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Review: “I Am What I Play”

I Am What I Play Roger King Meg Griffin Pat O'Day Marsden LacquierdaFor those outside the business, “I Am What I Play,” documentarian Roger King’s look at the careers of four legendary DJs, will be a new window into a bygone era–the heroic announcer who influenced music and even the culture around them. It will bring some viewers to a place they can only regard anthropologically—that time “when radio mattered” that they’ve only heard about.

Industry readers will find something different in “I Am What I Play,” which takes its title from David Bowie’s “DJ”: almost instant recognition. The first story is legendary CFNY Toronto PD/jock David Marsden deciding at age 12 that he wants to be on the air, making his parents nervous. Within the first fifteen minutes of the documentary, there have been two firings—both of PDs/jocks who don’t want to switch their station’s formats from the nascent rock ‘n’ roll back to MOR—and one re-hiring. 

King has been heavily promoting his documentary for several years throughout its project stage. “I Am What I Play” became available on May 1 for rental on Vimeo. It’s the second major radio documentary to debut in a few days’ time, following the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the WLIR Long Island appreciation, “Dare to be Different.”

“I Am What I Play” features the alternating stories of four broadcasters–Marsden, WBCN Boston’s Charles Laquidara, WNEW New York’s Meg Griffin, and KJR Seattle’s Pat O’Day. Marsden and O’Day bring some stories from the AM Top 40 era, but the focus is on the progressive rock era of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. (Even for O’Day, much of the focus is on his relationship with Jimi Hendrix, whose funeral he helped organize.)

For their contemporaries, some of the events were lived through, or at least followed in the trades: the WBCN jock strike; WPIX New York’s short-lived new wave format; rock radio’s all-hands-on-deck reaction to the murder of John Lennon. They’ll also recognize the outline of rock radio history. AOR is founded by a combination of repentant top 40 jocks and those with no radio preconceptions. Jocks begin with the freedom to throw jazz or classical music into a set and end up quitting when they’re first handed a music log. Griffin still expresses dismay that jocks can’t take listeners on a five song journey, even if it involves unfamiliar music.

But even if you know their stories, you can count on four veteran jocks for enough great anecdotes to fill 90 minutes and King keeps them coming at a clip that the most rigid consultant would approve of. Many major topics are handled in two or three soundbites. The drug and alcohol abuse rampant in ‘70s radio looms large enough to come back for that treatment a few times; Laquidara’s bottoming out moment was finally promising his wife that he would only do cocaine once a year at the station holiday party.

Because his subjects have so much to say, King doesn’t need that many outside experts. One eminence who does appear is Griffin’s eventual Sirius XM boss, Mel Karmazin, seen here candidly discussing his tumultuous relationship with Laquidara. At one point, the morning man offers to pay then-elusive group head Karmazin for three minutes of his time; Karmazin not only cashes the check but tweaks Laquidara by donating the money to the NRA. 

King also wisely keeps the inevitable griping about what radio has become until the movie’s last six minutes. Griffin recounts a negative experience with Bob Pittman, but it involves the time that she was almost hired at MTV, not his current tenure at iHeartMedia. In fact, there’s little or no groaning about any of today’s corporate broadcasters or even a focus on the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as “the moment it went wrong.” In his non-filmmaker life, King is an agent for voice-over talent, so the tone is more affectionate than it might have been in other hands.

The MTV segment is, of course, a cue to the Buggles and the “Video Killed the Radio Star” video. (James Cridland, take note.) Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio,” inspired by CFNY’s slug line, is here. So is the equally inevitable “Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio” by the Ramones. So are a few obscure choices of the sort both favored by documentary music supervisors and made inevitable by documentary budget limitations; those rankle only because a film like this makes you want to hear more of the music that actually drove radio in this era. (It was good to hear Teenage Head’s “Let’s Shake,” an anthem of the Toronto alternative scene that CFNY helped foster.)

It’s easy to encounter people in the business who are not just anti-nostalgia, but often anti-history. For those still working in radio, it’s easy to demonize the veterans, but it’s also hard to work alongside the ghosts of radio past. “I Am What I Play” will be enjoyable for those who were there, but it’s even more necessary viewing for those who came later, and a testament to the power of the medium. Marsden gets the film’s last word. “Anybody can play records. Only a few can play music. You at home can play records. You might not be able to mix them the way I do.”

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Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

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