Category Archives: Radio Biz

Blu-ray reissue: FM (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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FM – Arrow Films

John Alonzo’s 1978 comedy-drama (written by Ezra Sacks) centers on fictional L.A. rock station “Q-Sky” FM, which has just shot to number one, to the elation of hip program director Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon), who leads a team of colorful DJs (Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras and Eileen Brennan). While Dugan sees the win as validation for his “free form” approach, corporate HQ views it as a potential cash cow for landing big accounts like the U.S. Army. The battle lines between art and commerce are drawn…and it’s on.

Granted-the film is uneven, but the cast is game, the soundtrack is great, and Linda Ronstadt and band are in fine form performing several live numbers. It’s a nice snapshot of the era when “underground” FM was making a shift to the more corporate “Layla-Free Bird-Tom Sawyer” format that flogs to this day.

Arrow’s image quality is quite an improvement over the long out-of-print DVD version. Extras include 2 new interviews with star Michael Brandon and screenwriter Ezra Sacks.

Beginners and losers: Alan Partridge ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 19, 2014)

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The drinkin’ I did on my last big gig

Made my voice go low

They said that they liked the ‘younger sound’

When they let me go

-From “W-O-L-D”, by Harry Chapin

Four score and seven years ago (OK…1974) I was a neophyte DJ working the midnight-6am shift at an AM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The call letters, KFAR, were apropos; this was about as far fucking north as you could live on planet Earth and still have a radio career. I have never forgotten a nugget of wisdom imparted to me by a veteran jock, who, perhaps sensing my Pollyanna enthusiasm , took me aside one day. “You’re still young,” he said with a world-weary sigh, “So I’ll tell you something about small market radio stations, Dennis. There are  two types of people who work here: Beginners, and losers.” I was the beginner, so…I assume he knew of what he spoke.

No character embodies this axiom better than Alan Partridge, the creation of droll English actor-comedian Steve Coogan and writer Armando Iannucci (the comic genius behind the BBC political sitcom The Thick of It). A smarmy, egotistical “program presenter” of middling talent and perennially underwhelming accomplishment, Alan (played by Coogan) nonetheless persists in orbiting about the showbiz peripheral like an angry bee, despite continual failure.

This stalwart refusal to surrender dreams of stardom makes Alan oddly endearing, despite the fact he’s a self-absorbed asshole. UK TV viewers (and Anglophiles like yours truly) have become fixated on following Alan’s ever-downward career trajectory. It began in the mid-90s, with the one-season BBC series Knowing Me, Knowing You, which “documented” the eponymous ill-fated variety program created (and ultimately destroyed) by its prickly, passive-aggressive host.

Several years later, Coogan and Iannucci resurrected the character in I’m Alan Partridge, a two-season series that picks up Alan’s story as he moves back to his hometown of Norwich, in the wake of his humiliating failure as a national TV personality. He has managed to snag the graveyard shift on a local radio station (see paragraph 1) where he spins 80s synth-pop hits for residents of the sleepy little hamlet.

By season 2, he’s living in a trailer with his young Ukrainian girlfriend, picking up whatever gigs he can in between making desperate pitches to stone-faced BBC executives. Whereas Knowing Me Knowing You was more showbiz satire, I’m Alan Partridge has darker tones; Alan emerges more as a figure like John Osborne’s Archie in The Entertainer; or a quietly desperate character from a Ray Davies song. It’s a ‘cringe-comedy’; funny, yet discomfiting  (like Curb Your Enthusiasm).

The most recent chapter of the Alan Partridge saga was parlayed via the 12-episode series, Mid Morning Matters (2010-2011), which finds Alan wearily settling for his career as a radio personality at a small market station, hosting a slightly higher profile air shift on “North Norfolk Digital”. Coogan and Iannucci ease up on the pathos that informed I’m Alan Partridge and go for the belly laughs in this series. And the laughs are plentiful, mostly thanks to Alan’s interaction with fellow staff, particularly “Side-kick Simon” (Tim Key) and Alan’s inability to complete one single interview without somehow offending his guests.

Which brings us to the new feature film  Alan Partridge (released as Alpha Papa in the UK this past fall). In this outing (directed by Declan Lowney and co-written by Coogan, Iannucci, Peter Baynham and twin brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons) we find Alan (Coogan) still ensconced in the air chair at North Norfolk Digital, with Side-kick Simon (Key) covering his flank. Alan is waging his usual charm offensive, with song outros like “You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond…truly the ‘King of the Jews’!” and challenging his listeners to ponder and weigh in on the big questions like, “What is the worst ‘-monger’? Iron, fish, rumor…or war?”

