The title is a tease. Sex and Broadcasting, Tim K. Smith’s long-overdue documentary on WFMU — America’s most celebrated freeform radio station — isn’t at all sexy. (In fact, the film loudly flaunts the bodacious unsexiness of the Jersey City station’s variously overweight and grizzled DJs.) But Smith’s film, which premiered at Doc NYC on Saturday and plays once more this Thursday night, is a funny, woozy, infectiously cheery look at a still-persevering (though struggling) national treasure.
Unsurprisingly, WFMU’s shaggy-dog charm continues to be its saving grace. In the nearly 20 years since station manager Ken Freedman saved WFMU from its bankrupt owner — the now-defunct Upsala College — countless record labels have either shut down or stopped taking risks; avant-garde institutions have given way to condos; and the term “indie rock” has become synonymous with “fashion rock.” And yet just six miles west of New York City lies this unabashed monument to misfits, steadfast in its amorphousness. It’s a place where Japanese screamo punk can give way to elderly banjo pluckers in a matter of minutes — it’s not uncommon to hear two such disparate acts played simultaneously.
Sex and Broadcasting threatens, at times, to be mere hagiography. Roughly one-third of its 78 minutes is devoted to fundraiser footage, and the film itself is a sort-of fundraiser. If the station had gone under, the film might have been a throwaway piece of nostalgia.
But Smith, miraculously, captured the station during — and not after — its most tormented period, and he’s more objective than he initially lets on. For all the scenes that trumpet the grouchy wryness of WFMU legends like Tom Scharpling (host of the station’s once-hottest comedy offering, “The Best Show,” which ended a 13-year run in December), there are just as many that explore Freedman’s managerial flaws. (His hair seems to turn grayer on-camera after the third or fourth satellite malfunction.) Freedman’s creativity is inspiring — he’s shown broadcasting a show from a canoe — but he’s a tad self-pitying for a leader, and a few ex-DJs (including Jim “The Hound” Marshall) acknowledge that Freedman’s power trips drove them away.
There are a few glaring omissions. The found-footage clips of WFMU’s earliest star DJs are few and far between, as are excerpts of live music — perhaps the station’s most exciting component (though the acts shown here are delightfully obscure). And with this much attention paid to Scharpling, Smith could have managed to squeeze in some of his renowned banter with Jon Wurster, the Superchunk drummer/prank-calling mastermind.
But these are minor defects. Sex and Broadcasting is at once heartfelt, gritty, and informative, and you don’t really want it to end. But it does, in refreshingly rote fashion: Freedman, a little weary but ever stoic, shows up for just another day of work.