Why you should care
Because radio was made for the weirdos.
From the outside, Provincetown, Massachusetts, way out there on the eastern tip of Cape Cod, can seem like a mellow artists’ colony, an isolated outpost for aging hippies, freaks and outsiders of all stripes, a place that at heart has a deep tolerance and appreciation for weirdos and outcasts and freethinkers. And y’know, that’s pretty much exactly what it is — a community made up of people who’ve consciously chosen to step as far away from the dominant culture as possible in order to live as they please.
Like so many free-form radio stations born in the 1960s and ’70s, Provincetown’s local community station, WOMR, was a rollicking, raucous, wild-haired spot on the dial where the only thing you could expect was that you’d hear music and opinions that veered crazily astray from the mainstream. While most of those little nonprofit harbors of free and eclectic speech and music have since vanished, swallowed by a maddeningly predictable radio landscape where “music” is just something to fill out the space between ads and “speech” translates to shrill political screeds, WOMR has stubbornly soldiered on, still reflecting the adamantly independent spirit of the community that surrounds it.
In his new documentary, Outermost Radio, which debuted this week at the Provincetown International Film Festival, filmmaker Alan Chebot, video adviser at OZY, presents a likewise freewheeling, loose, almost vérité portrait of life both inside and outside the station, a quick snapshot of a community made up of deejays and listeners alike who remain very proud of the fact that they’ve turned their backs on the accepted norms of the mainland.
As it’s always been, these days WOMR remains a shoestring operation staffed by eccentric volunteers and funded by public donations. Amid a soundtrack — mostly provided by live, in-studio performances — ranging from alternative rock and jazz to folk, Celtic, modern classical, zydeco and the unclassifiable, we meet locally bred deejays, including a Jew who plays lots of Wagner, political revolutionaries and Lady Di, a flamboyantly charismatic gay minister who hosts a sing-along oldies show. The one thing all the deejays have in common is a deep love and knowledge of the music they’re playing. Apart from the staff, we also meet a number of obsessive listeners around Provincetown, from boat builders to housewives, who consider the station an indispensable part of their daily lives.
While the cast of oddball characters is itself interesting (as in Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida), the drama running throughout the film involves the station’s efforts to raise the $40,000 needed to rebuild its broadcast antenna after its original one is blown over in a storm. As dramatic tension goes, it’s pretty mild, but it remains enough to provide a structure and a through-story around which the characters gravitate.
If there is a criticism of the film, it’s that it tends to be a little one-note, a love fest between the station’s staff and listeners for whom WOMR exists as a sort of quasi religion. Even a touch of counterpoint might have been a welcome distraction at times, had Chebot, say, found that one person in Provincetown who simply cannot stomach the station’s programming or politics. But who knows? Given the portrait of Provincetown, maybe those naysayers simply don’t exist.
Still, there’s something more afoot here than a simple look inside a little indie radio station. Ironically, although it’s stated repeatedly that the community is made up of people who’ve rejected the corporate-dictated culture at large, they remain a tight group of radical individuals willing to accept anyone despite their quirks, so long as the respect runs both ways. In short, it remains a microcosm, in mostly musical terms, of what America is supposed to be, a mélange of vastly different voices and views coexisting peacefully. Sadly, though, the film also makes the point that the local population is growing older with fewer and fewer youngsters around to carry on, which doesn’t bode well for the future of WOMR — or, on a larger scale, for the sense of freedom, individualism and idealism that Provincetown seems to embody.