Top movies and docos about radio

It goes without saying that I like everything about radio, even movies that feature radio stations.

The first movie I watched about radio must have been FM (pretty sure I left the cinema disappointed). Then came Good Morning Vietnam… So I thought it a good idea to pull together my top 5 along with some notable mentions…

5) FM

Released in 1978 the film FM is about fictional Los Angeles station Q-Sky and the battle between the station’s DJs and the suits who want more commercials and less music (sound familiar?).

We see a variety of cliché DJs who each have their personal problems and we get an insight into the pressure the station manager – played by Michael Brandon – faces as he has to pick a side; the suits or his DJs (and their loyal listeners).

Tension between the on-air talent and the management comes to a head when the DJs lock themselves in the station. A police raid follows. All up, the climax is a bit like what really happened at New York station WBAI (see below).

The plot of FM is paper thin, the film isn’t based in the reality of any station I know, and it is unbelievable in parts. Most parts.

4) Good Morning Vietnam

And it’s back to 1965 we go as we join DJ Adrian Cronauer (played by Robin Williams) on American Forces Radio during the Vietnam Conflict.

It’s a wild ride as Adrian takes on the army to play rock’n’roll and say what he likes over the air; revealing a bit of classified information to listeners along the way.

His DJ style is worlds away from what the other presenters’ are doing. Listeners love Cronauer; he boosts morale, draws a huge following among the troops, and ends up being too popular for his own good.

Great music, Williams’ ad-lib performance are star quality, and while dark in places, Good Morning Vietnam, released in 1987, is a fine film on many levels.

Interestingly, the real life Cronauer says he was never as funny as actor Robin Williams makes him out to be in the film.

3) Radio Unnameable

Radio host Bob Fass is probably unknown to most people living outside New York. But in the 60s he turned radio on its head – opening up the airways to listeners and musicians like no other radio host before him.

In this compelling documentary we learn that Bob was an actor who convinced WBAI’s management to let him do a show from midnight – when the station would normally shut down for the day.

His show tapped into a community of insomniacs and night workers who had something to say. He got a friend to hook up the studio phone to the broadcast desk and let the conversations and show find its own path every night. Bob Fass became an institution.

The documentary covers the anti-war movement, the emerging hippy culture, how Bob single-handedly changed radio, and much more.

However, it all came tumbling down when new management started changing the station’s schedule. Conflict came to a head when Bob and his supporters locked the management out of the station.

The station was off the air for weeks while issues were resolved. However, Bob paid a high price for taking a stand.

More here

2) Corporate FM

The internet didn’t kill radio, commercial radio is being killed from the inside. When DJs are told to shut up and stick to the playlist, it ends an age-old symbiotic relationship between radio and the community.

Corporate FM uncovers and documents the high finance shell-game that stole control of local radio from communities across America. The film also reveals how radio may become local again.

1) Talk Radio

Released in 1988, Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio was 20 years ahead of its time. The film follows polarizing talk show host Barry Champlain, a shop assistant with a big mouth and an opinion about everything.

He gets his big break when playing second fiddle to a daytime lightweight talk show host and ends up with his own late night phone-in show on a Dallas, Texas, station.

We join Barry as he learns his show is to be broadcast across the US network and as success is within sight, he loses his grip. He calls on his ex-wife to steady him as he prepares to transition from local talk show host to national radio personality.

Very well made, tense, funny, and terrifying.

Honourable mentions

Pump Up The Volume

Featuring Christian Slater, this is a raw and witty celebration of free speech that will make you laugh, cheer, and think. Slater says this is the film he is most proud of.

In Pump up the Volume, we discover Slater’s character (Mark Hunter) has moved to a new town and uses a radio transmitter to broadcast his thoughts on society and the actions of his school teachers at 10pm every night on 92FM – bringing students together and outing a corrupt teacher or two.

While quiet and shy at school, behind the microphone – broadcasting from the basement of his parent’s home – Hunter feels free to open up about loneliness and the sometimes difficult transition from child to adulthood.

Strangely, this movie is not listed on any streaming service I can find, it disappeared ten minutes after it was released in 1990 – but is available on DVD. Treat yourself to a great movie and don’t rely on streaming services to provide all you need.

Broadcast Blues

Almost a sister movie to Corporate FM. In Broadcast Blues documentary-maker Sue Wilson makes the point that in the US the airwaves belong to the people – not the corporations. She is campaigning to take the airwaves back.

The Boat That Rocked

A light-hearted look at off-shore pirate radio in the UK during the 1960s – featuring some studio gear that wasn’t available until the 70s (just saying). Colourful and fun with great music. Discover how the UK’s Labour government voted to change the law to make pirate radio illegal.

American Graffiti

Iconic DJ Wolfman Jack provides the audio backdrop to this coming-of-age movie – one night in the lives of a group of teenagers in 1962 (where were you?).

Steve Hart

Steve Hart

Steve Hart is a journalist and editor based in Melbourne.

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