New documentary hails Bridgeport’s WPKN-FM as ‘the world’s largest radio station’

Alex Cumming from “Snap, Crackle, POP!” of WPKN program. Photo courtesy of Cob Carlson.

In August 2021, David Owen of The New Yorker published an article declaring that WPKN-FM in Bridgeport was “the biggest radio station in the world”. It was a highly subjective opinion, of course, but Owen’s celebration of the station’s community-supported free-form programming made a compelling case for how this eclectic station was able to maintain its originality and spirit at a time when too much broadcasting has become stale and predictable.

Filmmaker Cob Carlson expanded on Owen’s article with his new documentary “The World’s Greatest Radio Station.” Carlson grew up in Fairfield and volunteered at WPKN in the 1980s before moving to Boston in 1991.

“Six years ago I had to come to Fairfield to take care of my elderly father and reconnected with the station and met the new general manager, Steve Di Costanzo,” Carlson recalled. “He found out I worked in film and was like, ‘Oh, why don’t you do a documentary about the station?'”

Carlson had just finished a documentary about golf course architect Donald Ross and felt he wasn’t ready “to do another kind of no-budget film about the labor of love”. But in 2019, Ross began teaching film at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic and reconnected with Di Costanzo to start a film on the station.

Carlson said the title “World’s Greatest Radio Station” was not an exaggeration.

“It’s the fact that they allow their programmers to have complete freedom in their programming,” he explained. “There are no programming mandates that require them to play certain genres and music or types of songs. Freeform radio is an incredibly rare thing these days, and they’re able to do it with many programmers who are experts in the music they’re playing.

Work on “The World’s Greatest Radio Station” was crippled when the Covid-19 pandemic delayed Carlson from on-location filming and in-person interviews. Another hurdle to overcome involved footage and interviews relating to the station’s early years – it started in 1963 as a campus station at the University of Bridgeport and later became a community station following a tumultuous relationship with the university. While photographs and newspaper copies still existed surrounding the station’s early years, Carlson was initially bothered by the lack of film footage tracing WPKN’s roots.

However, a University of Bridgeport graduate named Bryan Konefsky – who later became an experimental filmmaker and a professor of film studies at the University of New Mexico – had started his own documentary on WPKN in the mid-1990s. but never finished the job.

“He recorded this footage,” Carlson said, noting that much of it filled in the gaps he faced while creating the new film. “He shot it on Super VHS and he gave me everything to use in my movie, which was awesome.”

“The World’s Greatest Radio Station” had its Connecticut premiere on June 25 at Bridgeport’s Bijou Theater, and another local screening is scheduled for July 23 at Klein Auditorium as part of the Bridgeport Film Festival. Carlson entered the film into other festivals. However, he insisted he was not interested in making the film a box office success.

“I don’t really care about making money,” Carlson said. “It was another labor of love. I did it as a legacy movie for the station, but I’d love to get my eyes on it and I’ve just started my work trying to get it on one of the major platforms streaming.

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