold, to see what music I was playing. The reason they weren't listening is they were at work, and their employer had blocked streaming audio through the company firewall. So they were doing the next best thing, which was simply logging on to the page so that they could see what songs were playing, look at the pictures and interact what other listeners. When I realized that I have these people logging on to this ostensibly radio show page every week but not listening, that kinda hit me over the head. This really has become something different.
I have seen go on with your own show and with others as well, but I have to wonder, since I have some idea of what freeform DJs are like — this is a freeform station I'm at, after all — this kind of thing must weird a few of them out, correct?
What's the range of responses to this? All over the place, or people are down for anything that gets their show listened to, or… ?
We run the whole gamut of responses. There's people who are right there, who can't wait to embrace any kind of technical innovation that we unveil. There's people racing ahead of the station in terms of what we make available to them — some of our DJs, I can barely keep up with their technical innovations.
The other range are people who feel like this is not radio, “I don't want to post the name of the song I'm playing, listeners should be surprised by the segue, radio is about the segue.” They don't want to post the name of the song live or even after the fact. There are still some people uncomfortable with the idea of programs being available after the show is on demand. The difference between FMU and a lot of other radio stations is that the management is in favor of technical innovation and in favor of embracing these new forms of media.
It sounds like every individual at FMU, at least the ones on the air, all have their ideas about what radio “should” be. Some of them, that is the idea of previous generations.
That's true, and I think that's one of the great things about WFMU. It's more than a radio station about music; there really is an appreciation and an awareness of the history of radio and the art of radio. It's something people take very, very seriously: what we're doing as radio, as opposed to just coming on and spinning tunes.
This idea you mentioned, how some DJs would take exception to a technological step forward FMU is making with the complaint “that isn't radio” — I'll hear that myself and think, “What? What do you mean, 'not radio?'” But has there ever been a point when some sort of transformation or innovation for FMU made you wonder, “Is this really radio?” Though I suppose you don't care now because, as you said, it's more than a radio station to you.
I really don't care whether it is radio or not anymore. In fact, part of what we do is clearly not radio. But radio programmers have to define themselves far more widely than they've done in the past, in the same way that horse and buggy manufacturers shot themselves in the foot by not redefining themselves as vehicle manufacturers.
Radio programmers and television programmers and journalists, for that matter, have to define themselves far more widely, and they should be defining themselves as “streaming providers,” I think. A radio stream or a music stream or a news audio stream, that's just one of the many types of streams that radio people should be engaging in. There's all sorts of different streams that they can put out. A blog is pretty much a stream: it's a stream of images, of writing, of movies. The similarity to radio comes in in that it's an unfolding daily, or perhaps even hourly channel of content. Radio programmers have to think of themselves more as content providers and stream providers as opposed to simply audio stream providers.
I talk to a lot of community, freeform and college radio people. They'll often bring up FMU: “Oh, if only we could do what FMU does. Ah, they've got so much going on. If we could just get the scope that FMU has, the technological advances they have, the distribution methods they have.” Since FMU is held up as the early adopter of so many innovations that have become what programmers and directors at freeform stations want, how did FMU know to do all this stuff? Getting on the web in '93; streaming in '97; show archiving, which most stations can't even get on to this day — how did you get this information?
It was sort of a matter of survival. We started very early on, and I've always thought that FMU's core audience — our core demographic, if you will — are artists and weirdos. Going back to the seventies, eighties and nineties, we had all these artists and weirdos in the New Jersey and New York metropolitan area listening to us, and one of them was very active on what was called the ARPANET at that time, the predecessor to the internet. Before the World Wide Web, this one listener Henry Lowengard had actually put together 15 or 20 pages on what was called Gopherspace.