However, it is not business as usual with upper management, who call Alan into a meeting  to inform him North Norfolk Digital is about to be absorbed by a media conglomerate, who want to make some staff cuts. Alan dodges the bullet, but his old pal Pat (Colm Meaney) is not so lucky. The new owners want to pick up younger listeners, and Pat is seen as too stodgy. Pat doesn’t take it so well; he comes back with a gun and takes hostages. Alan becomes the reluctant liaison between Pat and the police in the resulting standoff; hilarity ensues.

I know that may not sound like the setup for a riotous comedy, but it works as such, thanks to the sharp writing, smart direction and deft ensemble work from the cast, right down to the smallest roles. Meaney (a fine actor equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles) plays it fairly straight, lending the film an edge and genuine poignancy at times.

Still, this is ultimately Coogan’s show; he’s inhabited this uniquely weird character over so many years with such commitment that it’s nearly impossible to figure out where Coogan begins and Partridge ends, or vice-versa (not unlike Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas). But you needn’t ponder that. Your job is to simply sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of laugh therapy…something we could all use.

Radio radio: La maison de la radio **1/2 and a Top 3 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 9, 2013)

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Head of programming: La Maison de la Radio

Do you remember the opening scene in the sci-fi film Contact? As the visual perspective pulls further and further away from Earth, an audio collage of radio and TV broadcasts moves further and further back in time, implying that our terrestrial broadcasts are like the Energizer Bunny (they keep going, and going, and going…). Which could mean that some ham radio enthusiast in the Andromeda Galaxy is only just now tuning into one of my 1973 broadcasts as a neophyte DJ (hopefully, the Inverse Square Law will save him from the aural agony of my 17 year-old self trying to sound like Mr. Boss Jock).

Everybody has to start somewhere, but radio is unique because you’re learning in public. You have an audience right out of the gate, privy to every embarrassing mispronunciation and clumsy technical gaffe. That’s why I reflexively squirmed in tandem with a neophyte news reader who endures a merciless word-by-word critique of his aircheck by the news director in the documentary La Maison de la Radio.

This is one of the vignettes slickly edited to simulate a “day in the life” of Radio France (the French equivalent to NPR). While he inserts the odd interview segment that may jar you from your “fly on the wall” perch, director Nicolas Philibert  utilizes the same meditative approach that informed his 2010 documentary Nenette.

In his previous documentary, Philibert’s subject was a taciturn female orangutan housed in a French zoo, who sat impassively behind a glass window, prompting self-absorbed visitors to chatter incessantly about everything and nothing, from banal observations to deep philosophical musings (the ape, of course, remains mum).

In the opening of his new film, Philibert  overlaps snippets of chatter by the various Radio France hosts, slowly escalating the collage into a sort of cacophonous overture for his piece. Then, he begins to deconstruct the din, until one host remains, informing listeners that “…today, I want to talk about everything…and nothing.” You see what Philibert did there? In this film, we are now the orangutan, sitting impassively on the other side of the screen while these folks who yak for a living chatter incessantly about everything…and nothing.

Unfortunately, what ensues becomes less of a philosophical treatise on the higher primate’s compulsion to communicate and more of a repetitive slog of multi-take voice-over sessions, non-contextualized snippets of on-air interviews and editorial meetings.

The viewer doesn’t really gain any new insights regarding public radio, or the broadcast business (in fairness to the filmmaker, I’ve been in the radio biz for 40 years; so I will concede that what I perceive as just another boring day at the office could be fascinating to someone outside the industry).

On the plus side, Katell Djian’s cinematography is lovely;  the best moments are when the action moves away from the endless corridors of the Pentagon-sized Radio France complex and out into the field. A correspondent and his driver hop aboard a scooter and cruise along with the cyclists to cover the Tour de France. A moment of Zen arrives as a sound engineer captures ambient night sounds of the forest with his parabolic mike (recalling the opener in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out). Sadly, these moments were not enough to quash my urge to start touching that dial before the end credits rolled.

#   #   #

So Philibert’s  film didn’t make me want to crank it on up, get on my bad motor scooter and ride. But here are my top 3 picks for movies about radio stations that do:

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American Hot Wax– Floyd Mutrux’s spirited 1978 biopic about legendary Cleveland DJ Alan Freed (newfangled rock-n-roll’s first real cheerleader) may not be 100% historically accurate, but it’s 110% entertaining (and remains criminally unavailable in any home video format).

The late (and underrated) Tim McIntire delivers a terrific performance as Freed, who courted controversy in the early 1950s for breaking new songs by African-American artists on his radio show (back when they were called “race records”) and for promoting “integrated” dance events and concerts.

There are great performance cameos by Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The film occasionally strays into superfluous goofiness, and it glosses over the 60s payola scandal that (sadly) destroyed Freed’s career, but McIntire’s all-in performance commands your attention.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into an existential crisis. Soon after lamenting to his skeptical GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The movie is chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are quite authentic, which is rare on the screen. One caveat: it might take several days to get that ice cream van’s amplified tape loop out of your head (“Hello, folks!”).

