In 1961, Federal Communications Commission chair Newton Minow called television a “vast wasteland.”
Sixty years later, the same could be said about radio.
Up and down the FM dial, there are a few tired formats: pop, classic rock, rap. NPR spices things up a bit — though every affiliate sounds similar — while on AM talk radio, angry citizens and overworked sports fans ramble inarticulately.
Which is why WPKN is such a breath of fresh air.
The 10,000-watt station — broadcasting at 89.5 FM, and streaming online at WPKN.org — offers 1.5 million listeners in Connecticut and Long Island an eclectic mix of live and recorded music, news, public affairs, spoken word, arts and culture, and other free-form programming.
It’s listener-supported, commercial-free, community-driven radio. Just this week, the New Yorker magazine called it “the greatest radio station in the world..”
Though based in Bridgeport, the station has flourished thanks to many Westporters.
Some — like Richard Epstein — have been there almost since its founding in 1963. A bassoonist and choir member in Staples High School’s Class of 1968, he discovered the joys of alternative radio at Brown University’s WBRU. Starting with a 4-hour show Sunday nights, he played everything from “Blonde on Blonde” to Babatunde Olatunji.
Then — because making a living as a musician or radio host was not the most secure career path — he followed his father’s footsteps.
He became a Westport dentist.
But Dr. Epstein was not through with music. Or radio.
He joined the Norwalk Symphony and a chamber group, and coordinated classical and jazz events for the Westport Arts Center.
In 1977, he started playing classical music on WPKN.
For the past 44 years, “Sometimes Classical” has been a Wednesday staple. True to its name — and his radio background — Epstein stretches normal boundaries. A show could include Frank Zappa’s variations on Igor Stravinsky, Bach played by a jazz trio, or an interview with Wynton Marsalis.
Several years ago, when the station’s transmitter was failing, Epstein led a fundraising campaign. It raised $75,000 — the biggest fundraiser to date.
Now WPKN is raising nearly 3 times as much. Once again, Epstein is in charge.
For nearly 60 years, the station has been located at the University of Bridgeport. It started as a college station (the call letters refer to the Purple Knights, the school’s mascot).
In the early 1990s, when an affiliate of the Unification Church (aka “Moonies”) took over the school, a group of WPKN aficionados bought the radio station license from UB. They established it as a non-profit, and paid rent for their studios.
In 2019 — after years of peaceful co-existence — the school said it wanted to renegotiate the lease. A committee began searching for new space.
They looked at dozens of places, all over the area. They did not have to remain in Bridgeport.
But they found a perfect site: right above the Bijou Theater, downtown.
“It’s the cultural hub of the city,” Epstein explains. “There’s the theater, restaurants, arts spaces and co-working spots. The landlord (Phil Kuchma) was gung-ho about having us.”
They signed a 25-year lease. They look forward to being more visible, accessible and technically capable.
They’re adding a third studio, with opportunities for community members to participate in educational and cultural programs.
It will cost $400,000 to move. Epstein pledged some funds. Fairfield County’s Community Foundation has been a great help. An anonymous donor kicked in $40,000. Donations have come from all over; thanks to the internet, WPKN can be heard around the globe.
The campaign runs through the end of the year. It’s about 3/4 of the way to the goal.
“When I was a kid, I’d go to the Record Hunter. Jay Flaxman would turn me on to new music,” Epstein says. “Sally White did the same,” first at Klein’s, then at her own Sally’s Place.
“There are no more record stores. Radio today is so homogeneous. There are very few places where you can be exposed to Zydeco, African music, real jazz. The landscape is so narrow. PKN offers a fiercely independent, real alternative for music and news.”
The station also publicizes local events and community organizations, providing platforms that no longer exist on radio or in print media.
Epstein is just one Westport WPKN supporter. The list is long. Staples graduate Jim Motavalli mixes up long, carefully arranged sets in multiple genres (including live performances), plus interviews with musicians, authors and others.
Former Paul Butterfield Blues Band member Mark Naftalin, writer Ina Chadwick, musician Robin Batteau and Martha Nachman are on the air. So is Chris Frantz of the Talking Heads, who lives a few yards away in Fairfield, and Eric Cocks of Weston.
Mike Zito, who taught radio production for years at Staples High School, is a PKN alum.
Epstein’s own show has local roots. In 1977 he took over from fellow Westporters Kathy Geisler.
He’s been heard on WPKN ever since. Thanks to his hard work — and the generosity of loyal listeners — he and his very diverse group of volunteers will continue to keep 89.5 anything but a “vast wasteland.”
(For more information on WPKN — and to donate — click here.)