MFF review: WFMU fights uphill battle in ‘Sex and Broadcasting’

WFMU general manager Ken Freedman is the central character of the documentary, "Sex and Broadcasting."

WFMU general manager Ken Freedman is the central character of the documentary, “Sex and Broadcasting.”

I just put on WFMU-FM‘s live internet stream and heard some very dark, almost intimidating heavy metal by the British band Coltsblood. It’s not really my taste, but I’m glad it’s there. Because that means WFMU is still at it, boldly letting its volunteer DJs determine their own playlists according to their own tastes and whims, and with absolutely no thought of building a larger following by catering to the masses.

The station, which started out at the now-defunct Upsala College in East Orange and is now based in Jersey City (and unaffiliated with any educational institution), has no commercials, and is supported by listener donations and grants. It has had a free-form format since the late ’60s.

It hasn’t always been easy to keep the station going. In fact, as the documentary “Sex and Broadcasting” (which screened at the Montclair Film Festival, Wednesday) shows, at times it has been dauntingly difficult.

The film, which is directed by Tim K. Smith, includes footage of some of the station’s oddball DJs in action, adventurous musicians performing live on the airwaves, and celebrities’ attesting to the station’s greatness. “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening calls it “the perfect radio station,” and WFMU general manager Ken Freedman sums up its outsider appeal by calling it “a heathen religion” as well as “radio for people who were picked last on the basketball team.”

Freedman is a Sisyphean figure in the movie, fighting a never-ending battle against internet connection problems, raccoons and squirrels living underneath the roof, and all kinds of other things that threaten the station’s well-being. The film focuses on the station’s dire financial crisis of 2009, which inspired an emergency 24-hour on-air fundraising marathon at which $200,000 needed to be raised — and was, just barely.

There is drama in that struggle, to be sure, though I personally would have preferred less footage of business meetings and more of the DJs and musicians in action. On the other hand, I now have a greater appreciation of the efforts Freedman and others have made, over the years, to keep WFMU going. And you don’t always tune in to WFMU to hear something you like; you tune in to hear something that broadens your perspective.

Smith and Freedman spoke to the crowd briefly after the screening, and Freedman said the station is now on more secure ground, financially, though just barely breaking even. He also acknowledged that the film shows only a “sliver” of the whole WFMU story, but said that he understands why Smith had to narrow his focus, and that he’s happy the film was made.

“Sex and Broadcasting” will screen again at the festival, Sunday at 3:45 p.m., at Clairidge Cinema. Visit MontclairFilmFest.org.

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