Sex and Broadcasting Dir. Tim K. Smith

[Factory 25; 2014]

Styles: documentary, music doc

I was once a 14 y.o. girl in love with a 14 y.o. boy who had a WFMU sticker on his guitar, so I was once 14 y.o. girl in love with WFMU. (Approximately the same logic that had me reading Tiny Mix Tapes obsessively rather than noticing what my body wanted/needed but [terrified shrugging emoji]). Granted, I had never tuned in, though any number of the suburban New Jersey cars and homes in which we made out were equipped with radios geographically capable of doing so. Rather, it was more than enough that I could spit out a couple of lines of WFMU’s alt radio mission statement or whip out a mediocre Philly Boy Roy impression to amuse my three or so friends. My WFMU dilettantism is certainly the exception. For me, the station was a means of faking my way into acceptance; for a bunch of other angsty dweebs, it meant finding their true-ass frequency.

Such distinctly personal anecdotes — with the I-know-where-I-was-when meaningfulness of a collective individuality — tend to characterize talk of alternative radio. Heck, I’m listening to greater Philadelphia metropolitan area’s own WXPN as I write this, and am dang-near teary-eyed with memories of being toted by my pops to free Calexico concerts sponsored by the station. Sex and Broadcasting is surprisingly untainted with the gushing homage so characteristic of freeform radio fandom. It is an unassuming doc about an underdog station struggling in a cultural and economic landscape unforgiving to an organization built largely on the piss and vinegar of its devotees. Yet Sex and Broadcasting itself, in telling the stories of the egos and passions of the folks behind WFMU, looks on with impartiality, even unconcern. It’s not rich with juicy revelations nor earnest intensity, and decidedly less spirited than are its subjects, but it is not without its charms.

I dunno why (it is because I always forget to read press releases), I thought Sex and Broadcasting was about Monk creator Tom Sharpling’s rabidly followed Best Show, which it is not. Its principal conflict is WFMU’s struggle to rally the support and funds to cover their purchase of a new signal booster and day-to-day operations. Unaffiliated with NPR, any university, or for-profit organization, WFMU is strictly grassroots and perhaps in need of re-sodding (who’s writing this bee ess?). Sex and Broadcasting’s support of the little guy feels heartfelt, certainly, but without the cream-your-pants devotion of the obsessives, it feels a bit dry.

Still, it’s a pleasant walk through WFMU history, from freak college radio club, to freak independent radio phenomenon, to cult radio station fighting against a less freak-friendly era. Historical highlights, disasters, and near-disasters get due air time, but the fascinating personalities behind some of WFMU’s more groundbreaking shows could use more space to get out some good soundbites. Station manager Ken Freedman is the apparent protagonist, and his suggested mismanagement of the station is the most discussed — if not most interesting — line of investigation.

But that’s about it for Sex and Broadcasting. Freedman butts heads with WFMU DJs, past and present. Primarily middle-aged white men give talking head interviews of backdrops of walls of rare blues vinyl. Tom Scharpling walks and talks us through the halls of WFMU. Not much happens. The highest stakes are waiting for the phone to ring. I don’t know. I’m being harsh. It’s definitely worth the watch for someone who is passionate about WFMU. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill informational doc otherwise. Don’t adjust that dial just yet though; I am an unreliable-at-best critic with no vested interests in any cultural consumption and write “lol” in pieces that might otherwise have the pretense of authority/professionalism. Also, hire me.

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