[JPL] Looking for Music, but Not Œ Celebration, ¹ to Remember Castro? Put the Radio On

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February 24, 2008
OUR TOWNS
Looking for Music, but Not ŒCelebration,¹ to Remember Castro? Put the Radio
On

By PETER APPLEBOME
JERSEY CITY

Somewhere between Bobby Lee Trammell¹s ³Arkansas Twist² and Lula Reed and
Freddie King¹s ³Do the President Twist²; between the Elite¹s ³One Potato²
and its flip side, ³Two Potato²; between Slim Gaillard¹s ³Atomic Cocktail²
and spoken clips from ³Dragnet,² ³The Nutty Professor² and Phyllis Diller,
Dave the Spazz really pulled one out of his hat on Thursday night.

³I¹ve been waiting 50 years to play that one,² Dave, known outside the
studio as Dave Abramson, told his listeners on WFMU radio. That one was Jay
Chevalier¹s ³Castro Rock² from 1960:

Down in Cuba where they raise sugar cane

Got a brand new dance, it¹s a crazy thing

Named after a man by the name of Fidel

Just stand in one spot and shake like ... wellll

It¹s the Castro Rock, it¹s the Castro Rock

If you ever go to Cuba better learn to do the Castro Rock.

If any place was going to mark Fidel Castro¹s role in history by unearthing
Jay Chevalier, it figured to be WFMU-FM (91.1), which went on the air the
year before he came to power in 1959. The station, which is independent and
noncommercial, is celebrating its 50th birthday this week during its annual
as-brief-as-possible beg-athon, but if Mr. Castro has his spot in history,
remarkably, WFMU does too.

Since its beginning as the radio station at a now-defunct Lutheran college
in New Jersey, WFMU-FM has managed to carve out a niche for itself as
perhaps the longest-lived and most admired practitioner of free-form radio
programming. That now careers from Mr. Abramson¹s ³Music to Spazz By² to
³Put the Needle on the Record² by Billy Jam (mostly rap and hip-hop), to
Phuj Phactory with Ergo Phizmiz, described as ³bricolage, ballet, sound
tracks, antiquarian humor and vintage curios.²

Maybe the film director Jim Jarmusch is being hyperbolic when he proclaims,
in the introduction to a book of WFMU art, writing and ephemera, ³Hands
down, WFMU is the greatest radio station on the planet.²

But there¹s something of a history of modern communications in the survival
of a place that managed to mix yin and yang ‹ controlled chaos and business
acumen ‹ to thrive long after its original home, Upsala College, had gone
bankrupt.

³It¹s the little engine that could,² said Vin Scelsa, the longtime New York
radio figure now at WFUV-FM, who was there for the creation of WFMU¹s
current form as a student at Upsala in 1968. ³They¹ve always remained true
to their vision of letting the person on the air be the creator, weaving
whatever elements he or she wants to put together.²

For its first decade, WFMU operated much like the French club ‹ as a student
activity broadcasting lectures, Lutheran services and classical music or
jazz. Then, amid the ferment of the 1960s, Mr. Scelsa and his pals cooked up
a seamless mix of music, noise, talk and satire that lives to this day,
after an interregnum in 1969 when the staff walked out and Upsala shut the
place down for 10 months.

But it returned, and has since morphed into a world as varied as the one in
³The Lord of the Rings.² True fans, for instance, can endlessly ponder the
72-card set of WFMU Airwave Idols, in which they can find out each D.J.¹s
most embarrassing record owned, favorite movie and record playing when
virginity was lost (those last include Miles Davis¹s ³Kind of Blue,²
something by Lionel Richie, and ³If I Die, I Die,² by the Virgin Prunes).

WFMU is probably around for two reasons, both linked to Ken Freedman, its
general manager since 1985. First, when Upsala went bankrupt, the staff
members were prepared to buy the license, make the station independent and
later find a new permanent home in a building they bought in Jersey City.
The station has a $1.2 million budget, six full-time workers and about 200
volunteers, including almost all the D.J.¹s.

Second, and most important, WFMU, to use this year¹s political coinage,
embraced change in a big way. It put up its Web site (wfmu.org) in 1993,
before most of us knew what a Web site was. It began streaming its shows
full time in 1997. Instead of being a dinosaur medium eaten up by new
technology, it managed to create an international niche brand. So Mr.
Abramson occasionally works as a D.J. at weddings in places like Japan and
Tucson for people who listen to him on WFMU.

³They know I¹m not going to do ŒCelebration,¹ ² he said on Thursday at the
station.

Some of the sound snippets in Mr. Abramson¹s aural soup came from the 1959
science fiction movie ³Plan 9 From Outer Space.²

³Why is it so important that you want to contact the governments of our
Earth?²

³Because all you of Earth are idiots!²

Well, maybe not all earthlings, but it seems to some WFMUers that 50 years
of this is way too much fun to ask for.

³This is the kind of place that shouldn¹t exist but somehow does,² said Tom
Scharpling, whose show is modestly titled ³The Best Show on WFMU.²

³I keep thinking the bad guys will win in the end and take it all away, but
somehow it all seems to keep working.²

E-mail: peappl at nytimes.com


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