Why This Radio Station Just Put Charles Manson on a Billboard It Admits Is ‘Tasteless’

WFMU's crowdsourcing idea predictably goes awry

Why would anyone in their right mind put Charles Manson on a billboard? Good question. First, some context.

WFMU 91.1 FM holds a special place in the hearts of rabid music fans in the greater New York City area. Since 1958, the station in East Orange, N.J., has been broadcasting sound waves from the farthest reaches of the known world to your lucky ears. They use a “freeform” format, funded by listener donations, that allows DJs to play whatever their twisted hearts desire. Want to bone up on obscure honky-tonk, East African hip-hop or anti-fascist history? WFMU is the place for you.

Earlier this summer, the station turned to Kickstarter for a new way to engage its audience by encouraging fans to buy “a pony,” or a $5,000 ad, on Newark’s Route 280. The joke campaign described it as “WFMU’s first and last billboard,” noting that the station is “perpetually short on cash but long on ideas and innovations” and looking to find more listeners in the area while promoting its new morning show, WFMU Wake with Clay Pigeon.

Here’s the kicker: Donors could choose the ad’s theme by popular vote. In the Kickstarter video, station manager Ken Freedman described the project as an effort to “take the power of billboards away from The Man and give it back to you, the people.”

But things quickly went awry, as is the case with so many crowdsourced decisions. (Oh hello, Boaty McBoatface.)

In the video above, WFMU freely admits the Manson billboard is “confusing and tasteless.”

So how did Justin Bieber and Charles Manson end up side by side on one of the options for the billboard? That’s unclear, though the station has definitely played Manson’s music in the past and “passive aggressive” comedian and WFMU host Andy Breckman may have had something to do with it. Alternate themes for the sign included “We’re Talking About Your Dead Mother,” the Nixon campaign slogan “Now More Than Ever,” and the always-popular “As Unpopular as You Are.”

Unlike Bruce Springsteen, WFMU doesn’t always remind everyone that it was born in New Jersey. The wonders of the world wide web and the power of the podcast have allowed listeners everywhere to catch that dorky audiophile bug.

But it’s still hard out there for an ad-free radio station. As one suggested billboard put it, WFMU has been “broadcasting for 59 years and you’ve probably never listened,” because “we suck at marketing.”

That may well be true. But AdFreak still hopes, for the sake of music lovers everywhere, that paid advertising really does work in this case. Donate now and make the second billboard, “Assault, DUI, Tax Evasion, Polka,” happen!