BELLOWS FALLS — “Wreck Your Own Adventure” with Wendy del Formaggio, a radio show recorded locally for a streaming channel hosted by the highly regarded New Jersey-based station WFMU, takes listeners all over the musical spectrum but it’s far from aimless.
Wendy Levy of Bellows Falls considers her shows performances and a form of creative expression. She said music or spoken words played on air share “connective tissue.”
“It’s like improvisational jazz,” she said, as she starts collecting ideas and music before the show, then picks out what to play as she goes along. She only ever knows what she’s going to put on a song or two ahead of time.
In the late 1990s, Levy helped start the Radio Free Brattleboro pirate radio station. She said she was living in New York City when it got shut down by the Federal Communications Commission and she had been on the air at the station for about five years.
When she returned to the community in 2012, Levy had a show at WVEW in Brattleboro. She said the low-powered FM station started during a time when she moved away. Later, she bounced back and forth between WVEW and WOOL/Black Sheep Radio in Bellows Falls.
Coming up against the limits of community radio, Levy said she started to feel frustrated. She wanted a different environment with more technical support, more access to new music and potentially more listeners, so she contacted Doug Schulkind, who runs an internet-only stream at WMFU known as Give the Drummer Radio, in November.
Levy has been affiliated with the New Jersey freeform station for a long time and enjoyed the programming on the stream. She also knew that most of the people with shows on the stream were doing them from home.
After sending Schulkind recordings of her old shows, Levy said, she was told her style would fit in on the stream.
“Listening to ‘Wreck Your Own Adventure’ is like hanging out with your best friend’s cooler older sister as she dispenses unvarnished observations of herself and the world to the soundtrack of her amazing record collection,” Schulkind said.
Approved for a slot, Levy began focusing on building a studio in her home. The project took longer than she thought.
Her friend Glenn Luttman, a sound guy, walked her through some troubleshooting via FaceTime calls. Irene Trudell, an engineer from WMFU, also helped out over Zoom teleconferencing.
“The bane of my existence for a long time was cables,” she said. “Every time I thought I had enough, I needed more. I never had so many cables in my life.”
Levy said she already had other skills needed for the gig. She can conduct outreach, edit recordings, and make promotional spots and underwriting spots. She has trained new DJs on how to use consoles.
Her first show streamed on Give the Drummer Radio on March 27. It happens live from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays and remains available to listen to later at wfmu.org/playlists/shows/127193.
Levy has a mixer from which all her sound sources come through. She uses two CD players, a turntable, digital files on a laptop and a microphone.
Friend in radio
In her early teens, Levy happened to come across WMFU. She lived in Dover in Morris County in northern New Jersey, and loved music and radio ever since she was a child.
“It’s a big part of my family,” she said, recounting memories of listening to music in the car with her grandmother and in different settings with her family. “We got all the New York stations.”
Levy, 49, called the late ‘70s and ‘80s a “great time for radio because the media consolidation hadn’t happened yet.”
“At that time,” she said, “commercial radio was pretty exciting. DJs could do shows live on commercial radio, which isn’t happening so often now.”
Levy enjoyed listening to DJs talk about the music and their experiences. As a lonely child, she found she always had a friend in radio.
“It told me that there’s something else going on out there that’s better and different than what I’m experiencing now,” she said. “I just had to go out and find it. It was sort of a little beacon.”
When she grew bored of commercial radio, she started going “left of the dial” and hearing “really weird stuff.” She said she found it “fascinating and more exciting than commercial radio.”
The first song she remembers hearing on WMFU was “Billy the Mountain” by Frank Zappa. She was about 12 or 13 years old.
“My mind was blown,” she said. “Not only did this music exist because it was so different than what I knew, someone was playing it on the radio. Someone was allowed to do that.”
A year or less later, Levy went to New York City with a friend and happened upon an old WMFU program guide at a record store. She found not only music but underground cartoonists.
At 18, Levy started volunteering at WMFU. She said the station is primarily run by volunteers and none of the radio program hosts get paid. She would, over time, help with mailings, audio editing and fundraising. She credits the station with teaching her about music, movies and cartoon strips, and introducing her to a lot of friends.
When her shows aired on community radio, Levy always underestimated the number of people listening. She’d run into people who recognized her voice from the show but didn’t know her personally.
Now, Levy can see listeners who comment in a chatroom attached to her live playlist. She estimates about 30 people might be tuning in at any given time.
“It’s a much bigger platform,” she said. “It’s known nationally and internationally by people who love freeform radio, independent music, experimental music. Its reputation is really solid.”
Levy likens the transition of going from local community radio to the WFMU streaming channel to going from a high school musical to off-Broadway. She said radio means as much to her, if not more than it did when she was a child and she viewed it as a companion. She considers the new platform “a big achievement.”
Still, Levy continues to learn. She listens to other shows and speaks with other DJs.
A segment on her show involves playing 7-inch records and determining if she should get rid of them. She said she won’t throw them out but give them away.
At WMFU, Levy has access to a collection of new music that’s been digitized. She previews some of the new music and uses her own collection.
Levy said the shows require a lot of her attention and focus.
“If I had to plan out my playlists ahead of time, that wouldn’t be doing radio,” she said.
On the show, she says she’s broadcasting from the Bellows Falls Yacht Club. When she bought the house on the Connecticut River, she wanted something fun to call the property.
“Bellows Falls isn’t a wealthy community and it hasn’t been for a long time,” she said, seeing the nickname as giving “a middle finger to gentrification. It’s like fake pretension.”
Levy gives herself freedom to play music, songs, pieces and spoken word tracks with no worries about what section it might be discovered in a record store.
“When my show is the best, in my opinion, it will sound like a three-hour song but it may have three movements in the song,” she said. “It will sound like one entire piece.”
The name of her show combines her most recent shows, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
Her DJ name relates to her 25 years as a cheese monger. Wendy del Formaggio is Italian for Wendy of the Cheese. Levy came up with it when she joined the chatroom on WMFU and appeared on a weekly two-minute segment about cheese on the station. She also has talked about the subject on local radio stations including WKVT.
Friends, musicians and other DJs are asked to record “promo bumpers” for the show. Levy said they tell listeners who they are and remind them they are tuned into “Wreck Your Own Adventure.”
“It’s nice to have other voices,” she said. “It’s my show clearly but I want people to feel involved.”
Levy takes no requests or calls. She doesn’t typically have guests either.
However, last year at Black Sheep Radio, Levy interviewed indie musician Will Oldham to promote his show in Keene, N.H. She said she mostly wants to do her own thing and be by herself with the music.
During Monday’s show, Levy went from “Rain Falls” by Oscar the Grouch of “Sesame Street” fame to “Never Cross the Picket Line” by Billy Bragg. In the chat, she told listeners her parents had been members of labor unions. It was International Workers’ Day.