Under the leadership of program director Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon), L.A.’s QSKY soon becomes the #1 radio station in the market, with a dedicated staff of jocks that believe it’s the music that defines QSKY. When Dugan accepted the job, his intention was to make his bosses at Billings Radio Corporation pleased with QSKY’s progress…but The Powers That Be aren’t happy with the station’s small profits and intend to pump up QSKY’s commercial content.
Regis Lamar (Tom Tarpey) is the hatchet man in sales sent by Billings to make QSKY’s commercial content take steroids, and though Lamar and Dugan have a wary adversarial relationship at first, Lamar’s idea to allow the U.S. Army to advertise on the station is a deal breaker for Jeff, who quits his job in protest. The station’s staff stages a protest via a “sit-in,” playing nothing but commercial-free music until Billing’s vice president Albert Driscoll (Joe Smith) arrives to take charge, determined to have the protesters removed by legal injunction.
Writer Ezra Sacks (he later wrote A Small Circle of Friends and Wildcats) was working for Los Angeles radio station KMET as a film critic when he got the idea for a screenplay that would chronicle the wacky goings-on at a rock ‘n’ roll station. A colleague of Sacks arranged a meeting with Universal’s Verna Fields (the famed editor on films like Paper Moon and Jaws) who signed off on the idea, and what ultimately became FM (1978) was assigned to be the theatrical directorial debut of ace cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Chinatown, The Bad News Bears). FM’s critical reputation as a motion picture is a hit-and-miss affair (you either like it or you don’t); Sacks even acknowledges in a featurette (“Radio Chaos”) included in the recent Arrow Video Blu-ray release (July 2) that more attention was given to the film’s soundtrack (which eventually went platinum and won a Grammy) than the content of the movie, hurting its performance at the box office in the long run.
I requested a screener of FM from MVD’s Clint Weiler (thanks, Clint!) because the mantra of this blog is, of course, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” I didn’t see the movie when it made the rounds in theaters, but the film was a programming staple on Home Box Office during the pay channel’s halcyon years. The soundtrack album was also a favorite; when I attended Marshall University from 1981-83, FM got quite a workout during my shifts at WMUL (the only FM station I ever DJ’d at, curiously enough). The main reason for my wanting to revisit FM is steeped in those DJ days; TV shows and movies that focus on radio broadcasting are of great interest of me, seeing as how they remind me of the best years of my life.
FM begins with a situation pulled from real radio life: Dugan has to be on the air at 6am, and he’s on the phone with nighttime jock The Prince of Darkness (Cleavon Little) pleading for a little extra time as he’s late but headed out the door. We’re treated to Jeff zipping up and down L.A.’s streets to the accompaniment of the Eagles’ Life in the Fast Lane, and with seconds to spare, he arrives at QSKY in time to greet his many listeners. In his conversation with Prince, the nighttime jock says “nuh-uh” to sticking around to see if Dugan makes it on time—6:01 and he is out the door. Though they cover this with a bit of expository dialogue (Little’s character, when asked to be reasonable, responds “If I was reasonable, do you think I’d be working from midnight to 6am six days a week? I may be crazy, baby, but I ain’t reasonable—you oughta know that, you hired me!”) any DJ unwilling to stick around to make sure his relief arrives isn’t going to be working in radio for much longer. (Supposing Dugan got hit by a car during the Eagles song—the station’s just going to have dead air until they can find a replacement?) Sacks recalls in “Chaos” that he and director Alonzo had spirited disagreements about the Jeff Dugan character, with Alonzo refusing to believe Dugan was the sort who’d run a stoplight.
The cast in FM is solid; I’m not familiar with Michael Brandon’s work outside of this film but he’s a very likable guy who’s supportive of his staff (something that, sadly, I do not remember from my own commercial radio experiences). He has a very nice chemistry with Macon, GA native Cassie Yates, who plays a female DJ that engages in a hint of a hookup with Dugan. TDOY fave Eileen Brennan is “Mother,” a world-weary air personality (purportedly based on “The Nightbird,” Alison Steele) who seems one shift away from heading out the door, and Alex Karras has a nice sympathetic turn as “Doc Holiday,” a jock completely out of step with the station’s format (the scene in which Jeff informs him his ratings suck is a reminder that radio is show business, and if your numbers drop you’re out of there). Martin Mull, well-known to TV audiences from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night, made his motion picture debut as the self-absorbed Eric Swan (a radio type I have encountered too many times to keep accurate records of). Swan figures in a hilarious scene where he has an on-air meltdown after his agent (Robert Patten) fires him and his girlfriend-assistant (Mary Torrey) leaves him (she gets a job with the agent); blubbering to his audience about how unloved he is.
As engaging as the actors are (I forgot to mention James Keach, who has a funny scene as an Army lieutenant speculating that we went to war in Vietnam in order to bring back a particularly potent strain of weed…and that might also be the reason why we lost) the screenplay never really jells. FM seems to be going for a Between the Lines vibe, but its villains are a little too cartoonish and we never really experience the sense of camaraderie among QSKY’s players as that displayed in The Back Bay Mainline’s staff. The climax of the movie comes off as unconvincingly forced; I bow to no one in my love in seeing cops drenched with a water hose by the station’s protesters but the movie wraps up its conflict much too neatly with character great Norman Lloyd (complete with embarrassing cowboy hat and Texan accent to match) backing down because he admires Dugan’s “guts.”
FM’s strong suit is its soundtrack, and in addition there’s concert footage from Jimmy Buffett (who sings Livingston Saturday Night) and Linda Ronstadt (Tumbling Dice, Poor Poor Pitiful Me)—the Ronstadt sequence features heavily in the film as Dugan resorts to a little chicanery to stealing Linda’s “performance” from a rival station. Real-life manager/MCA head Irving Azoff served as the executive producer on FM, which explains why there are a lot of his affiliated artists on the soundtrack (like Buffett and Steely Dan, whose title track, FM [No Static at All], was a major top 40 hit); Azoff eventually had his name removed from the finished product (publicly stating “the film is not an authentic representation of the music business”) but he retained a nice percentage of both the film’s profits and the soundtrack’s royalties. Music fans will also get a kick out of spotting Tom Petty and the members of REO Speedwagon playing themselves. Some Came Running’s Glenn Kenny figures heavily in a bonus featurette on the Arrow Video Blu-ray that talks about the FM soundtrack.
It’s long been speculated that the classic TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati was inspired by FM…but that’s not technically true. While both the Jeff Dugan and Andy Travis characters were purportedly modeled after KMET program director Marion Elbridge “Captain Mikey” Herrington, WKRP creator Hugh Wilson already had the pilot for his show in development when FM was released to theaters. In fact, Wilson was concerned that the film might overshadow his TV show; fortunately for him, FM came and went faster than a station break. FM did what I expected it to do: it brought back a nice little memory or two of the days when I had headphones and a cued-up 45 at the ready after news, sports, and weather.