Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite records that I used to love taking out of the library — aside from The Beatles 1962-1966, which I did not yet own — was the soundtrack to a 1978 movie called FM.
It was an amazing double-album filled with huge rock hits of the last few years: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, and more…and of course Steely Dan’s classic theme song. Pretty much a perfect cross-section of what would become the classic rock genre in future radio programming. [It’s still available on CD at this time, by the way, and highly recommended.]
I don’t remember the movie ever playing anywhere close at the time of its release (April 1978), but then again, I was only seven at the time. The soundtrack was good enough for me. Still, it would be another few years before I finally saw it when it was shown on one of the local independent TV channels a few years later. I enjoyed it, even if some of the more mature issues (like Eric Swan’s sexual encounters or Mother’s consistently-baked persona) went right over my head. The short version of the plot is that Q-Sky, an LA-based rock station with committed fans but not much profit, is being threatened by upper management to play more commercials and less music to make more money. The stalwart deejays (your classic tropes here: the smooth-talking overnight guy, the ex-hippie still living in the previous decade, the young and spunky morning host, the cute and friendly girl everyone loves, the popular prima donna, and so on) decide to go against upper management to keep the station alive and rockin’ at whatever cost…even if it means going on strike.
[There are definitely shades of WKRP in Cincinnati here, but please note that the show was actually in pre-production talks when this movie came out; they’re not connected to each other in any way.]
It wasn’t until I read Richard Neer’s 2001 book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (also highly recommended) that I renewed my interest in the film. It took me another number of years to finally find a dvd copy. Years older and more knowledgeable about the way radio works, I’d discovered that the movie, for all it’s worth, was actually quite accurate in its portrayal of a radio station’s ups and downs during that time.
FM rock radio was in fact becoming the preferred choice for younger listeners by 1978, bypassing AM radio’s previous popularity — thus the riff ‘no static at all’ in the theme song. It was also the zenith of rock radio to that point, with numerous bands releasing platinum and gold selling albums that are still highly regarded to this day. At the same time, however, the financial woes of running a popular radio station had started taking its toll on the programming. It was becoming harder and harder to be a free-form station where the deejay could play anything they wanted, when the business itself needed to make a profit to stay alive. FM was in fact a spot-on commentary of this, even when it veered into the occasional Hollywood movie silliness.
Running a radio station nowadays is still just as hard as it’s ever been. The issue is that it’s not built to be a moneymaker; it’s built to be a community service. It provides free entertainment and information to its listeners; its money is made from its advertising or donations and fundraising events. Most owners and station managers try to keep the moneymaking part of the business as unobtrusive as they can.
But that’s another post altogether. I’m just here to talk about one of my favorite movies and soundtracks!