WPKN, the Bridgeport-based independent radio station broadcasting on 89.5 FM or online at wpkn.org, has won praise from The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation and countless loyal listeners over the years.
Now the beloved non-commercial radio station is the subject of a new documentary, ‘The World’s Greatest Radio Station’, which will premiere Saturday at 7 p.m. as part of the annual fundraiser. of the WPKN gala. The screening will take place at the Bijou Theater, in the same building at 275 Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport, where the station is now located.
Gala tickets are $150. Along with the screening, there will be tours of WPKN studios and food from nearby Miss Thelma’s Soul Food restaurant. There will be a Q&A after the screening with the documentary’s creator, Cob Carlson.
“The World’s Greatest Radio Station” can also be seen at the Bridgeport Film Festival in July. A trailer for the documentary can be viewed on vimeo.com.
The documentary features interviews with longtime DJs and former administrators, as well as footage of local musicians such as Daphne Lee Martin performing live in the studio and remarks from U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and others.
WPKN was founded as a student radio station at the University of Bridgeport in 1963 and received its first paid station manager in 1967. The station has always encouraged participation from outside the school, with full university support. In 1989, WPKN became independent from the University of Bridgeport. It is funded by listener donations, does not sell advertising time, and does not accept corporate sponsorships.
Decidedly non-traditional in its approach to programming, WPKN sets itself apart with deeply felt playlists that range from folk to jazz to rock to funk to hip-hop to “esotericism” and beyond, and also features shows in-depth news, talk and a variety of other sounds.
“The World’s Largest Radio Station” notes that DJ WPKN’s stable includes two Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members – Talking Heads drummer Chris Franz and Paul Butterfield Blues Band keyboardist Mark Naftalin – and several veterans. of the music industry. Some WPKN voices are particularly familiar because they have hosted shows for 30, 40 or 50 years.
Carlson says the documentary project came about rather by chance. “Five years ago I had to spend some time in Bridgeport, so I reconnected with the station. I was asked to make a film but I said no. Then I started teaching in Connecticut and it made more sense to do so.
Carlson says the documentary was largely a one-person operation because of COVID. Most of the interviews were done during the pandemic, but could be captured in a safe, distanced, and well-lit manner using the Bijou scene. Near the end, he says he was able to recruit students from Eastern Connecticut State University.
Carlson currently lives in the Boston area and teaches Digital Media Production at ECSU. He worked throughout Connecticut, including teaching at Martin Luther King Middle School and serving as president of the Hartford Food Co-op in the late 1970s. He first became involved with WPKN as a as a volunteer for their fundraisers in the 1980s. He says one of his first film projects was made on a loaner camera by Harry Minot, who was WPKN’s chief executive from 1978 to 2008 and still hosts a broadcast on the station.
It was a “no-budget project,” says Carlson, who inspired him to creatively dress the documentary with old black-and-white comedy film clips he found royalty-free in the archives. from the Library of Congress. The stock footage is appropriate to illustrate an institution that has been around for almost 60 years and celebrates a media format (terrestrial radio signals) that has been around since the turn of the 20th century. The images also dovetail nicely with photos of long-haired, hipster WPKN staff members from the 1960s.
Carlson also used footage shot for a never-before-made WPKN documentary project in the 1990s by Bryan Konefsky, an experimental artist from Bridgeport who moved to New Mexico. “He sent me tapes. He really saved my ass,” Carlson says.
Some of the biggest moments in WPKN’s recent history are toned down in the narrative. Last year, the station made a major move to the 275 Fairfield Avenue address, but that transition is talked about until the documentary’s closing credits sequence, which includes footage from the groundbreaking ceremony of the new studio.
“I wasn’t going to make the move at all,” Carlson says. He preferred to focus on the resort’s illustrious history, community spirit and independent attitude. He considers WPKN “an interesting cultural phenomenon”.
Another milestone that is underrated is an August 2021 story in The New Yorker magazine by David Owen, who praised WPKN and called its music library “an eerily dendrochronological record of music new and old.” over the past six decades or so”. A line from the article gave the documentary its title, “The World’s Greatest Radio Station”, but Owen’s work is not mentioned in the documentary, other than a brief image from this magazine page.
What “The World’s Greatest Radio Station” best captures are the personalities of the station’s on-air talent. Many bring very specific musical passions to their shows.
“The one thing that’s consistent about everyone’s show,” says current GM Steve DiConstanzo, “is that each of them thinks they have the best show at WPKN.”
Christopher Arnott can be reached at [email protected] .