I was very unhappy with the limitations of our FCC license, the fact that we were licensed to cover New York City but in reality could barely cover it because of the geography and the buildings, and there really wasn't anything we could do about it. When I read in the early nineties in Wired magazine that it was going to be possible to transmit radio over the ARPANET, I decided, “I'm there. We're in that as soon as humanly possible.” When it started becoming humanly possible, we transferred these Gopher pages to web pages and we were off and running.
Then we waited a couple years to see how streaming played out. We didn't start right away, because we wanted to see which format would be adopted as the dominant format. By 1997, we did start streaming full time, but even before that we were getting licenses from artists and bands and putting up song files, long before them MP3 download revolution started. All this was a matter of survival for us, because we were owned by a college, Upsala College, that was having severe financial problems. It was clear they were going bankrupt, and we wanted to survive the bankruptcy. We looked to the internet as a way of getting our signal out there and getting more listeners without having to compromise our programming philosophy.
That's how we looked at it, that is how it played out: the college did go bankrupt and WFMU was the only part to survive. We had this Utopian idea, and amazingly enough, it did kind of come to pass. But we're still struggling with it because broadcasting on the internet is so much more expensive than FM broadcasting. We're still a pretty small station, so we do struggle with the expense and the complexity of it all.
As far as you know, what is the composition of the FMU audience, then? How much is New Jersey and the side of New York, and how much is the world at large?
Even though we have a fairly substantial internet audience, most of it is contained within our broadcast area. There's this myth, or this idea, that a station very active online has most of its listeners all over the country or all over the world. That's really not the case; the overwhelming majority of our listeners to live and work inside of our broadcast area. They listen on the internet perhaps at work, and perhaps when they go home they listen on the radio, if they can get it. If they're in New Jersey have a car, they might listen to it in the car on the way to work, and they they get to work and turn it on on the computer.
The most common kind of listener we have these days is a hybrid listener, somebody who listens sometimes to the FM signal and sometimes to the online signal. Only about a quarter of our listeners are people who listen exclusively to the online signal. Another quarter are people who listen exclusively to the FM signal. The other half are more or less hybrid listeners. It makes me sound like the evil Dr. Moreau, talking about “hybrid listeners.”
Your vast army of hybrid listeners doing your bidding, yes.
This is not an issue of prognostication, but it's what people tend to say: once cars ship with internet capabilities and once everybody is carrying around a device that can stream anything at any time, do you see FMU becoming more of a worldwide entity, or is there still a localness that you want to retain as long as possible?
There's definitely a localness I want to retain. If you set your sights too wide and decide you're going to become a national or international station, I think we really would lose our personality. We're proud of the fact that we're from New Jersey; we're proud of the fact that New Jersey is the laughing stock of the nation. I was deeply heartened by the recent political scandals that happened in Jersey City, because it again established New Jersey in that great historic underdog way.
We're very much steeped in that tradition, and we don't want to lose that. Even though we have more listeners all over the country and all over the world all the time, I definitely want to retain the local character and the focus on the local scene we have here. As I said before, despite the fact that we do have listeners all over, the overwhelming majority — we're talking 80, 90 percent of our online listeners — are still in the New Jersey/New York area.
There is the Jersey sensibility, but there is also the specific FMU sensibility. I think any listener would agree that, when they tune into FMU — despite the variety, despite that the DJs can do essentially whatever they want — they're getting a certain aesthetic, a certain feel. Has this FMU sensibility been in any way deliberately crafted, or is it something that emerges from the type of people who gravitate toward the station and are willing to put in the time and effort to compose what it broadcasts?
It definitely has not been intentionally crafted, and I think that's the great thing about radio. One of the things I'm most proud of about WFMU is that is has an organic personality. That's the strength of radio, and I think that's what's radio has unfortunately lost, historically. If you go back to the heyday of radio in the fifties, sixties and seventies, so many radio stations had their own local, organic personality. You can't create that; you can't create that at a focus group, you can't create it out of market research.
