Given a choice between gummint and the private sector, I default to the free market 96% of the time. I defend Wal-Mart -- though I don't shop there. Three times I've bought and sold Philip Morris stock after shares spiked -- and I don't smoke. If Exxon Mobil rakes in "windfall profits," good for them -- even though I don't drink the stuff.
And yet, every week for 30 years I've suffered a cognitive disconnect with my walking, talking entrepreneurial self.
Since February 1975, I've worked at WFMU -- for free. It's fun. But there's labor involved, as well as time, effort, commitment, and sacrifice. In some ways, it entails a small measure of compromise. As a WFMU DJ, despite the "free" in "free-form," you can't do anything you damn well please. Ask Kenny G. We are a station of by-laws, which impose restrictions and penalties for violations. The paradox of WFMU policymaking is that most of those who make and enforce rules are bigger troublemakers than the rank and file.
But let's talk economics. How much money has a weekly radio program put directly in my pocket over the past three decades? Not enough to pay the rent from here to the next paragraph.
I love money. I'll work for it. Scheme for it. Conspire for it. Occasionally whore for it. I cheat the taxman. So do you. A drunk, wiping drool from his whiskers, once sputtered to me in a PATH station: "If you had all the money you paid in taxes back, you could have a really good time." The man looked and smelled like he was in the 90% bracket.
There's tremendous value in what WFMU offers, in the public service it provides. To operate, we must pay bills, which entails generating income -- but the phenomenon we've created is not about money, nor is there a cost-based calculus that determines our programming.
This leads to my guilt-tinged epiphany.
WFMU rebukes capitalism's conceit that labor is fueled by the profit motive.
The amount of hours each WFMU air staffer devotes to station-related work is incalculable. It's woven into the fabric of each DJ's life. Two or three hours on the air involves twice that amount spent preparing, thinking, planning, collecting, rejecting and second-guessing throughout the rest of the week. There are staff meetings, volunteer chores, production work, gear maintenance, non-reimbursable expenses, travel, and post-show clean-up. Adding to one's knowledge of music -- old, new, or both -- takes time. The bottom line is -- we're volunteers, operating without a sense that what we do is work. But Bollywood MP3s won't pay your AmEx, and Cablevision won't accept non-LP B-sides. So we have REAL day jobs. WFMU pays the psychic rent.
Each year at this time, for two weeks WFMU celebrates its little hybrid-economy miracle. We're happy capitalists, and beaming socialists. Earnest beggars teamed with creative thieves. We're pathetic hippies with little business sense trying to generate revenue for a common cause. And doing so with a backbeat. Except Bryce.
That's not to say all WFMU programs are created equal. Some really suck. (Every fourth sentence of this post contains an anagram for a colleague's program I hate.) But we offer something of a level playing field. Each DJ is accorded an opportunity to make a total fool of him-, her-, or Prof. Dum-Dum's-self on a weekly basis. And it's never about money. Tired of radio shows that only benefit the rich? WFMU has a tradition of programs that embody the democratic spirit: we’ve proven that -- regardless of economic status, race, age, ethnicity, or lack of ability -- any lower primate with an opposable thumb can do a radio show. Even this guy.
Yet despite these noble ideals, our childishly quixotic station must endure the reality pinch of utility bills and equipment repair; building upkeep, administrative costs, and insurance. Stuff breaks -- duct tape is the first recourse, but eventually we have to buy new stuff. And replenish the duct tape.
But we don't follow wasteful military procurement protocols. No $900 hacksaws. We haven't spent a nickel enlarging corridors despite the fact that some of our DJs can barely get their ever-expanding heads through the doors. That's a reality here, too: Small town market share, big city egos.
But wouldn't you -- as a listener, as a volunteer, as a donor -- rather belong to a radio community that, instead of Sean Hannity, has a program called "Inflatable Squirrel Carcass"? It's not masochism, in this case, to love a radio station that literally won't give you the time of day. Think of us as the broadcast equivalent of comfort food. You're in good company -- we've chased away all the normal people. Yet over one-third of our radio community still has a hinge!
At WFMU, being free-form don't mean Jack. If you hate what you hear, come back in 15 minutes, and you might like it. Five minutes later, we'll drive you away again. WFMU will always be a place where bad music happens to good people. But good people will always be willing to financially support such a freak circus. Thanks in advance for your patience, and for your pledge.