- Text by Alex King
WFMU is radio with a ‘fuck you!’ mentality. You don’t like how it sounds? You can’t tell us how to do radio, you can’t tell us how to do anything!
From their base in Jersey City, WFMU fill the airwaves across the New York area with some truly absurd and experimental sounds – unlike anything you’ll hear anywhere else.
The station has no advertising or external funding and has survived thanks to the goodwill of its volunteer DJs, the cult following built up among its loyal audience and the energy of its visionary station manager Ken Freedman.
Whether he’s broadcasting from a canoe in the middle of a lake or trying to outbid the tooth fairy by offering a cash prize to the first who can bring a fallen-out tooth into the studio, Ken embodies the rebellious spirit of independent broadcasting.
Director Tim K. Smith tells the station’s story with his new documentary Sex and Broadcasting, which had its UK premiere at Birmingham’s alternative cinema extravaganza Flatpack Festival. From the festival’s hub in a former industrial unit in shabby Digbeth – the Berlin of the Midlands – Ken delivered a monumental three hour live broadcast which gave festival-goers a taste of surreal sounds of 91.1 FM.
We caught up with Tim to find out more about his film and why WFMU sounds like nothing else around.
Can you remember the very first WFMU broadcast you tuned into?
I started listening to the station in 1989. I had listened to a lot of American college and public radio at that point, but I had never heard anything quite like WFMU. The DJs weren’t college kids, but they didn’t exactly sound like normal adults and the station lacked the constant pre-recorded on air branding and schedule predictability of any radio station I had heard before. Because of how varied the programming was, it took me over a year to realise that this was one station. For a long time I thought that what I heard was two or three stations competing for the same area on the dial. I just knew that if I put my radio in one corner of my apartment and put the dial at roughly 91.1 fm, I would get this unending flow of never heard before inspiring sounds. So, I can’t remember the first broadcast, but over time specific DJ’s started to come into focus – Irwin Chusid, Bronwyn, The Hound, Glen Jones and of course, Ken Freedman.
Are there any shows that have particularly stood out for you over the years?
One of my favourite broadcasts is from station manager Ken Freedman’s stunt radio show Seven Second Delay. His co-host Andy Breckman tries to outbid the tooth fairy and offers $120 to the first child who can show up at the station with a tooth before the end of the show. A young boy is moments too late and is refused, driving him to tears. It sounds cruel (which it momentarily was), but the live radio aspect of the moment kept me glued to the radio until the very end.
What was the strangest experience you encountered at the station while making the film?
Ken Freedman trying to do a live radio broadcast cum listener meet up from a canoe in the middle of a lake was pretty great and strange experience. From a purely visual perspective, I received some footage shot by the station of DJ Vicki Bennett (People Like Us) making what looks like a fruit salad on top of DJ Bryce’s head live on the radio. Despite repeated attempts that never made it into the film.
What were the biggest challenges in making the film?
There were some brief moments of normal, “I’m not sure if I want to be on camera” paranoia on the part of a few DJs, but beyond that the station on the whole was incredibly welcoming. Station manager Ken Freedman was instrumental in making it all possible. The hardest challenge was choosing which stories should stay in the film and what had to be cut. The station has so much fascinating history and so many important people who make it what it is, but ultimately there was no way to include it all and maintain a cohesive story. Beyond that there were typical filmmaking challenges of limited money and time.
Why do you feel what WFMU does is important? Why do indy outlets like this need to be treasured?
From a personal perspective, I want WFMU to survive because I just love it. It’s the greatest radio station in the world. From a larger cultural perspective, we need the example that WFMU sets. WFMU defies all the rules of our overly commercialised media world, where truly independent institutions are extremely rare. Without examples like this, cynicism overwhelms inspiration and people just accept what the status quo media serves up.
How do you hope audiences react to the film?
I want audiences to love the film as good storytelling. Without that, only the diehard WFMU fans will enjoy the film. If the story works then people who have never heard of WFMU will understand what kind of sacrifice is necessary to keep institutions like this alive and walk away inspired. Ideally, the film creates more listeners, supporter and makers of independent media, because without places like WFMU the world would be a lot less interesting.
Find out more about Sex and Broadcasting.