Unfortunately, that's what radio lost as it was corporatized, as voice-tracking took over and formats like Jack FM took over the landscape. It lost that, and it's really unfortunate because that's what you need. You need that local, distinct, niche personality to thrive oh the internet. That's what WFMU developed over the years, and that's what we retained. That is partly why we've been successful on the internet, whereas many other radio stations on the internet have not.
I once worked in commercial radio, and that industry sucks. I don't want to go there again. I do listen to a lot of what's called “mainstream public radio,” shows that have national distribution on some public radio network. Both of them, it seems, could stand to learn something from freeform radio. Do you think there are any specific lessons that either of those sides could draw from the freeform world, and what freeform does right?
I'm not sure. The term “freeform” is somewhat problematic to me as well, even though it's what I've spent almost my entire live working in. One freeform radio station can be completely different, even polar opposite, from another freeform station. WFMU's brand of freeform is just one particular brand. We definitely have areas that we focus on, and other areas that we're ignorant of. We don't even attempt to touch every genre or everything across the board. It is important not to go for diversity and juxtaposition and as many genres as you can just for the sake of itself; it is important to have some kind of focus.
But it's also really, really important to let programmers act as curators and to let radio stations act as curators. I think that's what a lot of listeners will be attracted to, in the same way that the heyday of the independent record store — I remember going into independent record stores when I was in college, and I would go into a store and just buy $100 worth of records. I wasn't familiar with any of them. The only reason I bought them was, I trusted the taste of the people stocking the record store. That was how I discovered a lot of music. I think radio stations have to play the same role.
They used to play the same role, and if there is one lesson that mainstream public radio and commercial radio and community radio can take from whatever we've done, it's that radio stations should be acting as curators. Listeners should be looking at those radio stations for their taste and their knowledge and to be exposed to new things that listeners don't necessarily know. And that act of intelligent curation is so much more powerful than the automated curation that we're seeing in such automated entities as Last.fm and Pandora. Those recommendation engines are interesting, but I don't think anything can replace an intelligent human curator.
The notion of a radio station as a curator, as a filter, is fascinating to me. Any of us who spend time online or in media can see that this is the time that people need filters, need curators, to help them navigate. They can choose their filters and curators freely, but they will need them if they're to find something they want. But is it an issue of a core personality for WFMU to have, or a core set of personalities to develop and make, in a sense, reliable for listeners? Is that the essence of good curation?
I'm not sure, because I don't think WFMU is reliable. We're actually very, very unreliable, and I'm not sure if that's a strength or a weakness or sometimes both. I myself turn my own radio station off six or seven times a day, sometimes screaming as I turn it off. Then I turn it on again ten minutes later. We're not afraid to do that.
If what you're getting at is “How do you recreate something like this?”, I have no idea. Nothing could possibly create an entity like WFMU out of scratch. We've been on the air for 51 years, and it's a true community radio station insofar as everybody on the air came from the community of listeners. We've put out certain kinds of programming. There's been a certain musical, philosophical, even comedic aesthetic, and that's attracted even more people back in who got it, who understood it and were able to add to it. On a managerial level, I'm always interested in bringing people in who get it, but are going to take it in a new direction. I don't want people who are going to push back the exact same thing we've been putting out. On one hand, I want people to get it — I want our new programmers to clearly understand what WFMU is and where it's coming from, but I want them to take it to new places also.
You've hit on something I find hugely important. When I hear stations talk about, “How do we become like FMU? How do we be our own FMU?”, it seems that's, by its very nature, an impossible task because that would be replicating the unreplicable. That, if anything, it FMU's strength: nobody is going to duplicate it. Correct?
I think so. It would be very, very hard to duplicate this. It would be very hard to build a brand new radio station from the ground up, with a distinct personality, right off the bat. Radio is a long-term form; it takes years and years for a radio program to develop an audience. I think it takes years and years for a radio host to get into his or her own groove. It takes years, if not decades, for a radio station to develop a really strong sense of self and a strong listening comunity. I don't think it is something that can be developed overnight.
