'Sex & Broadcasting: A Film About WFMU': Film Review
Tim K. Smith goes behind the scenes at what Matt Groening calls "the perfect radio station."
WFMU, a terrestrial radio station broadcasting from East Orange, N.J., is not an NPR station. It isn't college radio, or government-supported public radio — though it certainly does rely on the kind of pledge drives the latter stations employ. It's freeform community radio made by "people who are clearly not working up to their potential," overseen by a station manager, Ken Freedman, who has devoted his adult life to keeping it afloat. Sex & Broadcasting, Tim K. Smith's debut documentary, could hardly hope to include all the myriad weirdo obsessives who have made the station famous far beyond its NJ/NYC broadcast area for several decades. But its portrait of devotion to music (and maybe-not-quite-music) far outside the mainstream will be inspirational to those who share the station's anarchic bent. An ideal fit for the label-defying Big Ears Festival, its video afterlife will benefit from a fan base that, even before the internet made it easily accessible, was worldwide.
A few things WFMU has given those lucky enough to have heard it and tolerant enough not to turn it off immediately: Irwin Chusid, the archaeologist of forgotten culture who rediscovered space-age pop composer Esquivel and immortal Looney Tunes melody-maker Raymond Scott; Kenny G, a Jack Daniels-swilling poet/performance artist who is the aural opposite of the smooth-jazz star wearing that name; and Tom Scharpling's The Best Show, which rose to greatness, was killed by its creator, and was reborn away from WFMU, where its host might conceivably make a buck from it.
Ah, "make a buck": In a tidy history, Sex & Broadcasting recounts how WFMU was started back in the 1950s under the auspices of Upsala College, but was being run by non-students when that college went bankrupt; it was reborn as a non-profit, with DJs who must "spend money to do our shows." It accepts no advertising or corporate underwriting, and instead hosts a massive annual fundraiser whose desperate nature is the focus of much of this film. Freedman's push to install a much-needed signal booster in 2013, along with repairs necessitated by Hurricane Sandy, left the station in a tremendous financial hole. In a dramatic 24-hour special fundraiser, we watch Scharpling rise to the challenge, exhausting himself as he coaxes funds from loyal fans.
The Best Show left FMU at the end of 2013, but as Freedman notes, the station has seen other superstar hosts (like "The Hound") come and go. Each has made his program "appointment radio," often turning his fans on to the station as a whole. Will that effect continue into this decade, now that each show has its own podcast and doesn't require tuning in at 91.1 FM? Smart money wouldn't bet against these true believers being able to maintain a home for "music for malcontents and knuckleheads" for years to come.
Venue: Big Ears Festival
Distributor: Factory 25
Director: Tim K. Smith
Producers: Tim K. Smith, Caitlin Mae Burke
Editor: Ryan Barger
Music: James Lavino
Not rated, 78 minutes