Freeform Radio: The Movie

Doing radio without commercials, underwriting, or government subsidies.


Last weekend, Tim K. Smith's documentary Sex and Broadcasting premiered at the DOC NYC festival in New York. The movie isn't actually about sex—it takes its name from Lorenzo Milam's book on the art of creative radio. (*) Instead the picture's about WFMU, a legendarily freewheeling station in New Jersey. FMU offers some of the most strange and eclectic programming available anywhere in the country, and it manages to sustain itself without any commercials, underwriting, or government subsidies, and without being attached to a university that might help pay the bills. (It used to be owned by Upsala College, but the school went bankrupt nearly two decades ago. Improbably, the station survived. [**])

It's a good movie (***), shifting back and forth between the outlet's wild programs and the nuts-and-bolts work required to keep such a relentlessly uncommercial operation on the air. The station underwent a major financial crisis while Smith was filming, and that provides much of the picture's narrative spine; in the meantime, a host of smaller daily mini-crises come and go.

The movie will be screened one more time before the festival ends, at 9:45 Thursday evening. Here's the trailer:

* Milam's book doesn't have much to say about sex either. He claims to have given it that name at the behest of his Great Aunt Beulah, who "convinced me that…the word Sex in the title would double its sales, and quadruple its readership."

** Some of the film's best footage comes from the days right after the college went under, when the station was the only occupied building on an abandoned campus. One DJ reminisces, not very nostalgically, about the shady characters who'd come to Upsala to shoot their guns because they figured there wouldn't be anyone around.

*** Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the movie, wearing my radio historian hat, and while my comments wound up on the cutting room floor the filmmakers were still kind enough to give me a line in the credits. That may make this the single smallest conflict of interest in the history of disclosure statements, but I guess I should mention it.