On Kanopy: The misfit spontaneity of ‘Sex and Broadcasting’

Follow the antics of WFMU, a radio station for misfits


Mason Hickok, Web Editor

“Sex and Broadcasting” is a 2014 documentary that centers on the eccentric and interwoven, idiosyncratic family that is WFMU radio in East Orange, New Jersey — a station that embodies both the weird and rebelliousness of their slice of listener-powered radio.

From the outset, we’re told — several times — that WFMU is not for the average listener. The station is not an NPR affiliate and there are no commercial puppeteers surveying from above. The station is made up of disc jockeys who are unpaid, simply lending their time toward the necessary existence of the station. WFMU exists for the love of radio. Some might say their struggle is Sisyphean in nature, but for much of their staff, it’s routine. Done out of a love for the spontaneity of their form, a form often overlooked.

The documentary takes its name from Lorenzo Milam’s 1975 book “Sex and Broadcasting: A Handbook on Starting a Radio Station.” WFMU’s music ranges from the experimental, to noise and all forms of rock and roll. A certain punk rock underpinning is felt in WFMU’s barrage of genres. Lee Ranaldo of the band Sonic Youth; Bradford Cox of Deerhunter; and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of The Beastie Boys lend their support to the station’s unorthodox content. One of my favorite moments, a bonkers cover of the folk tune “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” led me to rewind four or five times to see the madness that was that cover. It’s moments like these that play alongside WFMU’s frequent staff meetings – oftentimes gathered around a table with food, papers and half-empty drinks. The film is not always erratic. Near the end, we get a history lesson behind the station’s early days in the basement of a decrepit college building, with interviews of past jockeys and more from Ken Freedman, the showman behind the circus.

“WFMU is radio for the people who were picked last on the basketball team. A community of outcasts and misfits,” says Freedman, the station manager, early in the film. WFMU is a station that exists on the fringes of public radio in the shadow of the digital age, an auditory experience you might encounter on the turn of a radio dial at two in the morning. Or, during a twenty-four-hour onslaught of fundraising. A necessary demon when it comes to listener-powered, independent radio. 

“Sex and Broadcasting” is not necessarily educational, while also not a full-fledged love letter to the craft. There are times of trouble, joy and bewilderment. “Sex and Broadcasting” exists somewhere in the middle of all the flurry of personalities that make up WFMU’s no-holds-barred persona. As Freedman says, “WFMU is simply a wonderful, happy accident.”

This film can be viewed on Kanopy’s website, which all UTSA students may access through the virtual Library Databases.