Despite pop culture relentlessly promoting the idea of individuality, there is little in our current culture that actually is independent and free. Even “indie” music and film aren’t what they used to be as major corporations commandeer what once was independent and use “indie” as a marketing buzzword. In that sense, the Jersey City radio station WFMU should not exist in the 21st century – it is a commercial-free, all-volunteer, 100% listener-supported radio station sitting on the edge of the largest media market in the United States.
SEX AND BROADCASTING tells the history of WFMU since the mid-1980s and particularly focuses on both the longtime station manager Ken Freedman and Freedman’s response to WFMU’s funding crisis in the wake of the 2008 recession. Despite the station gaining scores of new fans because of internet streaming, during the recession WFMU faced a multitude of problems, including a reduced signal, a crumbling headquarters, record companies being less willing to provide music for free airplay, and general financial issues brought on by the recession. On top of that, despite immense costs Freedman sees his long term goal of building a signal booster in Midtown Manhattan within the station’s grasp.
A generation of people who can access any music they want via the internet may not understand the importance of a station like WFMU, and SEX AND BROADCASTING will reveal to the uninitiated just how much of an impact a fiercely independent renegade radio station can have. As Freedman says early in the documentary, “WFMU is radio for the people who were picked last for the basketball team.” WFMU has no set format and disc jockeys can host any type of show they would like. WFMU fills its airwaves with offbeat humor, avant-garde musicians, and counts celebrity fans such as Matt Groening, Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, Patton Oswalt, and Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz (whom all appear in this documentary). More importantly, many of the volunteers who see WFMU as “home” see the station as the only place they fit in.
Nonetheless, despite the increased profile the internet has given WFMU it remains a fringe media outlet, something that is obvious from the station’s troubled fundraising efforts. Also, while Freedman arguably singlehandedly kept the station alive for nearly three decades, in other ways he can be viewed as a heavy-handed visionary. Both of those issues breed a level of frustration and resentment throughout the station’s operations, including with comedian Tom Scharpling, who hosted the most popular show on the station. There is an extremely telling sequence in which an annoyed Scharpling suffers through a bevy of awful listener calls that just sums up the frustration that WMFU and its staff faces on a daily basis in trying to remain a fringe media outlet.
First time director Tim K. Smith has hit pay dirt by finding one of those unique subjects that is ripe for a documentary. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that at only 76 minutes it feels like we’re only glimpsing the beautiful chaos that is WFMU with SEX AND BROADCASTING. Only the surface is being scratched here, so you won’t be alone if you are left feeling like much more could be said about one of the most influential radio stations of the last three decades. That marks SEX AND BROADCASTING as an excellent exploration of its subject, albeit one that feels incomplete.
Still, anybody who has any interest in broadcasting, indie music, or just the idea of surviving as an independent entity in an increasingly corporate-driven world will discover an immediate connection with SEX AND BROADCASTING. More importantly, they may also discover their new favorite radio station.
Review Rating: 4 out of 5 : See it …… It’s Very Good
SEX AND BROADCASTING made its world premiere at the DOC NYC Film Festival. The final festival screening will be on Monday, November 17 at 3:15 at the IFC Center.