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  FM Hey, That's Smooth
Year: 1978
Director: John A. Alonzo
Stars: Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Alex Karras, Cleavon Little, Martin Mull, Cassie Yates, Norman Lloyd, Jay Fenichel, James Keach, Joe Smith, Tom Tarpey, Janet Brandt, Mary Torrey, Roberta Wallach, Terry Jastrow, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Petty
Genre: Comedy, Drama, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Q-SKY is a Los Angeles radio station which boasts a loyal band of listeners across the region thanks to its dedication to playing high quality music over a crystal clear FM signal. It has a small but adept group of disc jockeys led by Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) who this morning is lying asleep in bed when he receives a telephone call from the overnight presenter The Prince of Darkness (Cleavon Little) to inform him it's nearly six o'clock which means he will be heading home. The issue with that is Dugan hosts the breakfast show, and he only has a few minutes to get to the station before this show begins, which cues him racing across the city in his sports car to reach the microphone and continue broadcasting...

It's OK, he makes it, and that bit was just an item of humour to set things off in what was could be best described as drama with comedy focused on music. Radio in the nineteen-seventies, in the United States at least, seems worth getting nostalgic about as the increased use of the huge improvement over AM that FM represented with regard to music brought up a host of stations dedicated to the AOR field, with various digressions to what was cool at the time, from comedy to the more independent, out there scene. Making a film about this would appear to be the obvious move, the stations were popular enough, but even as this was released there were changes taking place in the media.

Those changes informed the writing of Eric Sacks' script as Dugan finds himself pitched against the money men among those who own Q-SKY; they are pleased the figures are in when they tell them it is the most popular channel in the city, but they feel this should mean they should be generating larger profits, and draw up plans to reduce the amount of music, of presenter freedom essentially, in favour of more advertising. When the U.S. Army create commercials to be played over the air to appeal to the more radical leanings of the listenership, Dugan is furious, this is the last straw, although you do wonder how much they embraced the counterculture when listening to REO Speedwagon (who make an appearance here).

Still, it's the drive to stick it to The Man under the belief, misguided or not, rock and pop music can represent a stand against conservative, repressive society that fuelled the plot, and maybe back in 1978 this kind of rock did sound like that (you'll recognise that not a single note of disco is to be heard on the soundtrack, even though arguably that was more resembling the future of the medium than what comes across as a tad safe to modern ears). But given the setpiece concert footage featured Jimmy Buffett followed by Linda Ronstadt, the rebel posturing of Q-SKY was hard to believe, even as the finale saw the staff barricading themselves into the studio and a rally breaking out in the street outside, one which erupts into eventual violence. It was telling that there was not much of an audience for the film when it was released.

Looking back on it, there was a definite end of an era mood to FM, as when the eighties dawned the media began to concentrate on narrowcasting, centring in on specific audience types who would either want talk radio shock jocks to spout reactionary invective, or bland fare they didn't have to concentrate too much on: smooth jazz, overfamiliar oldies and the like. You cannot imagine Dugan and his merry band being too tolerant of that, which would see them losing their jobs, especially with a sit in protest on their CVs, therefore their victory would likely be a pyrrhic one as it was when corporate radio conquered the quirkier channels on the FM dial, leaving a few brave outposts playing what they wanted, to a listenership who did not want to hear the same old thing every day. For that reason this film probably plays better now than it did then as we can see what was around the corner (British radio, aside from the BBC, would eventually not be much more inspiring than the US equivalent), and if the music choice doesn't sound that daring (though the resulting compilation LP sold more copies than the film did tickets), Steely Dan's title track gleamed with the sleek promise tuning in to one of these stations held.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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