Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Phone Slave for a Day, WFMU-Style

MY IMMUNE SYSTEM HAS granted me some writing time. Whether due to changing up my gym routine, not getting enough sleep, or being cheek by jowl with pathogen-bearing volunteers in the phone room at the 2006 WFMU Marathon, I picked up some sort of low-grade cold. I woke up feeling battered — not feverish, but run down. Going to work, what with the trains and the idiots at the job who never take a sick day, would only expose me to something worse. So I bailed. I will reassess tomorrow, but I suspect one day at home might be just the tonic.

A cold is a small price to pay for assisting the greatest radio station on the air. Though the annual Record Fair draws in some operating capital, it is through the two-week Marathon that WFMU earns the bulk of the money it uses to stay on the air and pay its skeleton staff. WFMU accepts no governmental or corporate grant money, airs no commercials, and runs no ads on its website or its fantastic blog. WFMU is one of the few remaining independent, listener-supported stations on the American radio dial. In this age of acquisition and consolidation, when scores of frequencies have been sold to Clear Channel, Christian broadcasters, and right-wing hate factories, WFMU is a wan, glimmering reminder of the potential radio had way back in the Twenties and Thirties to be an enriching and educating force even as it entertained.

What other radio station is going to allow its listeners to come down, get on the phone bank, and take calls from fellow fanatics pledging money to keep such a wonderful institution on the air? How many stations can boast that most of their on-air talent got their start as listeners to the station, then as volunteers, and finally as fill-in, late-night DJs, sending their music collections and personalities emanating across the slumbering expanses of New Jersey and New York City? These, dear readers, are the DJs you hear on the station today. Passionate, maybe even obsessive, but always well informed about their music and the people who made it. When you listen, you hear actual people, not soulless playlists and the cheap stink of payola.

Yesterday, I was privileged to work the phones for a full day. WFMU's building is in the suddenly fashionable Paulus Hook district of Jersey City, hard by Exchange Place and the looming, Isengard-like bulk of the Goldman Sachs tower. This used to be the backyard of the old Colgate factory, with its distinctive giant clock facing lower Manhattan, and backed by old shipping and industry buildings. Most of these are now either gone or resurgent as condo complexes. WFMU, originally based in East Orange near the now-dead Upsala College, moved down to Jersey City in August 1998, in the midst of a great wave of residential and commercial construction. It was a time of revolution for WFMU as well, for this was when it was taking its first baby steps into Internet broadcasting, a prescient move that would expand the reach of this humble 1400-watt station across the globe. (I remember the first time I wrote a pledge card for someone in Sacramento, and then for a Scandinavian listener, and feeling amazed and awed.)

The move my company made to Chelsea has vastly simplified my weekday access to the WFMU building. Previously, I would have to drive down, or buy a round-trip train ticket and then a light-rail pass to navigate from the Hoboken terminal to Montgomery Street. Now, armed with a monthly train ticket, I can just hop on the train and use the pass for free light-rail travel. (Of course, the light rail has to cooperate; for the morning trip, we were delayed while they cleared out a broken-down train. Still works better than the Springfield monorail. Or the Vegas one.) It felt nice to get into Hoboken, and then make a right toward the light-rail station instead of the left down to the PATH tubes leading to work. (Ironically, at the time I thought it felt like a sick day, seeing the outside world during daytime on a weekday while watching folks go to work or school. Funny, so does today!)

Being at WFMU during Marathon time, or in the weeks just before or after, is like arriving at headquarters for a third-party political group or an underground newspaper. Volunteers stuffing envelopes, packing prizes, cooking food for the troops, or answering phones. In the broadcast room, a DJ and his co-host keep the money flowing by playing favorites from the DJ's show, offering giveaways for pledges, spinning tracks from the DJ premium (most DJs offer a mix CD of the sort of music he or she plays, or even the live acts that have performed on his or her show, for a certain pledge level), and thanking those folks who have called or emailed with their financial support. And through it all, you will see a station staff member checking in, bringing in new volunteers at the end of a shift, monitoring the ever-growing pledge total, or putting out some fire. (Again, in what capacity can you ever imagine meeting the manager of your big-city Top 40 station, to say nothing of getting him or her to reply to your email?) Everyone's in it together, pulling this wonderful radio station over a mountain of financial need, like the steamship in Fitzcarraldo.

At this point, there are only a few days left before the end of the Marathon, at which point individual DJ solicitation gives way to the Hoof & Mouth Sinphonia. In an orgiastic and booze-soaked release of two weeks' worth of financial stress, musically capable and vocally incapable DJs serenade the final hours of the Marathon on Sunday night by taking turns in front of the mike and singing a favorite or ironic song. If all goes well, the fundraising goal will be met sometime in its midst, and it will become a real celebration. Past Hoof & Mouth hits are being posted on the aforementioned WFMU blog. Not unlike the Oscars or the Super Bowl, it makes for a long Sunday night of entertainment, though unlike the Super Bowl, every bet you put down on this one is a winner, and unlike the Oscars, the room doesn't have to be specially reinforced to hold 2,000 raging egos.

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