Live from Atlantic Avenue: It’s sci-fi radio
For nearly 50 years, Jim Freund has hosted a two-hour radio show in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Every Thursday morning, between 1 and 3 a.m., science fiction and fantasy talk show “Hour of the Wolf” goes on air from 99.5 WBAI FM on Atlantic Avenue — as it has nearly every week since 1972.
The show is partly based on storytelling, with emerging and established authors of the genre reading from their works, but what keeps its long-term listeners coming back every week is the two-hour freeform conversation with the show’s spirited host, Jim Freund.
Freund, a 65-year-old Queens native long settled in Brooklyn, has hosted the show for almost half a century. He began in 1974, playing co-host to the author, radio journalist and Wiccan priestess Margot Adler who had created the show.
Freund had already worked a few years at WBAI, which he joined as a 13-year-old volunteer answering telephone calls. Today, listening to him chat with his guests on air is a ride through mid-to-late-20th-century counterculture New York, winding through science fiction, freedom of speech, underground movements, the early years of the internet and digital technology, and, more often than not, larger-than-life personalities.
It’s no surprise that Freund can name-drop all he wants. The archives of HOTW boast nearly every science-fiction and fantasy luminary we can think of: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Octavia E. Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Jackson, Stephen King, George Lucas, Terry Pratchett and Kurt Vonnegut, to name a few. Usually the guests are invited to the studio, though Freund occasionally records offsite at science-fiction conventions.
But the stories are even more intriguing than the names. When I meet up with Freund at midnight on a late-April Wednesday just before that night’s show at the Hollow Nickel, a bar a few blocks down from the studio, he is only too happy to share them.
“We ran the first U.S. broadcast of ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’” he says. The iconic radio play is officially recorded to have first aired on NPR in 1981, but Freund explains that BBC once had a broadcast collaboration with WBAI, which was transferred to NPR in the late 1970s.
During that transitional period, Douglas Adams brought over the transcription discs of the original BBC production of “Hitchhiker’s” to the WBAI studio. Freund ran an entirely unauthorized broadcast of 198 minutes on a single day.
Then there is the story of the landmark F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation Supreme Court ruling of 1978, sparked by the “Filthy Words” comedy routine performed by George Carlin on the station.
“We created the ‘watershed period’ in broadcasting,” Freund tells me with a laugh, referring to the time between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. when explicit words and themes can be aired. HOTW, in its current incarnation, exists entirely within the watershed period, but that wasn’t always the case.
These are the kinds of stories Freund tells both on air and off. Each episode of the show often meanders off its declared theme into a stream of conversation, true to the tradition of freeform radio, first popularized Bob Fass at WBAI in the 1960s.
It’s around 12:30 a.m. when we leave the Hollow Nickel and walk to the WBAI studio down a preternaturally quiet Atlantic Avenue.
As his guest of the week, the author Keith R.A. DeCandido, prepares to go live, Freund sets up his mobile phone for a video broadcast, which he shares in a Facebook group. He started doing this nearly two years ago, and now the Facebook Live broadcast has become a regular feature.
Listeners outside the New York area can participate with questions and comments, some of which Freund and his guests answer on air. As the scope of the show diversifies along with the science fiction genre itself, the Facebook broadcast often receives a wider listenership than the radio, including international listeners.
Past episodes of HOTW are archived on the WBAI website, but they are not easy to navigate. That’s partly because, being part of a not-for-profit radio station, it is difficult to share the show on commercial platforms. WBAI’s parent body Pacifica Foundation continues to struggle with finances — the expensive-to-maintain station hasn’t returned profits for more than a decade.
But Freund’s personal website, which proudly carries the disclaimer “This very old-fashioned page was last updated 9/22/16,” also looks like something from the last century. He brushes me off when I suggest the ease of creating a functional modern website on platforms like WordPress.
“A blog is not a website,” he said. “Hourofthewolf.com has existed since before the World Wide Web. I used to collaborate with Tim Berners-Lee and his team. I’d like to build a website where I can control every feature, but I don’t currently have the finances to do that.”
The tightness of finances is reflected everywhere. WBAI is building a new recording studio at its current location, for which it ran a funding drive through May.
HOTW has an average of 3,000 on-air listeners, according to Max Schmid, a broadcast engineer at WBAI. It’s not the most popular show on the station — but late night on Wednesdays is not the most popular slot, and it has so far avoided getting replaced.
Freund does have his small group of dedicated radio listeners. In 2010, when HOTW was briefly cancelled by WBAI, it stayed off the air for about 12 weeks before it was brought back by popular demand in its current Wednesday night slot.
There is one long-time listener, Freund tells me, who phones in to donate $50 every time the show goes on air. The donations won’t be enough forever, but for now, they keep the show running.
Even if radio stops being sustainable, Freund is skeptical of podcasts. HOTW is Freund’s personal project, but it is also very much a WBAI show: steeped in the history and culture of the station — as is Freund himself.
The “we” in his stories is all of WBAI, where he has been a volunteer, a board member and hosted other shows during his half-century-long association. He acknowledges that the growing popularity of podcasts has brought a new generation of listeners to radio, but adds, “What really excites me is the live aspect of radio. There are hundreds of science-fiction podcasts, but HOTW is the only radio show of its kind.”
The show is not Freund’s only contribution to the science-fiction-and-fantasy community of New York, and especially Brooklyn. He coordinates a monthly science-fiction reading event for The New York Review of Science Fiction, at the Brooklyn Commons Café adjacent to WBAI studio. Guests from the NYRSF reading—held on the first Tuesday of the month—often appear on HOTW the next night. Freund also edits the podcasts for the science fiction and fantasy magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare.
He has never earned money from hosting HOTW. As long as he receives enough support to continue broadcasting from the station, he intends to keep doing it. Despite its current financial struggles, the show is a New York cultural institution of its own. The recent film “Wolf Hour” by Alistair Banks Griffin makes a reference to the show, when the protagonist June, portrayed by Naomi Watts, listens to it obsessively in the summer of 1977.
As science-fiction culture goes through large-scale mainstreaming in our time, HOTW continues to adhere to its old-school counterculture charm, the kind of mood recreated in TV shows like “Stranger Things.” This sense of a small community of like-minded friends has both been a comfort and a curse for science-fiction culture in the 21st century.
While the science-fiction community struggles with issues — like some fans of “Star Wars” or “Doctor Who” refusing to embrace female protagonists, and marginalized creators constantly being targeted with large-scale hate campaigns — HOTW reminds us of the best that the genre could be.
These friendships were what drew most of us into science-fiction culture in the first place. In a small radio station in Brooklyn in the middle of a Wednesday night, that old world still comes alive.
Mimi Mondal is a speculative fiction writer and editor. A full list of her recent publications can be found here. She also holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Rutgers University, and looks forward to teaching creative writing. Mimi currently lives in New York. You can follow her work on Twitter.
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