We talked to director Tim K. Smith about the station's troubles to stay afloat in the Great Recession.
If you spend any significant amount of time scanning the radio in the New York City area, sooner or later you will stumble upon something weird happening at 91.1 FM. You might be annoyed by it, you might be bored by it, or you might fall in love with it and start listening for hours, days, months, and possibly years.
WFMU, the station that occupies that spot on the dial, is unique for being a totally independent and listener-supported enterprise that is not beholden to advertisers, the music industry, or NPR. Gatecrashing the Big Apple from their home base of Jersey City (and the rest of the world through their livestream), the station is made possible by volunteers and a cast of DJs who receive no money for the hours of programming that fill the air all day, every day.
Director Tim K. Smith's new documentary, Sex & Broadcasting, tells the story of WFMU and devoted station manager Ken Freedman, who rallied his army of volunteers and listeners to carry WFMU through the most recent Great Recession. I sat down with Smith to talk about Sex & Broadcasting and why WFMU matters so much to so many people.
VICE: How did you discover WFMU?
Tim K. Smith: I grew up with college radio. Before the internet, if you wanted to hear something out of the very thin playlists that corporate radio was playing during the late 80s you had to basically get out a radio and scan around the bottom of your dial and search for radio stations.
When I first moved to the Lower East Side in 1989, I did just that. And to be honest, it took me a year to realize that there was this station called WFMU because you would kind of find it and be like "What the fuck is that?" or "Or my God, this is the most amazing thing I've ever heard, I'm going to listen to this station every day!" But later, you'd come back and you'd think at first that you had lost the station. They didn't use any pre-recorded station ID to comfort you into knowing that it was there. No one was saying, "Hey, this is WFMU!" over and over. Branding was verboten. It was just live voices.
It took me a who year to go, "Oh my God, this is the radio station." I became a fan, and WFMU was a lifeline to other worlds and new music.
When did you start making the film?
I started in 2009—a long time ago. It was a good time to be following the station in the sense that we were in the beginning of the great recession. What makes WFMU unique in many ways is its extreme independence. Most great cultural institutions that exist beyond a couple of years will merge with bigger organizations or they become an NPR station. They have a buffer between them and the harsh realities of the market.
Day in and day out, you have to spend money on things to keep a radio station on the air. Little waves can rock the WFMU boat very easily, and 2009 was a year when the station was really getting rocked by big unknowns. A lot of radio stations were disappearing, and there were rumors about bigger institutions possibly going away. WBAI was rumored to be going off the air any day. It was a great time to be watching them trying to maintain themselves and still keep the magic of WFMU alive.
Above: Tom Scharpling of "The Best Show on WFMU"
The film takes an unflinching look at the subject of money and what survival in the New Jersey and New York City areas means for a non-profit institution like WFMU.
It doesn't seem to ever get easier. And also, you have this great experiment where you're allowing people like Tom Scharpling to come on the air and create something. No one else would have given Tom the chance to fuck around on the air for years in order to come up with The Best Show. To have that kind of freedom to experiment over a long period of time is just unheard of in TV and radio.
The Best Show could be a whole documentary or book unto itself.
The thing that made The Best Show on WFMU so great was freedom. With Tom Scharpling, you had a guy who could do anything he wanted on the air, and never had to say anything he didn't believe. One of the things that we love about WFMU is that it is kind of a no-bullshit zone. When someone talks, you know they are saying what they are thinking, as opposed the feeling you get when you listen to people speaking on behalf of an organization or an advertiser.
Take Marc Maron. I love Marc Maron, but it's very different from listening to Tom. Obviously they're very different kinds of comedians and entertainers, but Maron has to spend a good portion of every podcast shilling for sex products and coffee. In the grand scheme of things, who cares? It's not that big of a deal. But on the other hand, there's a quality when you're listening to Tom where you just know that he's beholden to nobody. So that's an interesting experiment.
WFMU is just a great experiment in live radio, and Tom is a master of live radio. The anticipation over whether he's going to hang up on someone is something that doesn't function in a pre-recorded format.
Absolutely. The biggest laughs of the film come when Tom is trying to start an episode of the show, and his callers are freezing up on the air or just asking really inane questions. Tom's disgust and obvious pleasure at hanging up on people are hilarious.
I could listen to Tom Scharpling hanging up on callers all day. All of these things add up to the big question, which is, "How do you do really interesting, cool, sometimes culturally significant things, and still make them sustainable?" That's what it comes down to, and unless you've got deep pockets it's just hard.
I like the fact that WFMU doesn't get a whole bunch of money from the federal government. I like that they're not NPR. But at the end of the day, as grownups, we have to figure out how to keep the lights on. We all want to have it both ways, but very few people can maintain that.
By the end of the film, you just wish someone would give them a billion dollars. Maybe you could have cornered Matt Groening at the end of his interview and convinced him to commit 10 percent of whatever amount of money Bart Simpson figurines bring in this year.
Even 1 percent would be great. I'm sure they could rechristen their performance space as the "Bart Simpson Performance Space" or whatever. Matt was amazing, by the way. He really gets it and was very helpful.
WFMU Station Manager Ken Freedman
What was it like to follow around around Ken Freedman? He seems like this force of nature, corralling all the freaks and keeping everything together.
Ken really opened the doors for me. There was never a moment where he said, "You can't film this" or "You can't film that." If anything, I think he just worried that this film, like other projects before it, would languish and fall by the wayside. He was fantastic.
I hope that the spirit of WFMU inspires, particularly at a time where we're hopefully maturing enough in our capitalist culture to be able to say, "Oh, we're not all going to be millionaires. Instead we should focus on making things that are priceless, which will live on way beyond us—things that are not going to make it easier to put our kids through college necessarily, but are going to be great cultural organizations." People are changed by WFMU. I just want there to be more places like it.
The documentary Sex & Broadcasting premieres on Saturday, November 15, in New York City at the DOC NYC Film Festival. Tickets and more information about the film can be found here.