Broad Casting

Broad Casting

Disc jockey Lisa Sahulka is spinning up Miles Davis and Keb’ Mo’ as I pull into the parking lot at the University of Bridgeport. I turn off the car radio and climb the back stairs of the John J. Cox Student Center. Little gold arrows point the way to the offices of a 56-year-old college-turned-community radio station, broadcasting 24/7 at 89.5 FM. In the studio—the last of a string of connected rooms—jazz plays on while, up front, I sit down to talk with general manager Steve di Costanzo and operations manager Rod Richardson about the labor of love that is WPKN.

The lemon yellow walls of di Costanzo’s office are covered floor-to-ceiling with music posters, black-and-white concert photos and miscellaneous swag. The decor studiowide is best described as 1970s Basement, and authentically so. A decades-old sound board sits in a storage closet, but a cassette deck is still in working order. The broadcast desk was sawed off at one point to create a pass-through. Nobody minds the grit. What they care about is what lines the walls: a warren of shelving just wide enough to navigate, holding the station’s collection of 44,000 LPs, 75,000 CDs and a bookcase full of 45s for good measure. The effect is staggering—nearly literally so, since the weight of the collection forced the station to store other recordings offsite.

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The albums are organized not by genre or artist but in order of acquisition, creating what di Costanzo calls “time capsules” of what seemed important at any given time. He and Richardson start pulling sleeves off the shelves. A 1972 section yields an album called Garbage by Bill Steele, its title track revealed later by an online search to be “one of the environmental movement’s anthems.” A shelf from 1978 brings to light Garland Jeffreys, Bryn Haworth, Dirk Hamilton. Among the 45s: singles by The Four Tops, Cher, James Taylor.

This salmagundi is a feast for the ears, which is exactly why WPKN listeners keep tuning into the low end of the dial. More than 150 hosts, or “programmers,” all of them volunteers, offer 100 music shows and 50 talk-based programs, give or take, on a schedule that can rollercoaster from the blues to “great truck drivin’ songs” to a talk show about the New Haven arts scene in the space of six hours. Some of the station’s programmers have a music pedigree, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Chris Frantz (Tom Tom Club, Talking Heads) and blues pianist Mark Naftalin, a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band who’s recorded with the likes of Chuck Berry, Etta James and John Lee Hooker. Others are former music industry executives.

But most hail from entirely different professions: an orthodontist, a lawyer, social workers, artists and high school teachers. They come from Jamaica, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and your own neighborhood. A couple of them travel from Long Island once a week to do their shows. They range in age from their early 20s to their 80s. The record for longest tenure—approaching 50 years—goes to Bill and Joan Nolan, who play rhythm and blues tracks on Sunday nights.

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The “community” in community radio is one thing that continues to help WPKN stand out from the crowd, di Costanzo says. It’s hard for bigger stations to “drill down” into their cities, he says, whereas WPKN’s programmers are all “ambassadors” in their own hometowns, including New Haven. Despite being headquartered in Bridgeport, the station is frequently on the ground in the Elm City, supporting and working with the likes of the Institute Library, Cafe Nine, Lyric Hall, Firehouse 12, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas and Citywide Open Studios, for which they broadcast live from Erector Square. Later this month, WPKN will bring its popular Music Mash record fair fundraiser to the United Church on the Green’s parish house on Temple Street, where, for a $7 cover, record lovers can browse and buy from the collections of 30 dealers selling hard-to-find recordings and collectibles. The family-friendly scene with DJs and live music will wrap with an after party at The State House.

The PKN in the station’s name hearkens back to its days as the college radio station of UB, giving a nod to the university’s sports teams, the Purple Knights. The Purple Knights Network first hit the airwaves in 1963 at 88.1 on the FM dial, along with an AM signal for the university. When UB fell on financial hard times in 1989, it eliminated the station’s funding. But rather than sell the broadcasting license, it agreed to allow WPKN to stay if it could fund itself. The first fundraising drive was a “stunning success,” Richardson says, and the station was reborn as community radio. In 1992 its license was transferred to WPKN Inc.

Operating on a shoestring budget of $350,000, the station relies on listener support, fundraisers, grants and underwriting, a relatively recent concession to a tough economy. A second studio was renovated and upgraded with funding help from the Newman’s Own Foundation, but broadcasts still pretty much happen the old-fashioned way, without automation. If a DJ needs a bathroom break, they just have to play a long cut.

Humble as its funding and infrastructure may be, WPKN offers valuable programming, Richardson believes—a relief from what he calls the “monoculture” of satellite radio. That 21st-century radio model, di Costanzo agrees, is “just music, music, music. No context, no back talk… We have this real layer of authenticity.”

As an affiliate of Pacifica, a broadcasting network of like-minded stations, WPKN carries a handful of syndicated programs—Democracy Now!, This Way Out, Writer’s Voice. But most of its programming is homegrown, including di Costanzo’s show Radio Base Camp and Richardson’s Radio Nothing. (As of that morning, he’d completed 3,129 shows, but who’s counting?) And while much of what’s played on the music side of PKN’s programming may be older, from the classic to the quirky, di Costanzo says you’ll hear plenty of new music, too, asserting an obligation “to make sure that we have our ear to the ground and play new bands, new genres, new styles of music.”

A long jazz jam is the soundtrack of my journey on I-95 back to New Haven. It isn’t until close to home that I hear DJ Sahulka’s voice again, listing the tracks, and I realize it’s true: I haven’t heard a human voice talking to me about the music I’m listening to in a long time. “Real People, Real Radio” is the WPKN tag line. It’s nice to hear them.

WPKN (89.5 FM)
244 University Ave, Bridgeport (map)
(203) 331-9756

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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