Sex and Broadcasting: A Film About WFMU
Directed by Tim K. Smith
Opens March 30 at IFC Center
Rarer than a white antelope, the Jersey City-based radio station WFMU “shouldn’t exist,” as more than a couple of the heads in this spirited documentary note. That’s because as a fully listener-supported entity without any corporate or government funding, it’s an aberration in a terrestrial radio airscape dominated by ads, conglomerate-dictated programming that turns the songs themselves into commercials, or the safe and soothing tones of NPR. There are other cool college or freeform stations in the country (though none longer-running), but few with the same level of stubborn independence. Even on the web, where WFMU reaches a large percentage of its listeners, the station stands apart from its also-unshackled brethren due to its eclecticism and the freedom of the DJs; the same station with a daily drive-time conservative Jewish talk show (hosted by Nachum Segal, beloved by Rush Limbaugh) houses the “scratchy old record” showcase “The Antique Phonograph Show”, rap and garage rock and everything else shows, and bizarre esoterica like poet Kenneth (“Kenny G”) Goldsmith’s anarchic weekly show that ran from 1995 to 2010.
First-time director Smith structures his film untraditionally, saving the short rundown of the station’s history largely for the third act, using the scant footage available to him of the years when WFMU was affiliated with Upsala College in East Orange, N.J. That relationship began in 1958 and grew ever more nominal until Upsala’s bankruptcy in 1995 forced longtime station manager Ken Freedman and others to form a nonprofit to claim WFMU as its own. Grainy footage of early on-air prankery, tales of unlivable conditions and round-the-clock machine gun target practices on Upsala’s abandoned post-apocalyptic campus color this section, but the present-day (the movie was shot over a few years) dominates. Smith follows Freedman on drives, on a boat for a lake-based broadcast and listener meetup, down into the WFMU basement to address an internet outage, and into meetings which largely revolve around a budget crisis that requires an emergency fundraiser. This might all sound unsexy, and it defiantly is (although Freedman, with his silver fox surfer’s physique, is something of a freeform hunk), since keeping this passion project afloat is hard work. Smith does manufacture some real drama from the critical fundraiser, but largely he shows a Wiseman-like respect for the day-to-day heroics that keep the lights on.
Smith gives screen time to some of the more illustrious current and former on-air personalities, and it’s their mixed feelings about the pros and cons of pouring so much time and energy into unpaid work that best counterbalance the documentary’s general loving regard for the station and Freedman. Jim “The Hound” Marshall piloted a successful show focusing on obscure rockabilly, soul and garage nuggets, helping put WFMU on the map. But during one particularly silent fundraiser, Marshall decided he’d had enough of busting his ass “so Ken doesn’t have to get a real job,” and was banned for life for telling listeners not to bother donating. Another DJ says WFMU “is a democracy up to a point… but like any functioning system there has to be a bit of fascism as well.” Tom Scharpling is more measured. He hosted “The Best Show on WFMU” from 2000-2013. He started out playing records before transforming the show into three hours of phone calls and comedy. After years of guff from colleagues, the show became the station’s biggest cash cow. Scharpling’s only sort of tongue-in-cheek gripes about his underappreciation helped lead to his real exit to the world of podcasting (where his griping gloriously continues) in 2014. Famous listeners like Matt Groening and Adam Horovitz express their WFMU love, and there’s a poignant detour with one of the station’s legion volunteers, who shares that at the station he finally found “his people,” and felt less alone. A peppy but anodyne and innocuous score—particularly disappointing considering the subject matter, and acres of LPs glimpsed—is the only downside to this affectionate look at the difficult task of maintaining the beautiful anomaly of WFMU.