And since you've been at FMU for the length of time you have, how much change have you seen in the personality of the station? We've talked about the technology, but in what FMU is, regardless of how you're listening to it, how much has that changed since you've been there?
It's hard for me to comment on that because I'm too much on the inside, but it has changed quite a bit. When I joined the station in the mid-1980s, a lot of people were doing two or three or four shows a week. We had a much smaller air staff, and now everybody does just one show a week. That's been a big change.
Musically, it's much more diverse now. The music industry and the whole music scene has changed so much during this time; it's become so utterly factionalized. Genres that never existed before have emerged, and subgenres and sub-subgenres. Yet certain things have remained consistent, which I think is WFMU's strong musicological sense. There's a really strong sense of musical history. There's an interest in the past as well as a real interest in the future and listening to forward-looking music and trying to merge the two. There's a certain self-deprecating humor that has consistently run through a lot of the programming and a lot of the hosts as well.
On one hand, tons of things have changed at WFMU and tons of things have changed in the entire music and radio landscape. But there have been threads which have been consistent through our history.
I remember reading an interview with you from the mid-nineties where you were talking about freeform radio's task as a destroyer of musical biases. It seems to me FMU has an interest in breaking down genre walls when possible, or at least pulling stuff out of its genre cloisters. Do you still conceive of the destruction of musical biases as high on the priority list for FMU?
I think it's one of the more noble things we can aspire to achieve. It's very hard to do, but I think a really excellent freeform programmer is able to do that. That gets into the art of the segue, the art of set construction and finding DJs who are able to mix in all sorts of disparate sonic elements and make it make sense. You can play Bach next to the Beatles, but there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. There's a way that makes sense and makes a lightbulb go off in people's heads, and there's a way that doesn't do that. It's a craft, and it is very, very hard to achieve, but it definitely is something we aspire to. It's hard, even at WFMU, finding people able to do that.
The DJ selection process completely fascinates me because, first and foremost, let's get this clear: there's got to be just enormous competition to get on that schedule.
There is, yeah.
How many people get turned down per round, do you think?
Probably about 40.
How many are currently on the schedule?
So we can get an idea of the comparative numbers right there. When there is a space open and you need a DJ and you're looking at this pool — how many people decide on this, and when you are personally involved, what are you listening for?
One person decides, and that's the program director, which currently is me, again. I'm now in my third stint as program director after taking about eleven years off. The program director decides alone, although we do have an advisory committee made up of other DJs that gives feedback and might make suggestions. But they're not involved in the creation of the Monopoly board, so to speak, of who actually gets on the weekly schedule.
In terms of what I'm looking for as program director, I'm looking for a lot of different things. I'm looking at the strength of their radio program, and I try to define that on what kind of program they're doing. One person might be trying to do a comedy show; another person might be trying to do a very serious music show. Somebody might be trying to do an experimental sound collage show. These programs have to be judged in different ways, and I try to judge them on their own merits, but I'm also trying to look at the schedule as a whole, and I'm trying to make sure we're not leaning too heavily in one direction. If there's an area we've been weak on, I might go out of my way to strengthen us in an area of musical weakness.
I'm definitely interested in people who know how to use the internet and social media, and are showing themselves as being adept at merging radio and the online world. I'm also looking at people who are able to fit into our collective, because WFMU is something of a collective. It's very important for me to find people who fit in socially, who contribute to the organization outside of their program, as well as doing a very strong program. A lot of things go into it. Fortunately, one of the things that's been made possible through the internet is that we're no longer limited to the 168 hours of the week schedule. That's been great, because now it's possible to include people in our program offerings even if I can't fit them on the schedule. So if somebody's not able to get onto the schedule, we still make it possible for them to do a podcast.
This makes me envision a paradoxical scenario where somebody submits a demo of a program, and it's listened to. Let's say this program sounds like nothing WFMU has ever put on. That also means, in a way, that it's something WFMU should put on? Something will sound maybe out of FMU's sensibility, but maybe, in a way because of what FMU's sensibility is like, that means it should be there?
