A premiere-night review of Sex and Broadcasting

Amelia Pitcherella

Pretty much nothing in the documentary about the nation’s longest-running freeform radio station, Sex and Broadcasting, has anything to do with sex. For the most part, it’s riotously unsexy. The title is something of a wry joke, but it’s also a stark reminder that sex sells, and as a listener-supported radio station, WFMU is always in need of something that sells.

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Sex and Broadcasting is actually the name of the handbook that gave station manager and program director Ken Freedman the impetus to start WFMU as it exists today: written by freeform radio activist Lorenzo Milam in the early ’60s, it’s a guide to starting and managing a station that’s not for anyone’s profit but rather for everyone’s benefit. The film refers to a quote from the handbook:

“A radio station should not just be a hole in the universe for making money, or feeding an ego, or running the world; A radio station should be a live place for live people to sing and dance and talk: talk their talk and walk their walk and know that they (and the rest of us) are not finally and irrevocably dead.”

Indeed, they are alive. I was very aware of that fact as I sat in the crowded theater with Freedman’s eyes burning holes into the back of my head from the seat just behind me during the film’s premiere at the DOC NYC film festival. Tim K. Smith’s directorial debut sets out to prove the truth of Milam’s handbook—that the best kind of radio, the only kind of radio that really matters, is radio with the sole purpose of connecting us with live people. Through portraits of programmers and station volunteers Sex and Broadcasting gives us a window onto how this philosophy of living radio has come to bear on WFMU, with an incredible amount of generosity and affect.

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Any longtime listener (or anyone who’s tuned in long enough to hear a mic break) knows that the WFMU DJs invest tremendous amounts of time into their shows, but the film reveals just how affirming it is for some of them personally—and, conversely, how exhausting it can be. It highlights the run of Tom Scharpling’s Best Show on WFMU and gives us a glimpse into Scharpling’s reasoning for staying with the station. At one point he glumly confesses something along the lines of, “I’m not getting paid for this, sometimes I don’t know why I’m doing this.” And other programmers echo this sentiment—but it’s apparent that the station has a magnetic pull that has them coming back there to program over and over, at least for a while. DJing is heroism—turning up every week for a freeform radio show becomes a valiant act in a world where gratitude just isn’t returned for things like freeform radio shows. Sharing your voice with people, maintaining that you’re not irrevocably dead, gets to be an imperative.

Part of the reason for programmers’ continual investment is that WFMU is the only place that so many programmers, and certainly listeners, have found that’s stayed weird. It’s a place for the outsiders and freaks, the people who don’t really have a place elsewhere—it doesn’t dictate what listeners should or should not say or do on radio, and it allows them to keep their idiosyncrasies. The film itself stays weird, jumping from show to show freely and allowing itself digressions that most directors might think to chop out. The very structure of it gets dizzying at times, but that’s sort of what the experience of listening to WFMU has been for me—it’s unpredictable and sometimes cringeworthy. But I also love that about it, the thrill of the surprise. When asked after the showing what the most surprising moment for him has been at WFMU, Freedman couldn’t answer. The station itself was a surprise, in a sense—a series of happy accidents that began when Freedman jumped on the opportunity to be general manager of the radio station out of a bankrupt college, and when he came upon the Sex and Broadcasting handbook.

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Staying alive is a massive struggle when you’re not just a “hole in the universe for making money, feeding an ego, or running the world.” The people of WFMU want us to know that we live in bleak times. They’re constantly running up against setbacks to getting the support that they need to keep doing what only they can do. With listener-supported community radio becoming increasingly rare, WFMU is one of the few strongholds resisting a total incorporation into public networks, or commercial, or institutional sponsorship. Interference with its signal from much larger commercial radio stations has made it difficult for the station to broadcast outside the limited radius of Jersey City and the surrounding area, while funding is an endless battle. Freedman didn’t hesitate to point out to the audience that WFMU is always in a cash crisis; he says they’re in a cash crisis right now.

Given WFMU’s situation of perpetual insecurity, Sex and Broadcasting is shockingly balanced. It gives us the moments of precarity on the station’s part, and the moments of sheer desperation on the part of the programmers, and offsets them all with tremendous humor. (The highlight might’ve been one programmer’s grumbly statement that she hates fundraising because “nothing angers her more than mirth,” which sent the whole theater into hysterics.) All this seems to say that, after you’ve been in a constant state of crisis for a while, you adjust. It becomes part of how you operate, and it forces you to find ways to be better. Freedman affirmed for us all at the premiere: “The station will always make it.” Just that affirmation, live and in the flesh, is enough for now.

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