Beloved indie radio station WFMU is back on the air, but running on fumes

Scott Williams at work. (Joe Pompeo)
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Scott Williams, a D.J. at the radio station WFMU, received some badly needed good news not long after he cued up Cabaret Voltaire's 1983 Factory Records single, "Yashar," around 3 p.m. Monday afternoon.

The email came from station manager Ken Freedman.

"We're back!" Williams said, not moving from his spot hunched over the D.J. console at the station's Jersey City headquarters, just a few blocks from the Hudson River.

Exactly one week earlier, superstorm Sandy had knocked out WFMU's transmitters in North Jersey and upstate New York. So for seven days, WFMU, the oldest and arguably most famous free-form independent radio station in the country, had only been able to broadcast via its website.

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"The 91.1fm transmitter is up and running," Freedman's email read. "Anybody on air from this point forward, you can and should say hello to a lot of listeners who haven't been able to listen for a week now."

Williams had shown up to do his weekly show looking like a shorter, thinner incarnation of Walter White from AMC's "Breaking Bad." Actually, Williams was in fact dressed up as Walter White, down to a freshly-BIC'd bald dome shaved the night before, in celebration of Halloween, which was now by executive order taking place in New Jersey after being cancelled on Oct. 31 due to Sandy fallout. He grabbed assistant station manager Liz Berg and they scuttled into a small adjacent room stacked with transmission equipment.

"We should have it in-house now," said Williams, powering up a stereo that was tuned to 91.1 FM, WFMU's main frequency. He hopped in place like a kid souped up on Milk Duds as music blared through the speakers. "Yay! First time in a week."

Getting its juice back was a bit of a return to normal for WFMU and the 200,000 listeners that Freedman says tune in each week on radios and online. But the station, like so many other people and places picking up the pieces in Sandy's aftermath, is hardly the same as it was before the storm.

It could have been a lot worse, of course. There was no major structural damage to WFMU's five-story brick building in Jersey City's Paulus Hook neighborhood (nearby swaths of which were utterly saturated), unlike the myriad homes and businesses reduced to rubble along the New York and New Jersey coastlines. All of the station's employees, D.J.s and volunteers survived the torrents, unlike the dozens who perished as a deadly tidal surge washed ashore on Staten Island.

But WFMU took a $250,000 hit as a result of the storm, said Freedman when Capital caught up with him later in the day—no small thing for an independent community radio facility overwhelmingly funded by listener support. It was another reminder that Sandy's impact will continue to be felt by the region's cultural institutions long after the last FEMA truck has left.

WFMU, which runs on an annual budget of $1.8 million, lost an estimated $150,000 from the cancellation last weekend of its annual record fair at Chelsea's Metropolitan Pavilion, said Freedman, who's been with the station since 1985. It was the first cancellation in the 20-year history of the three-day event, which provides a much-needed cash infusion to help sustain WFMU in the months heading into its annual March fund-raising drive. Beyond that, a brownout that occurred before most of Jersey City lost power altogether last Monday caused significant electrical damage to valuable studio equipment including audio processors, computers and the fire alarm system.

When the storm hit, according to Freedman, WFMU had $40,000 in the bank, and $25,000 of that total has since been drained in order to pay the bi-weekly salaries of its seven full-time employees, thus leaving the station in a precarious situation.

On Monday evening, Freedman, a tall and slim 53-year-old with sharp gray stubble and the type of thick black glasses known to frame the eyes of music nerds, explained what was at stake.

He was in the living room of his home in Hoboken, one of various New Jersey towns that Sandy had temporarily rendered a river. The basement of Freedman's three-story row house, which he shares with his wife, two teenage children, two dogs and a petite cat named Dr. Booty Grabber, was ruined by the three feet of water that accumulated as the storm ran its course, soaking some 1,800 records from Freedman's personal collection in the process. The building's heat and electricity had finally come back, but it was still drafty, so Freedman got the fireplace roaring and sank into a soft couch beside it.

"It's pretty bad," he said of WFMU's current financial outlook, laughing as if to soften the blow. "It's worse than it's ever been. If we can raise close to $250,000, we'll be O.K. But every bit we fall short of that is something I'm going to have to eliminate.”

WFMU is one of those rare analog gems that has survived and thrived amid the digitization of popular culture, not least of all the music industry. Founded in 1958, the station has latterly been known as a champion of regional underground music scenes, and its D.J.s could write the definitive encyclopedia of all the music of the last six decades that you are unlikely to be able to download from iTunes.

As other iconic New York-area stations have gone off the air, like 98.7 KISS FM did last April, the more underground WFMU has kept its audience clamoring by delivering a diverse and esoteric programming mix that you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else on the dial, from Terre T’s indie-centric “Cherry Blossom Clinic” to Tom Scharpling’s three-hour comedy call-in, “The Best Show.”

The overall repertoire, as the station's website puts it, includes everything from "flat-out uncategorizable strangeness to rock and roll, experimental music, 78 RPM Records, jazz, psychedelia, hip-hop, electronica, hand-cranked wax cylinders, punk rock, gospel, exotica, R&B, radio improvisation, cooking instructions, classic radio airchecks, found sound, dopey call-in shows, interviews with obscure radio personalities and notable science-world luminaries, spoken word collages, Andrew Lloyd Weber soundtracks in languages other than English as well as Country and western music."

It’s a mix that listeners are willing to pay for. The annual spring fundraising spree usually brings in about $1.2 million, said Freedman, with an additional $200,000 coming from a silent web-based pledge drive during the month of October.

The latter event has been extended for the time being and D.J.s have been plugging the need for additional funds on the air. They’ve raised about $40,000 since the storm, with contributions pouring in from as far away as England, Holland and Japan. But there’s still a long way to go, and the station will soon segue to a full-on post-Sandy pledge drive to try and close the gap. Other benefits, like a one-day record fair in Brooklyn, are being considered as well.

Freedman said he doesn’t want to have to cut back on existing or future projects, like a plan to turn the ground floor of WFMU’s five-story building into a live music venue—along the lines of WNYC’s Greene Space—after the real-estate agency that currently rents the downstairs storefront moves out in February.

But the immediate goal is simply to stay afloat.

“As long as we can raise enough money, we’re not in danger of shutting down,” said Freedman.

In the meantime, the WFMU crew has been scrambling to keep the station running as smoothly as possible.

During the night of the storm, two D.J.s hunkered down in the blackened studio, poking their heads outside long enough to watch the Hudson’s waters creep within 50 feet of WFMU's doorstep. Miraculously, the basement remained bone dry, sparing tens of thousands of records that would potentially have been drenched if things had turned out differently.

On Monday afternoon, Berg, the assistant station manager, had her hands full with calls and emails about fundraising and equipment repairs. But she said that even amid all of the chaos, morale had never dimmed.

“Everybody was just really excited that we could come back so quickly after the storm,” she said. “It speaks to the scrappiness of WFMU that we can sort of throw some duct tape on a bad situation and keep moving ahead.”