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As ultra-bland media behemoths such as Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting grow like kudzu, sinking tendrils into all aspects of the nation’s airwaves, independent radio outposts continue to press on.
Instead of playing host to thinly veiled payola, Frankensteinian voice-tracking methods, banal focus-group research, and computerized playlists targeted to specific demographics, these independent stations feature DJs that actually get to choose their own records.
“The most important thing for citizens to remember about radio is that it’s a public resource that’s often taken for granted,” says Michael Bracy, co-founder of the Future of Music Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group and think tank. “In the last eight or 10 years, there’s been a complete revolution in the way radio stations are owned, and who owns them. These changes have had a devastating impact, as we see an increase in corporate ownership and a loss of local voices.”
Luckily, the denizens of the New York metropolitan area, unlike the more unfortunate residents of, say, Wyoming, are able to access a variety of interesting radio stations bubbling just below the homogeneity proffered by stations with names like “Kiss” and “Lite.” Surf the stations to the left of the dial—or on the Internet—and be greeted by a bewildering array of radio shows that are community-oriented, free-form, radical, experimental, or just plain wacky.
The crown jewel of New York independent radio is WFMU (91.1 FM, and online at wfmu.org), a fully listener-supported free-form radio station based in Jersey City. “On any given day, you can hear anything from Sun Ra to Turkish music to mariachis to experimental Japanese music to Frank Sinatra to local electro bands to dead air,” says Ken Freedman, WFMU’s station manager. Listen in good company—longtime fans of WFMU include the likes of Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Cindy Sherman, Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, and Sonic Youth. WFMU program director Brian Turner keeps abreast of a dizzying international smorgasbord of music, “whether it means writing to some kid who’s putting out his own CD-R’s in Japan or finding somebody who specializes in field recordings of Antarctic penguins,” he explains. If you like WFMU, you should also check out the spirited free-form radio station FREE 103.9 (103.9 FM, free103point9.org), broadcasting from Williamsburg.
WBAI PACIFICA RADIO (99.5 FM, wbai.org), a lightning rod for left-leaners and home to the popular show Democracy Now!, is currently scrambling to contend with a major budget shortfall while still somehow managing to broadcast at full blast. During the day, WBAI focuses mainly on politics and community affairs programming, but at night the station offers eclectic music picks, from punk to soul to rock ‘n’ roll en español.
WKCR (Columbia, 89.9 FM, wkcr.org), WBAR (Barnard, 87.9 FM, wbar.org), and WNYU (NYU, 89.1 FM, wnyu.org) are all college radio stations worth checking out. Jazz cats will dig WKCR’s solid, award-winning jazz programming, while WBAR and WNYU tend to be more, y’know, “indie.” An intriguing listen is City College’s WHCR (90.3 FM, whcr.org). Also known as “The Voice of Harlem,” the station serves as a community affairs radio station for the Harlem area, in addition to dishing up a good blend of hip-hop, reggae, r&b, Latin music, and jazz.
EAST VILLAGE RADIO (eastvillageradio.com), currently broadcasting from a mere single watt of power due to a few charming cease-and-desist letters from the FCC, is still available online and has plans to expand against all odds. Though still in its infancy, the station already boasts dozens of high-quality DJs around the clock.
With all of these choices, is there anything these stations won’t play? “You won’t hear much Shania Twain,” admits WFMU’s Turner.