You never know what you might hear when you tune in to WPKN.
Here’s performance artist Emma Speer on her show Emuse, doing readings and exploring our dreams. Here’s Carl J. Frano, laughing, bopping and singing along to his theme song “The In Crowd” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio as he gives us oldies from the ’50s and ’60s. Here’s “Mystery Girl” (name unknown) hosting her show Shut Up & Listen, in which she “connects with creatives making waves.” Here’s Howard Thompson telling us in his British accent the inside studio stories about rock bands he helped discover and promote from the ’60s to the ’80s (10,000 Maniacs, the Psychedelic Furs) as he plays their known and lesser-known songs. Here are Ralph Nader, Scott Harris and Amy Goodman filling us in on the latest injustices committed by our government. Here’s Chris Frantz, former drummer for the Talking Heads, enlivening his show by interviewing Cindy Wilson of the B52s. And now for something completely different, here’s some Tuvan throat singing. (It’s very guttural.)
This, folks, is free-form radio. It hasn’t died — not in Bridgeport, Connecticut!
Tune in and turn on. I’ve been listening to this station at 89.5 FM, which you can also now stream at WPKN.org, for decades. For years I had a bumper sticker on my car proclaiming: “WPKN — some music I like. Some music I don’t like.”
WPKN has been with us since 1963, when a small group of University of Bridgeport students set up shop in a pocket of a campus building. The call letters are derived from the Purple Knights Network, in honor of U.B.’s sports teams.
But now the station is in a new place. After dealing with its outmoded quarters for decades and withstanding multiple administration changes at U.B., WPKN has started broadcasting from its new home in downtown Bridgeport.
There’s another reason why these are heady times for this alternative outlet: last August, The New Yorker’s David Owen called WPKN “the greatest radio station in the world.” Owen noted that WPKN offers a sorely needed antidote for so many of us “who can be driven mad by stations that seem to play nothing but the same six songs by Aerosmith, Journey, Bob Seger and Yes.”
“That New Yorker story led to many donations,” says the station’s general manager, Steve di Costanzo. “It’s been an incredible bounce.’ ”
He proudly shows me around the new quarters at a time before most of the furniture and other fixtures were installed. But these spacious rooms, with brick walls and 12-foot ceilings, are a vast improvement over the cramped confines of U.B.’s student center. WPKN’s new home is on the second floor of 277 Fairfield Ave., adjacent to the Bijou Theatre. “The opportunity of being next to the Bijou helped us decide to move here,” di Costanzo says. “We can align ourselves with a performance space. We plan to do productions with the Bijou: music, movies, spoken word.”
The large room overlooking Fairfield Avenue has been named the Community Room; it symbolizes WPKN’s commitment to engage with the local audience while still reaching listeners around the world via the streaming platform.
Escorting me around the three studios, one of which will be devoted to letting local people do podcasts or after-school programs, di Costanzo says: “It’s incredible for us to have new gear! To see all this shiny new audio is transformational.”
Jim Motavalli, who has been a DJ at WPKN since 1973, joins us on the tour and is as excited as di Costanzo. (Full disclosure: Motavalli is a longtime friend of mine.) “This is a giant leap into the modern age,” Motavalli says. “This represents a wish list of what we’ve always wanted to do. It’s a dream realized.”
During his 48 years at the station, Motavalli notes, “Any changes were extremely incremental. We had the same peeling posters on the walls.”
I ask Motavalli, who is also the station’s publicity director: “Have you ever made a dime working here?” “No!” he answers with a hearty laugh. (No WPKN DJ is paid; all are volunteers.)
As for why Motavalli stays on: “I’m passionate about music. And I love the total freedom. Nobody has ever said to me: ‘You shouldn’t have played that song.’ ”
He adds, “I like exploring the new music that’s coming out, bringing it to the people.” He also interviews experts on topics such as climate change.
“We’re all music obsessives,” says di Costanzo, also a DJ as well as general manager. (He gets paid for that job.) “We’ve never sounded better. We’ve added more diversity, younger people.”
Valerie Richardson, program director and a DJ at WPKN for 31 years, says: “I want to bring people to the airwaves who are going to take radio in a new direction. I’m especially proud to have brought a lot of wonderful women to PKN.”
Speer, who began on air in 2019, says, “It’s a place of constant learning with a supportive community. Valerie and Steve say before my show, ‘Have fun!’ and I always do.”
Frano, who’s been doing his effervescent program since 1989, says he wants to bring joy to his listeners. “They’re fabulous! To think that someone who enjoys avant-garde music also tunes in to hits by Connie Francis and Ricky Nelson and the Ronettes and the Drifters!”
As a nonprofit enterprise, WPKN is listener supported. You won’t hear ads but you will hear fundraising appeals. “We have very loyal listeners,” Motavalli says. “They are chronic givers.”
Colette Rossignol, who chairs the WPKN board of directors and, of course, is also a DJ, credits Phil Kuchma, a community-minded developer who owns the Bijou and WPKN’s new headquarters, for making the move possible by offering a low rent. “He’s been incredibly kind. He knows this will be good for the community as a whole and good for the listening community.”
Remaining at just 10,000 watts, WPKN can be heard in western and north-central Connecticut, on Long Island and in other parts of New York state and Massachusetts in addition to its worldwide streaming. “It’s not just a local radio station,” Motavalli says. “There’s no other station like this. Free-form radio was fairly common in the ’60s. Owners figured the DJs knew how to program music better than a computer. But that fell away and tight playlists took over.”
WPKN will preserve DJ freedom while continuing to adapt. “We’re building a new vibe here,” Rossignol says. “It’s going to be exciting but it’s going to be different.”
How to listen: Tune to 89.5 FM, download the WPKNLive mobile app in the App Store or Google Play, or go to wpkn.org
Update (12/3/21): This article has been updated to clarify the parts of Connecticut where WPKN can be heard over the air.