You mentioned that one of your favorite programs was Seven Second Delay, a comedy show that I do with a comedian friend of mine, Andy Breckman. When Andy was trying to get on the air, we had a committee that made programming decisions. That experience made me realize that making artistic decisions my committee is not a good idea.
Andy's sense of humor was very different from the prevalent sense of humor at the station: very un-hip, kind of Borscht Belt, Hollywood, corny. But he was very funny; he was just coming from a completely different place. The five or so people on the committee just couldn't wrap their heads around it. It was too different, it was too uncool, too un-hip, and he really had a very hard time getting on the air. Fortunately he did get on the air, and now it's one of our most popular programs.
That gets to one of the problems: if you have programming decisions made by committee — and I think this gets to artistic decisions as well, and design decisions — I don't think that those type of decisions are best made by committee, for the reasons you're getting at. It's a lot easier for an individual to make a decision that something's completely new and different from anything that we've done, but it does have a place here and it's worth a shot.
This brings up something so important: FMU is a bit of a collective, and in some ways very much of one. It's also, of course, a media organization. I think of other media organizations whose output I've heard or watched — I won't name any names, but this happens a lot in national media — where it's founded with good intentions of variety and a wide range of experiences for the end user, but it ends up, just by the nature of organizations and the way they continue to exist, becoming a self-perpetuating bureaucracy with a house ideology that gets stronger and stronger with each passing year. The same people selecting are the ones that conform most to it.
What precautions do you and others in the management take to keep FMU — because it obviously hasn't become that — from going in the direction where it becomes more and more of a certain way of thinking, getting narrower and narrower into that?
What you're getting at is the fact that a lot of public radio stations, and community and college radio stations, have suffered from identity politics, which has been the downfall of many, many left-leaning organizations. Fortunately, I was aware of that really early on, when I first became general manager and program director. I was aware of the pitfalls of programming by ideology, meaning giving a block to the folk contingent and a block to the rock and roll contingent and a block to every different political ideology that you could come up with. It's not a good way to build a radio station. In fact, it's a really good way to destroy a radio station, and I saw that happen to a lot of stations. It still happens to a lot of stations.
Instead, WFMU has tried to come up with a coherent overall philosophy of freeform, trying to break down genres and trying to dedicate ourselves to the craft of radio that cuts across all that. At the same time, there are certain pitfalls I've tried to steer away from, such as alternating programming. I hate it when programs are alternating week to week. The ever-shortening time slot is another death blow for a lot of stations, where the slots go from four hours to three hours to two hours to one hour. I've tried to get away from that, so that most of our programs are still three hours.
One of the most difficult things has been to try to keep people from getting a death grip on a certain time slot, which is a really big problem with a lot of stations, and why a lot of stations get caught in ruts. Time slots do tend to become little fiefdoms, and it's very, very hard to give new people a shot when the entire program schedule is nailed down and programs develop an audience, oftentimes a very rabid, loyal audience. It's hard, then, to give new programmers the same chance the old programmers were given when they joined the station. We do have a somewhat painful way of dealing with that, but at least we have a way of dealing with it which most community, college, public radio stations don't. We call it the “enforced sabbatical.”
But I do try to balance it, because, as I said, radio's a very long-term form. You want to be able to give programmers a chance to be in a slot long enough that they can really connect with an audience and get in a groove and get something going in terms of affecting people and communicating with an audience. At the same time, you don't want to let them sit there for 20, 30 years and thereby eliminate any possibility that new programmers are going to get the same chance they had.
Breaking into warring fiefdoms seems, to my mind, to be the most common problem at a freeform, college, community — whatever you want to call it — type of station. To your mind, what else are the pitfalls specifically of these types of stations that are at the forefront of your brain as things to avoid at FMU?
