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How a radio pioneer named Steve Post set the stage for Howard Stern and Marc Maron

The best part of “Playing in the FM Band,” a new documentary about revolutionary radio personality Steve Post, finds our hero trapped in the bathroom of WNYC.

“In the instant before my flesh made contact with the seat, I realized that I was clutching a cold, metal object in my right hand,” Post says in the baritone that, for over 50 years, graced New York’s airwaves. “It was the inside handle of the bathroom door – I was apparently locked in.”

Narrated over line-drawn animation, the saga of how Post crawled along the ledge of the 39th floor, finding his way back indoors to continue his broadcast and avoid dreaded dead air, is a testament to his extraordinary commitment to radio, his riotous raconteurship and the hapless vulnerability that made him such an inimitable presence. Unsurprisingly, the film, by director Rosemarie Reed, is at its strongest when it lets Post do the talking.

The documentary, named for Post’s memoir, is an uneven tribute to a man who helped invent the free-form radio format. Beginning at WBAI in the 1960s, Post was a voice in the counterculture, befriending The Realist’s Paul Krassner and weighing in on the trial of the Chicago 7. He brought a sardonic humor to the morass in Vietnam War. He had a field day with Watergate while collecting a prodigious amount of Nixon merchandise.

As a stalwart defender of free speech, he protected his colleague Julius Lester against the Jewish Defense League, who objected to the on-air reading of an antisemitic poem, written by a 15-year-old student during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teacher Strike. (In an interesting coda, Lester, a writer, activist and musician, later converted to Judaism.)

Post also had long conversations with transgender callers in the late 1960s, speaking to them with an empathy hard to find among many of the host’s ostensible heirs. Post’s real innovation was himself – introducing a self-deprecating, flawed persona onto his show, never just reading the news or playing a record.

In the film, Peter Zanger, a longtime producer for WBAI, called Post a “pioneer in giving air to his neuroses,” a development without which it’s hard to imagine Howard Stern or Marc Maron. But, not all of Post’s on-air exploits were as progressive as he so often was.

Early on, we hear humorist Marshall Efron call into the show as a swami named “Rumpled Foreskin,” an extremely racist caricature that’s also offensive to intersex people and, could nonetheless sadly fit quite snugly into many shock jock’s timeslots today. While also part of Post’s legacy, the fact that this segment is not interrogated – and is actually supplemented in the film by stock photos of Buddhas – clashes with the later emphasis on Post’s social justice bona fides.

This isn’t the only false note struck by Reed, known for her films “Conversations with Gorbachev” and “Tracing Thalidomide” and who knew Post from her time working at WBAI. After Post talks about eating chicken gribenes with his grandmother, Reed curiously inserts footage from the 1923 “Ten Commandments.” The choice signifies Jewishness in an emptier way than Post’s own memories, or, for that matter, his accounts of others’ lives.

While many of the insights of Reed’s interviewees can feel superficial, the depth of Post’s own engagement with other people is shown to be extraordinary. When he isn’t spinning a tale about his father’s attempts at broiled meatloaf – accidentally seasoned by Comet cleanser – Post can be heard eulogizing civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. In the aftermath of 9-11, Steve broadcast the story of his neighbor, a member of the NYPD bomb squad, who lost his partner that day. Reed shows the neighbor moved to tears by how true Post was to the details of the worst morning of his life. Post listened as well as he spoke.

Post’s gift for forging a connection with his audience made his death of cancer, the process of which he candidly documented, all the more gutting for fans. But even as Reed circles around that ending for 90 minutes, it nonetheless feels abrupt.

Devotees of Post’s show may appreciate the film’s looks at archival images, but, knowing how he left it all out on the table, they may not learn too much more. If you’re mostly unacquainted – and I include myself in that group – it’s a capable entree, and may send you searching through the archives for his greatest hits.

Apart from Post’s death-defying crawl along the WNYC building, there’s another standout moment that perhaps sums him up even better: a performance review from his boss John Schaefer.

“This form is almost completely useless in evaluating Post’s performance,” the paper, as read by former NY Public Radio CEO Laura Walker, says. “He’s hard to work with, distrustful, curmudgeonly, loose-lipped, pampered and unpredictable.” He was also “funny, sincere and effective” and “honest (brutally so).” Those factors combined made him irreplaceable.

Steve Post resists a conventional assessment – but too often, Reed’s film feels like one.

“Playing in the FM Band: The Steve Post Story” is playing at Film Forum beginning March 11. Tickets and information can be found here.

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