Derek Frank’s film tells the story of radio station owner Bob Bittner, whose one-man network has generated a cult following.
By Noah Schaffer
When Derek Frank shows his documentary short The Memories Station at film festivals outside of New England, he’s routinely asked if the radio stations profiled in the film can be heard online.
“I tell them no, they’ll have to take a vacation to Boston or Maine,” he replies.
Disdain for streaming is just one of the ways in which Cambridge’s WJIB (740-AM) and its five sister ‘Memory Stations’ in Maine are unique. Frank’s film tells the story of radio station owner Bob Bittner, whose one-man network has generated a cult following because of its “beautiful music” format, lack of commercials, and Bittner’s brief but forceful on-air announcements that bash corporate America and credit card companies.
Frank talked to The Arts Fuse about the film, which will be screened at the Somerville Theater both Friday and Saturday as part of a documentary shorts package at the Independent Film Festival Boston.
ArtsFuse: WJIB’s fans love the station, but it’s certainly one of the lower-profile Boston media outlets. How did it come your attention?
Derek Frank: I’ve been making films since I graduated from Boston University in 2002, both as an editor and creating my own films. I had made a prior film called Hollywood Express about one of the last video stores in Boston which has since closed. My cinematographer. Adam Van Voorhis, and another guy I’ve worked with, Jeff Stern, were both WJIB fans and kept saying how it would be a good idea for a movie. When I looked up Bob I realized that he was a character. I emailed him when he was in Cambridge doing a live show. Then we went up to Maine and shot him for 12 hours hanging around his station up there, talking and listening to music.
AF: You’re in your 40s, which suggests that you’re probably not the target audience for an easy listening/nostaliga radio station.
Frank: The interesting thing about WJIB is that it appeals to a really large cross section. I think a lot of that is because listening to Bob’s station is a very personal experience. What people respond to is that there’s a feeling that there’s a person selecting everything that you hear. There’s no algorithm, no one with a set play list. He’s got 12,000 songs he’s creating a playlist from. It’s his own sensibility that drives the station. He’s the only one talking. There are no commercials. So what we’ve found is that the audience isn’t just folks who remember the music of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but rather anyone who is responding to how it is such a different experience from what you get on commercial radio, Pandora, or Spotify. I have kids and when we listen to Bob it’s a really positive experience. His whole thing is about beautiful music and creating a relaxing vibe. We can have it on during dinner and my kids won’t hear anything that they shouldn’t. It just puts you in a really nice headspace.
AF: Does your film mention any of Bob’s short commentaries which pop up between the songs?
Frank: When we were filming him he was doing one of his “cut up your credit card” announcements on the air. And it’s definitely part of the station. But in the movie we just couldn’t find a space for it. We talked a lot about trying to fit it in. I think we could have made another movie which would have been more about Bob’s take on the world. The movie ended up being more about the connection that people have to the station, and it’s the music that drives that, so that’s what we ended up focusing on.
AF: That leads me into another question: One of the great things about IFFBoston is that it features so many excellent documentary shorts which would not have worked nearly as well as full-length films. What appeals to you about the shorter form, given that it limits a film’s distribution potential?
Frank: A documentary needs to have a story, a full narrative arch that you can move an audience through. Shorts can be portraits, which is what we set out to do with The Memories Station. You get in, meet him, and you get out. Sustaining a portrait for 45 minutes — well, you’re going to get people looking at their watches.
AF: Bob’s unique approach to running his stations have resulted in a number of newspaper articles over the years. Yet he doesn’t seem like someone who seeks attention. What’s his reaction to the film been?
Frank: He said he liked how we talked about the station. But he’s a real stickler for detail, and there was one little tiny thing — I think it was about a song — and he needed to point it out. He’s got a very laid back demeanor but he’s also really into what he does.
AF: Now that this film is done and playing the festival circuit what are you working on?
Frank: I’m working on a personal documentary. And I’m an adoptee and an ongoing project has been Six Word Memoirs on Adoption. We film people’s six words and we’ve made 20-minute volumes of them which we show at conferences. That’s been keeping us busy.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.