A lot of stations put some type of political ideology ahead of almost anything else, and that's a big problem. One of the advantages we've had is that we're somewhat apolitical, or we can seem apolitical. Once you join the station and get to know people behind the scenes, you realize that, just as in most public, community, college stations, most people are left-leaning. Yet there's very little political programming on the air, and the political ideology is not first and foremost, whereas at a lot of stations, I think their goal is to affect political change. The politics takes priority over the music, and even worse, takes priority over the craft of radio. At WFMU, we've tried to put the craft of radio and music first. There is sometimes an implicit political outlook, and sometimes not. There are actually many conservative people on the air at WFMU, but you wouldn't know it to listen to their programming.
The point you've just made is something we can't emphasize enough in this conversation: the fact that politics, when taken to a certain extreme, can poison a radio station. I myself am not strongly political, but as you've said, a certain stripe tends to be attracted to community, college, freeform radio and all that.
Since you mention that there are, of course, the standard left-leaning people and some conservatives as well, is the relative apoliticality of FMU achieved more by a station culture where DJs are encouraged not to get super-political, or by a culture that simply attracts those not inclined to turn their shows into pulpits, or is it a bit of a feedback loop of both?
I guess that's the best way to describe it: a feedback loop of both. It's some kind of amazing self-regulatory mechanism that's developed over the decades, and I'm not quite sure how it works, but if somebody starts getting overtly political on the air, they invariably get positive feedback and negative feedback. Sometimes quite a bit of negative feedback, regardless of what their political view is; sometimes negative feedback from people who even agree with them politically. It's just not what people are coming to FMU for. They're not coming to FMU for the soapbox.
I want to talk about a couple other technological things that have been impressive at FMU. Number one seems to be a super-important plank of the strategy: every show gets archived. That's unusual. How did that come about?
That was a big priority of mine back in about 2000, when it was clear that it was technically possible. I just very much wanted to make our programming available on demand. We started experimenting with it in 2000, did a couple of shows, got the bugs worked out, and in the beginning of 2001 began doing it 24 hours a day.
It was controversial at the station. That was another case where, here was this technological innovation that I felt, as general manager, was very important. But it was met with both enthusiasm and resistance at the staff level. The resistance, again, was people having trouble breaking out of the radio mindset. When you're talking about making your programming available on demand, of course a lot of programmers' first thought is something along the lines of, “Wait a minute! Our listeners don't have to listen to me when I'm on the air? They can turn on another program while I'm doing my show? No! I don't want that at all!” I would have to say, “Yes, that is technically possible, but you also benefit from that, because when you're off the air, they can listen to your show. It goes both ways.”
But there was a lot of resistance to breaking down the time-space continuum and getting people away from this idea that our listeners have to listen to you and have no other option, unless they happen to be trading cassettes with other listeners, which actually used to happen quite a bit. What we found was that, when we did start archiving and making our programming available 24 hours a day, it didn't cut down our live audience; it actually increased it, because it brought more people to the site. It was just another feature that brought more listeners overall.
The complaint that archiving would mean that a certain DJ's program was not mandatory to listen to at the time of broadcast speaks to a somewhat disturbing mindset, that a DJ would believe that if they were on the air, there was some requirement that they be listened to, despite the fact that even in the earliest days of FMU, people could've turned to other media. Did they actually believe that someone was being forced to listen to them?
Kind of, in a way. I think that does get to a much larger problem, and it's still a problem that we're dealing with in different ways. Traditional media people, whether we're talking about radio or television or, to a lesser extent, print, have enjoyed quasi-local monopolies. The idea of the quasi-local monopoly is blown away by the internet. People who've been working in traditional media for decades really have a lot of trouble with that. The fact that there's so much choice now that pretty much everything is available all the time, from eight zillion different places at once.
