The 1978 movie FM was on VH1 Classic the other night. I saw it when it came out—at the local drive-in theater, if memory serves—and I may have seen it on video once since then, but it’s been years. The basic plot of FM is this: noncommercial QSKY (71.1 on the FM dial) rises to Number One in Los Angeles. Its owner decides to capitalize on this by selling advertising, including a buy from the U.S. Army, which the jocks, led by program director/morning guy Jeff Dugan (played by Michael Brandon), don’t want. The jocks end up going on strike to stop the buy, and the listening public rallies to their cause. I won’t tell you what happens next, but everyone ends up living happily ever after as Steely Dan’s theme song plays over the credits.
Subplots are many: the midday jock (played by Alex Karras) loses his job due to poor ratings; the afternoon guy (Martin Mull) tries and fails to get a gig hosting a game show; the night jock (Eileen Brennan) decides she wants to quit radio altogether. Dugan has a thing for the new midday jock, Laura (Cassie Yates); one of the engineers, Bobby, wants to be a DJ. (The single wrong-est scene in the movie is when we first see the station’s two engineers, who are wearing white lab coats with the station logo on the back.) The first half of the movie deals with the surreptitious live broadcast of another station’s Linda Ronstadt concert, which is done simply by showing up and hooking up a transmitter. Ronstadt and Jimmy Buffett perform in the film; Tom Petty is seen giving an interview on the air; REO Speedwagon is credited as appearing, although I didn’t see them—but they may have been in the draggy middle section of the film where I stopped paying close attention for a while.
For an old radio guy, there’s a lot to like about FM. Every wall at QSKY is plastered with album covers and photos, memos, bumper stickers, and quirky signs. No real-world station I ever saw was decorated quite like that, but it’s the way people think radio stations are supposed to look. The movie also gets the racial and gender politics of the jock lineup right. Female jocks, then and now, tend to do either middays or evenings, and in that day, a Top 40 jock who happened to be black was likely stuck on overnights. (Cleavon Little, from Blazing Saddles, plays him here.) The bantering way the jocks interact with one another off the air feels familiar. And when the staff is celebrating its success in the ratings, the sales manager toasts by saying, “To profits, and the quality they bring,” to which Dugan responds, “To quality, and the profits they bring.” Ladies and gentlemen, the creative tension at the heart of radio, in 14 words.
It’s a bit odd that QSKY, which is supposed to be in revolt against the corporatization of radio, actually plays nothing but the biggest stars from the major corporate record labels. The FM soundtrack, a terrific double-disc collection of mainstream rock of the late 70s featuring Boston, Foreigner, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, the Eagles, James Taylor, Billy Joel, and others, was an enormous hit in 1978. I’ve still got my copy, including the QSKY poster that came with it, which adorned the wall of my college apartment for a couple of years.
FM got a DVD release most recently in 2002, but it’s out of print now, and used copies are pricey. Fortunately, the original trailer shows you the whole movie in three minutes.
Given the problems and expense inherent in clearing music for DVD releases, I’m surprised FM ever got one, or got it without the butchery that’s been inflicted on the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati. (Despite what you will read elsewhere, WKRP was neither inspired by nor based on FM. Although the similarities are striking, they were developed independently, albeit at the same time.)
One more thing about FM: In the scene at the beginning, where Dugan is at the wheel of his Porsche convertible, racing to get to the station in time for his show, he looks exactly like me. Or at least he’s who I see when I look in the mirror. . . .
“FM (No Static at All)” (live)/Steely Dan (recorded in 2000; bootleg)