By Maddie Orton
WFMU’s freeform style attracts fans from around the globe. But it also creates unique challenges for the indy Jersey City radio station. That’s what makes WFMU interesting fodder for filmmaker Tim K. Smith, director of Sex and Broadcasting. The new documentary premiered this month at the DOC NYC Film Festival.
“I came to New York in 1989 and I was desperate to find new music,” says Smith. “And that was it. There it was: people playing interesting, fascinating, sometimes aggravating music.”
That eclectic mix is the result of WFMU’s freeform nature. Ken Freedman is station manager and the central focus of the film. “Freeform radio is a concept that has completely disappeared except for on a handful of radio stations about the U.S.,” he says. “[It] encourages people on the radio to use radio as a personal artistic medium.”
That means shows can go way beyond spinning records. “It’s really letting the DJ paint a portrait in sound on the radio,” Freedman explains.
DJs line up for the chance to ride the airwaves this way. In fact, nearly all on-air talent and staff are volunteers.
Andy Breckman has co-hosted “7-Second Delay” with Freedman for over 20 years. He’s an accomplished comedy writer and co-creator of the hit TV show Monk, but he still travels an hour each way to host on WFMU for free.
“I know it’s one of a kind. And it’s very special,” says Breckman. “It’s completely without boundaries, completely free-form. Like ice on a hot pan, just going wherever it wants.”
There are reasons you won’t find other stations like WFMU on your radio’s dial. The station is a listener and grant-supported non-profit. Programming airs completely free of commercials and underwriter ads.
Financial struggles, FCC investigations and other challenges play a large role in Smith’s film. “I think it honors the struggle of what it takes to keep something like this alive,” says Smith.
“Our biggest problem is that we’re trying to stick to these ideals that a lot of other people would find laughable,” Freedman says, “but I think this is what our audiences come to expect of us.”
Sex and Broadcasting ends its run in DOC NYC and moves on to other film festivals. Freedman hopes the film gets a distribution deal and, beyond that, spreads the word about freeform radio.