I find, at WFMU, that I keep running into this problem, that there's certain resistance to things because people are used to having this monopoly. Perhaps WFMU never had a complete monopoly — we're certainly not the only radio station in the New York City/New Jersey area — but, for the type of music we were playing and the approach we were taking, we were really one of the only outlets out there. That's no longer the case. Now, for anything we're doing, there's a zillion places to find it. What we have to rest on is the overall site, the overall structure, all the different services we're putting out there. You can no longer count on people being more or less forced to endure what they don't like in order to be exposed to what they do like. Yet I still find some programmers, both at this station as well as many other radio stations, still kinda clinging to that idea.
Another example of the same thing that's manifested itself in the last couple of years is that we now have a chat board that our DJs can activate if they want to. It's up to each DJ. So as they do their show, they're typing in the name of the music and the artist and the album that they're playing on the air. Then there's a chat board that listeners can comment on or talk to each other. One thing that's been interesting is that a lot of our programmers are very disturbed by the fact that the listeners start talking to one another about things unrelated to the program, because they're used to being the oracle, the king or the queen at the top of the radio empire, and they want all discussion and all attention to be focused on them and their program. But that is not how it works. If you have a group of listeners who are listening to something in a room together, they are invariably going to start talking about other things, even while they're listening. And that's what's happening on this chat board. Some get a little disturbed and upset by that.
Your job has never been regarded by listeners and observers of WFMU as a particularly easy one, but it sounds as if the management of so many of those — let's call them — strong and idiosyncratic personalities has got to be one of the most difficult components. Not in a bad way, but that must be a unique challenge.
I guess it is. I think it's a lot easier at a station like WFMU than it would be at many other stations, because of the relative absence of identity politics.
You mentioned that there are now a zillion ways for listeners inclined to get freeform-type radio to listen to almost any freeform station in the country, and many in the world. Because of that, do you think this is the best time for a freeform listener, or is there some downside I'm not seeing? To me, it seems like this is the best era to listen freeform.
I'm not sure. That's a good question. In some ways, there's too many choices now that leave people a bit confounded and confused as to where to turn. There's a lot to be said for the heyday of underground radio in the United States, 1967 to 1971 or 1972, when every moderate-sized city in the country had several really interesting stations to listen to that had a local flavor, that had a distinct personality. The fact that there were fewer choices back then made some of those outlets more vibrant.
When I was saying earlier that everybody can choose from everything at any time, I wasn't necessarily talking about freeform radio. What we find now is that the music that we play is no longer so unique. In the early days of the internet, you could do a web search for an obscure artist, and oftentimes the first thing to pop up would be a WFMU playlist. That's not really the case anymore. Now if you type in a super-obscure artist, oftentimes the first thing that will pop up is a Last.fm playlist, or some other source for that same music that we previously had a quasi-monopoly on.
It's not necessarily that freeform radio is so ubiquitous and available; I think there's still a relative lack of good, interesting freeform radio. In fact, there's less of it now than there was at many points in the past. But music and musical information is much more readily available, especially for obscure music, than it's ever been. This definitely is the golden age for being able to search out musical history and musical nuggets and oddities and obscure stuff.
This is a subject you've talked about in many other venues, but how much of a threat is what I'll call the desperation of record labels, music companies and all that, and their litigiousness, to the future for freeform radio, FMU or otherwise?
It's hard to say. The royalty battles that you're alluding to with the RIAA and their enforcement arm SoundExchange, those have been raging for quite a while now. It's definitely a threat. I'm not sure how big of a threat it is. Those entities are much more interested in the super-large players: the Pandoras, the Last.fms, AOL Radio, the really super-large streaming media players and, of course, satellite radio. They're much more interested in getting a cut of the revenue from those entities than they are from public radio and noncommercial and community, college radio.
But unfortunately, the way the rules have been structured is extremely restrictive on stations. It's also structured in such a way that makes it cost prohibitive for stations to succeed. The most recent agreement that was struck between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and SoundExchange seems to be fairly good on the surface, until you realize that the whole thing falls apart as soon as any station develops any kind of significant audience. It seems to me to be kind of backwards to penalize the stations for success, especially when we're talking about the stations that have done such a great job, historically, breaking new acts and new artists that were ignored by the mainstream media.
