WFMU commenced broadcasting in April 1958, licensed to Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey. Although originally a student-staffed and faculty-administered college radio operation, by the 1980s most of the station's staff had no affiliation with the college, and management, though hired by the college, had little involvement with the academic community. Shortly before Upsala's bankruptcy filing and closure on May 31, 1995, a group of station executives, personnel, and supporters formed Auricle Communications and bought the license from the college, making it a fully independent radio station. In August 1998 the station's studios and offices were relocated to a Jersey City facility purchased with listener donations.
The station's transmitter is situated atop the First Watchung Mountain in West Orange, New Jersey. Due to the crowded state of the noncommercial end of the FM dial in the northeastern United States, as well as the need to protect WNYE at nearby 91.5, the station operates at a relatively modest 1,250 watts. Still, it easily covers most of northern New Jersey, with at least grade B coverage across the Hudson in New York City. WFMU has a repeater station, WMFU (formerly WXHD), in Mount Hope, New York, broadcasting at 90.1 MHz in the Hudson Valley, the Lower Catskills, western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. In January 2013, WFMU opened an additional repeater station in New City, New York, broadcasting at 91.9 MHz covering Rockland County.
WFMU has a stated commitment to unstructured-format broadcasting. All programming is created by each individual air personality, and is not restricted by any type of station-wide playlist or rotation schedule. Experimentation, spontaneity and humor are among the station's most frequently noted distinguishing traits. Unlike most commercial broadcasting and non-commercial educational radio stations, WFMU does not offer regularly scheduled news, weather, traffic, sports, or financial information. WFMU does not belong to any existing public radio network, and nearly 100% of its programming originates at the radio station.
Funding and operations
WFMU's annual operating budget is approximately US$2,100,000, and is funded primarily by its listeners through an annual 15-day on-air fundraising marathon, as well as a Fall record fair and other events. WFMU is unusual in its philosophy that on-air fundraising drives only take place once a year, unlike most other public and listener supported stations which have multiple pledge drives throughout the year. WFMU's air staff are unpaid volunteers, some of whom have been with the station since the 1970s and 1980s. In a 1990 interview, WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman stated, "we've always rejected underwriting on principle." The station rejects any type of direct underwriting from governmental institutions or from for-profit corporations. Historically, WFMU has occasionally accepted financial support from private foundations, although such support has never funded WFMU's general operations. In 2006 the station accepted a $400,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was administering The New York State Music Fund for a special project (see below).
WFMU hosts a wide range of programming, from all-inclusive music broadcasts (with a focus on alternative rock) to entertainment programming like radio improv and cooking programs to curiosities like hand-cranked wax cylinders and classic radio airchecks. WFMU's Music Director is Brian Turner.
Recognition and cultural influence
WFMU was named "Best Radio Station in the Country" by Rolling Stone magazine for four consecutive years (1991-1994) and has also been dubbed the best radio station in either NYC or the US by The Village Voice, New York Press, and CMJ, among others. The station also won three awards ("Best Specialty Programming", "Most Eclectic Programming", and "Music Director Most Likely To Never Sell Out") at the 2006 CMJ College Radio Awards.
A New York Times magazine feature article called WFMU "a station whose name has become like a secret handshake among a certain tastemaking cognoscenti", and cites Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and playwright Eric Bogosian as avowed fans of the station.
Other notable fans and supporters of WFMU include Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum, Kurt Cobain, screenwriter/director Ethan Coen, MAKE magazine editor-in-chief and Boing Boing co-founder Mark Frauenfelder, Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, musician Suzanne Vega, artist Cindy Sherman, indie rock superstar Ted Leo, Sonic Youth guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, comic book artist and writer Evan Dorkin, film director, producer and actor Kevin Smith, musician Moby, The Cars vocalist/record producer Ric Ocasek, musician Max Tundra, television talk-show host Conan O'Brien, and Blixa Bargeld, singer of the German band Einsturzende Neubauten.
Although WFMU has traditionally eschewed news-oriented programming, the station volunteered its airwaves in September 2001 to become the temporary home in the New York area for Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! program (which was renamed Democracy Now! In Exile), after it was "banished" from WBAI and the Pacifica Radio Network during a highly controversial "coup" of WBAI's station management by Pacifica's national Board of Directors.
In a similar example of its support of community broadcasting, WFMU began voluntarily hosting the webcast of legendary New Orleans jazz music station, WWOZ, when its studio and transmitter were destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. WFMU also took online donations on behalf of WWOZ, raising over $300,000 towards the rebuilding of the station.
WFMU also received worldwide attention in May 2001, when national and international media outlets covered DJ Glen Jones's successful attempt to break the Guinness World Record for longest consecutive radio broadcast, staying on the air a full 100 hours, 41 seconds.
A famous 1990 telephone performance on WFMU by Daniel Johnston was the primary inspiration for filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig to create the documentary film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The film won the award for Best Documentary Director at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
The late Jeff Buckley made his radio debut on WFMU in late 1991 and returned numerous times before signing with Columbia Records and achieving international stardom.
In 2014-2015, a documentary on WFMU, titled Sex and Broadcasting: A Film About WFMU was completed and began a tour of American Film Festivals. The film was funded, in part, due to a successful Kickstarter campaign with the original title of Freeform or Death: A Documentary About WFMU.
Free Music Archive
In 2006, WFMU was awarded a grant from the New York State Music Fund, a program created by the Office of the New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to make contemporary music of all genres more available and accessible to diverse audiences in New York State. WFMU's grant included funds to create a podsafe online music library known as The Free Music Archive, which launched on April 10, 2009. The website describes itself as "a social music website built around a curated library of free, legal audio." Currently it hosts over 45,000 podsafe songs for free for streaming or download, many under Creative Commons licenses.The Fund grew out of settlements with major recording companies investigated for violating state and federal laws prohibiting "pay for play" (payola). Grant winners were chosen on criteria that included, among other things, their record of broadening awareness of artists, genres or styles with limited access to commercial broadcast or other mass distribution vehicles.