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FM– John Alonzo’s 1978 comedy-drama (written by Ezra Sacks) centers on fictional L.A. rock station “Q-Sky” FM, which has just shot to number one, to the elation of hip program director Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon), who leads a team of colorful DJs (Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras and Eileen Brennan). While Dugan sees the win as validation for his “free form” approach, corporate HQ views it as a potential cash cow for landing big accounts like the U.S. Army. The battle lines between art and commerce are drawn…and it’s on.

Granted-the film is uneven, but the cast is game, the soundtrack is great, and Linda Ronstadt and band are in fine form performing several live numbers. It’s a nice snapshot of the era when “underground” FM was making a shift to the more corporate “Layla-Free Bird-Tom Sawyer” format that flogs to this day.

Ruling the (air) waves: Pirate Radio ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2009)

Philip Seymour Hoffman rehearses his BTO tribute band.

 Pirate Radio is the latest entry in the British invasion of feel-good, “root for the underdogs” comedy-dramas that have been coming at us over the last decade (The Full Monty, Still Crazy, Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, Bend it Like Beckham, etc.).

Released in the U.K. earlier this year under a different title (The Boat That Rocked) and with a substantially longer running time (more on that shortly), the film is based on true-life events surrounding Britain’s thriving offshore rock ’n’ roll pirate radio scene in the mid-to-late 60s (Radio Caroline and Radio London were the most well-known). The hugely popular stations came about as a rebellious counterpoint to the staid, government funded BBC programming that monopolized the British airwaves in those days.

The film, not so much an illuminating history lesson as it is a “WKRP on the high seas” romp, breezes along amiably, buoyed by an engaging cast. We are introduced to a bevy of wacky and colorful  characters through the eyes of young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been put out to sea (in a matter of speaking) on the pirate broadcasting ship, “Radio Rocks” by his free-spirited mother, who is at a loss as to how to deal with his recent expulsion from college.

She hopes that the boat’s captain/radio station manager, who is Carl’s godfather (played by the ever-delightful Bill Nighy) will be able to straighten him out. It quickly becomes apparent that one would be hard-pressed to locate any traditionally “upstanding” role models for the impressionable lad among the motley crew at hand, being that most on-board activities eventually circle back in one form or another to the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Philip Seymour Hoffman hams it up as the lone American DJ on the staff, who gets into a pissing contest with a “legendary” British air personality (Rhys Ifans) who has been coaxed into joining the station after taking an extended sabbatical from the biz. They are soon united against a common enemy, when an ultra-conservative government minister (Kenneth Branagh, in Snidely Whiplash mode) decides to make it his mission in life to take the “pirates” down.

Writer-director Richard Curtis has a knack for clever repartee (among his screenwriting credits is one of my favorite romantic comedies, The Tall Guy). I would have liked more historical context; the narrative sometimes dissolves into pure bedroom farce. There are also jumps in the timeline that I found slightly confusing; this may be attributable to  30 minutes or so of footage that has excised from its full U.K. cut (which I hope will be available on DVD).

There is a great period soundtrack (The Who, The Kinks, Cream, etc.) although I caught a couple tunes that the DJs were spinning which had not yet been released as of 1966, the year in which the story is set.  Nitpicks aside, it is still worth a spin.

2 Rock Docs: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (***1/2) & The Mayor of the Sunset Strip (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2007)

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This week I’m spotlighting two recent rockumentaries of merit, both available on DVD. First up is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Iconoclastic musician Daniel Johnston’s life story is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream-a tragicomic Grimm’s fairy tale version of the American Success Story that plays like a cross between Dig and The Grey Gardens.

Throughout most of the 1980’s, Johnston’s prodigious output of homemade, self-distributed cassette-only albums went largely unnoticed until they were famously championed by Kurt Cobain, who helped make the unsigned artist a household name of sorts in alt/underground music circles.

Johnston has waged a balancing act between musical genius and rampant madness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson and Joe Meek). The film recounts a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, amassing an ever-growing grass roots following.

Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his piloting father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America!). The rest, as they say, is History. The film also delves into Johnston’s childlike, oddly compelling drawings and paintings, which recall the work of the bizarre, posthumously discovered artist Henry Darger (the subject of an equally fascinating documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal). By turns disturbing, darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a must-see.

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The Mayor of the Sunset Strip is another worthwhile rock doc for your consideration. An alternately exhilarating/melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer, it was directed by George Hickenlooper, who most recently helmed the Edie Sedgewick biopic, Factory Girl.

The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Bingenheimer comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger, or perhaps the Forest Gump of rock and roll. Somehow, he has been able to plant himself squarely in the hurricane’s eye of every major music “scene” since the mid-60’s…from Monkeemania (he worked a brief stint as Davy Jones’ double!) to present-day (becoming the first U.S. radio DJ to break current superstars Coldplay).

