Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Million Vinyl Discs Descend on Manhattan

THIS IS WHAT USUALLY happens with my blog ideas. I get them while washing the dishes, or in the shower, or loading a dishwasher, or performing some other mundane daily battle against household entropy, and when I finally sit down, they've skeedaddled under the couch . . . possibly because that is one of the few places I won't clean. Still, a broomhandle — or a broomhandled Mauser — can come in handy for flushing them out, and, having done so, I can now proceed.

This weekend I have devoted to volunteering at the mighty WFMU Record and CD Fair, which began last night and ends tomorrow. For those who haven't clicked on my radio links, WFMU is a listener-supported freeform station broadcasting on the air in the New York City and northern New Jersey area at 91.1, in the New Hope, NY region and the Catskills at 90.1 in its WXHD guise, and live to anyone with an Internet connection in a variety of formats. DJs on WFMU program their own shows without station-mandated playlists or corporate interference, and 100% of the funding for operating the station and paying its tiny staff comes from the listeners, via an annual fundraising marathon, station music benefits, and the Record Fair.

Even if the New York radio market wasn't a listener-hostile stew of least-common-denominator pop tripe and management contempt for the listener, WFMU's blend of diverse programming and personalities, plus its informational shows, would still soundly kick ass. The man who taught me my trade as a typesetter and editor turned me on to this station on September 14, 1992. Yes, I remember the date, for it was momentous. It was my first day of work, and Chris indicated the radio on his desk and said, "I listen to this weird college station. If it ever bugs you, let me know and I'll change the channel." Rather than being bugged, I was immediately hooked. I remember, from my early days as a listener, a polka record that actually was recorded somewhere other than Poland, and the first two movements of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana performed on banjo. Six months later, I first contributed to the Marathon.

It wasn't until 1994 that I began listening to WFMU outside work. It's not the strongest radio signal on the air, and pulling in the waves from my workplace and home required either one of the more advanced antennas, or a certain amount of aerial-manipulation kabuki as one strove to isolate the region of best reception. This was just before the Web was widely available, to say nothing of reliable streaming audio or home broadband connections. But the immersion of listening at home and while working led me inevitably to the next step: volunteering.

Online WFMU playlists don't reach far back into the 1990s, if at all, so the exact date in 1997 (if I even have the right year) would have to be confirmed by whoever could tell me what day Kristin Hersh played live on Andy Waltzer's show. WFMU was still housed at the Springdale Avenue location in East Orange, its previous owner, Upsala College, a few years dead, the move to Jersey City about a year away. The station relies on a small army of volunteers, some sporadic, a few permanent and helping daily in some way, to keep the freeform flag flying. In my case, I spent an entirely pleasant day processing Marathon credit card payments and cull duplicate entries from the contributor database. The staff was very friendly and happy to have a listener in and helping out. My first stint at the Marathon, taking phone pledges, soon followed, as did my first duty as a Record Fair volunteer.

These days, I help out in the Fair's A/V Lounge. At the Metropolitan Pavilion, there is a side room that for the first couple of fairs went unused. Then someone at the station had the brilliant idea of showing music-oriented video programming in there, with the added attraction of free coffee. The thought was that folks might want to take a break from the mass mosh that goes on at the record dealers' tables, grab a cup of free joe, and watch some video rarities or a documentary. We've had some excellent programming in the past: You Think You Really Know Me: The Gary Wilson Story, a documentary about Joe Broussard and his massive collection of vintage 78s, and the Ramones doc End of the Century. The lounge was packed for that last one.

The other major area I work is security. That sounds more ominous than it is. The dealers begin loading in or arriving as early as 7 a.m. (the doors open at 10 a.m.). I walk around the hall, making sure everyone has their dealer tag, and ensuring nobody goes rummaging through absent dealers' wares. As I was one of the first folks to respond to the request to get there so absurdly early on a weekend, I became one of the go-to guys for this particular volunteer shift.

I enjoy the contrast over the course of the day. When I begin, the hall is virtually empty, with tens of thousands of vinyl records, CDs, 8-tracks, and cassettes slumbering under draped bedsheets on the dealers' tables. I walk around as the dealers stream in, sometimes spotting colleagues they haven't seen since the last local record show, or even since the last WFMU Record Fair. Sometimes several dealers will swarm over one guy's table, burrowing through his stacks to find rarities to snag and offer from their own table to the public, or simply to complete a personal cache of wax. By 8:30, it's getting plenty populated with dealers. Tables are deployed, milk crates are brimming with offerings, TVs for displaying sale videos are running, and small home record players are sometimes poised on top of the racks, for discerning buyers to assess the worth of a find. By 10:30, you wouldn't recognize the place, as the public has poured in and is now digging lustily into the crates, waving singles at dealers, and slumping under the weight of a dozen new acquisitions. By this time, I have shifted to the A/V lounge, where these folks might revive themselves with fresh caffeine and Nabisco-based brain sugar.

I have another shift tomorrow, so I have to hit the hay soon. The only down side to the whole affair is that, with this occurring on a weekend, my work week is destined to go straight downhill after this. Nothing at work can compare with the satisfaction I get from helping out this fantastic radio station.

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