But that does seem to be what's happening. The problem, I think, is not that stations are against paying royalties to artists and record labels. The problem has been that these entities have not been going for reasonable royalties. They're going for very, very cost prohibitive royalties. It would seem to me that what they're trying to do is reduce the number of people who are able to play in the new medium.
Isn't there an element there of not biting the hand that feeds them, but certainly of biting the hand that is handing out information about the music they would theoretically sell to listeners who might be willing to buy it, no?
Yeah, there's many different ways of looking at it. On one hand, my perspective has been that college, community, public radio has done a very excellent job, going back decades, of breaking all sorts of new bands and artists into the mainstream, as well as entire genres into the mainstream that never would have gotten there without them.
On the other hand, I can understand the music industry's frustration with not being able to get a penny out of the capitalization you saw during the dot-com mania era, when you saw a company like Audionet turn into Broadcast.com, and then Broadcast.com was purchased by Yahoo! for five billion dollars, and all it was was an aggregator of radio programming, and all those radio stations were doing was simply playing records. So here, five billion dollars was created, and the record industry and the artists and the composers didn't get a penny. If you look at that, yes, I understand why they're frustrated with that. But I think they've come down extremely hard, to the point that they are squashing what's in their long-term best interests.
Some observe that the march of technology — as far as ways for people to get media, ways for people to give media to others, to receive media from others, just to transfer things and to acquire things via the internet and whatever other means succeed it — seems to outpace the extent to which these channels are policeable. Is that a view you share, that technology goes a bit faster than companies can stamp down on them? The idea may be sort of techno-Utopian, that the channels users can get their media from will tend to win out in the end because they'll be one step ahead of the lawsuits.
That's true to a certain extent. There's no doubt that technology moves much faster than the industry or legal profession can possibly keep up with. There's no question about it. You stamp out Napster and immediately a dozen new Napsters, smaller ones, pop up in their place. You stamp out those, and then there's 50 even smaller ones. It does become a fairly impossible task to stamp out piracy, and I do think that is one of the problems that the music industry has suffered from. They were way too slow, and they were way too behind the curve to realize what was happening in order to really become a more significant player in the digital age.
There is one thing I wanted to make sure to get to: the very important factor of survival, as regards FMU. So many stations worry about this — I think every freeform station does, just because of the nature of the way they get their funds. How do we survive? Do we put in inline sponsorships? Do we have DJs asking for money? Do we remind people that they're freeloading if they're not giving us any money? Of course, there's the donation drive, but the strategy seems to be to give as much away for free as possible and just widen the audience and then that'll widen the potential supporters. Have I mischaracterized this at all?
No, you haven't. It's a pretty important lately, because there's a lot of talk, and a book called Free, and in fact this is what public and community radio have been doing for years: basically giving away the product for free — obviously anybody can turn on the radio and listen — and on a commercial-free station, there's no advertising to support it. What public radio has done is simply ask for donations, being fully aware that over 90 percent of the people listening are not going to give them money.
This has been the broadcast model for public radio for decades, going way back to the early sixties, when KRAB in Seattle initiated this concept, with great success. It's the same model that can flourish on the internet as well, and it's exactly what we're trying to do. We're trying to attract as many listeners as we can, putting as few hurdles in their way as possible. We don't require registration for just about anything we do, we don't insert pop-up ads, we don't insert audio messages before the stream starts playing. We just want to make the listening experience as easy as we possibly can so that we get the largest audience we possibly can, knowing that most of those people are never gonna give us a penny. But the more listeners we have, the more people will give us something when we ask. So it's a gift economy, or a charitable business model, depending on how you want to characterize it, but it does work.
All feedback positive, negative, neutral or otherwise welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.