While it’s “about” Rodney, the film also serves as a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze. The ongoing photo montages of Rodney posing with an A-Z roster of (seemingly) every major seminal figure in rock ’n’ roll history recalls Woody Allen’s fictional Alfred Zelig, a nondescript milquetoast who could morph himself to match whomever he was with at the time.

Throughout the course of the film, Rodney himself remains a cipher; in one very telling scene he fidgets nervously and begs Hickenlooper to turn off the camera when the questions get too “close”. There is also a sad irony-despite his ability to attract the company of the rich and famous (and they all appear to adore the man), the fruits of fame and success evade Rodney himself. He drives a an old beater to his DJ gig at L.A.’s legendary KROQ; he lives alone in a tiny, cluttered hovel, where treasured memorabilia like Elvis Presley’s first driver’s license collects dust next to the empty pizza boxes. Which begs the question: Is he a true “impresario”, or  a lottery-winning superfan?

The film is peppered with appearances and comments from the likes of music producer Kim Fowley (whose whacked-out music biz career warrants his own documentary), Pamela des Barres (legendary super-groupie and former member of Frank Zappa protégés The GTO’s) and her husband, actor-musician Michael des Barres (who steals the show with some priceless backstage tales). Brilliant!

Bless CC and its vanilla suburbs: Talk to Me **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2007)

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“Wake up, goddammit!” As far as daybreak salutations go, that may not be as sanguine as, let’s say, “goo-oood morning, VietNAAAM!”, but for D.C. radio personality Ralph “Petey” Greene, it was all part of “keepin’ it real” for the better part of two decades.In the new biopic, Talk to Me, director Kasi Lemmons tackles the true story of the ex-con who went on to become an immensely popular DJ, community activist, comedian and TV show host in the Washington D.C. market from the mid 1960s up until his death in 1984.

Don Cheadle (who co-produced) delivers another amazing performance…and it’s a good thing too, because it is the saving grace in a film that might otherwise play out like a glorified episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. His portrayal of the fast-talking, streetwise Greene grabs your attention from the get go, as we find him working his first DJ gig-broadcasting live and direct from the warden’s office over a jailhouse P.A. system. Judging from his fellow inmates’ reactions, it’s clear that Greene has a natural gift, not only for being entertaining, but articulating what his audience is thinking as well.

In 1966, Greene is released, and through a series of machinations (and sheer chutzpah) manages to ingratiate himself with Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor), program director of Washington D.C. soul station WOL. Against his better judgment, Hughes puts his job on the line and gives the motor-mouthed hustler a shot in the air chair.

Greene’s on-air debut is dramatized in a somewhat apocryphal manner (did he really open the mike and refer to Berry Gordy as a “pimp” right out of the starting gate, much to Management’s chagrin?) but the scene is representational of a pivotal point in radio history where some DJs were transitioning from the superficial Wolfman Jack/Murray the K/Cousin Brucie school to becoming “real” personalities who expressed an idiosyncratic world view.

Before long, Greene’s candid ruminations on the social issues of the day, as well as the urban black experience in general strikes a chord with the D.C. radio audience. Dewey Hughes soon senses an even larger potential for Greene to parlay his talents into stand up comedy and TV as well, offering to manage his career.

After a promising start, the 3rd act gets bogged down in  tired VH-1’s Behind the  Music-style clichés that have plunged other potentially great films into banality (Bird and Ray come to mind). The film is ultimately about yet another gifted performer squandering his or her potential through substance abuse and/or self sabotaging behavior. Haven’t we suffered through enough of these?

I would have liked to have seen a bit more attention to detail in the depiction of the radio station milieu. I admit this is a pet peeve because I have worked in the radio business since 1974, so I tend get nit-picky . And if I see one more movie set at a radio station that features a scene where a DJ barricades himself inside the studio and continues to talk while Management and/or security guards struggle to force the door open, I’ll rip off my headphones and run screaming into the sunset. It just doesn’t happen in real life (that often).

The supporting cast is good. Taraji P. Henson portrays Greene’s long suffering girlfriend, Vernell Watson, with aplomb (and a nod to Pam Grier). Cedric the Entertainer hams it up as late night DJ “Nighthawk” Bob Terry (recalling Venus Flytrap on WKRP). Also with Martin Sheen, who feels a bit squandered here as a cartoon GM who gets to fume and sputter and pound the studio window whenever Greene’s antics get too risqué and scream cornball lines like “What in the blue blazes do you think you’re doing!?”.

Still the film is worth watching for Cheadle and Ejiofor’s tandem performances. They are both  charismatic and talented actors, with an onscreen chemistry that could turn them into a Newman-Redford sized juggernaut, should they decide to work together again (hopefully, with a better script next time out).