Zoo Radio (1990)

It’s the start of award season and ahead of its Friday, December 13th nationwide opening, Bombshell, the Jay Roach-directed film about the Fox News-Roger Ailes scandal, walked away with four nominations: one for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture, in addition to three individual nominations for Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.

You know Jay Roach from his back-to-back 1997 and 1999 hits with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Then there’s Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004). And in between those films, Roach had another hit with his third James Bond parody, Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).

Transitioning from comedy into drama, Roach collected multiple awards with his political-trilogy cable-films Recount (2008), Game Change (2012), and All the Way (2016). Meanwhile, on the big screen, his biographical drama, Trumbo (2015), starring Brian Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle), garnered twenty nominations for various awards, including an Academy Award Best Actor nod for Cranston.

But before those hits, before the critical kudos and awards, Jay Roach—an Albuquerque, New Mexico-born economics graduate from Stanford University and a fresh-out-of-film-school grad from the University of Southern California—had to start, somewhere.

And that “somewhere” was a low-budget indie comedy produced for $500,000 by the film’s screenwriter, Jessie Wells. Courtesy of post-production tinkering by Wells, without Roach’s input or knowledge, the film that Roach shot isn’t the film that ended up being released—and he disowned the film. (His only film, Wells disappeared from the industry.)

According to the VHS box, Zoo Radio was intended to be the comedy successor to 1978’s Animal House and 1981’s Porky’s as a motley staff operating an underground radio station, “94.5 FM KLST K-Lost,” fight a hostile takeover by their slick, top-rated cross-town rival, KWIN.

The takeover is initiated by the death of an eccentric broadcast tycoon who wills his Los Angeles radio properties to his two sons: one a frowned upon, bumbling idiot, the other a favored success. Under the terms of their father’s will, rival radio station managers Burt and John Powell must compete with each other for their inheritance. Burt’s KLST and John’s KWIN have six months to build their ratings. Whichever station generates the highest ad revenues at the end of six months, that station gains control of the competing station and receives a $60 million dollar estate.

While the concept of dropping the Cain and Abel-influenced Trask brothers from 1955’s East of Eden into the ratings-competitive field of broadcasting—switching out the raunchy frat-house for a bawdy radio station—is inspired, the resulting film is. . . .

Regardless of actor Ron E. Dickinson’s enthused turn as Otto, he the resident John “Bluto” Belushi of the proceedings, producing a few, genuine chuckles, it doesn’t save Zoo Radio from being the most utterly inaccurate portrayal of a radio station ever committed to film, a film rife with a succession of groan-inducing puns (such as feeding burritos and beer to cat so it farts on cue) and even worse amateur acting. While Howard Stern’s Private Parts (1997) and Kevin Costner’s The Upside of Anger (2005) are the gold standards of radio station portrayals on film, Zoo Radio is. . . .

Who wouldn’t queue for a raunchy radio comedy—especially one where 1978’s FM collides with 1994’s Airheads? Sadly, what we ended up with is a bad film, but a film replete with MTV-era youthful nostalgia courtesy of Zoo Radio appearing on USA Network’s weekend Up All Night programming block alongside our beloved T&A trash classics of H.O.T.S, Lunch Wagon, and Sorority Babes in the Slime Bowl-A-Rama.

Yeah, respected, award-winning directors have to start somewhere . . . just ask Paul Feig, who starred as KLST’s blind, stuttering DJ, Chester Drawers. After Feig made his mark in television as the creator of the realistic high school drama, Freaks and Geeks (1999), he directed a series of his own, raunchy comedies: Bridesmaids (2011), Heat (2013), Spy (2015), and Ghostbusters (2016).

Even multi-platinum selling guitarist Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi had to start, somewhere . . . with his band, Shark Frenzy, which posthumously appears on the film’s (never released) soundtrack. And no, that’s not Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway reimaging his ‘80s hit “Mexican Radio” as the film’s title cut theme song—it’s a shockingly well-done mimic created by an artist (un) known as Cosmo Jimmy.

Zoo Radio has never been officially issued to DVD, so beware of those grey market DVD-Rs . . . and know your regions, if you must. You can watch a VHS rip of the film on You Tube, seen below. Used VHS copies run from $30 to $40 in the online marketplace.

You need more radio on film? Then check out A Matter of Degrees, Open House and Outside Ozona, which were reviewed as part of the 2019 Scarecrow Challenge. There’s a few more radio station-set films in our Grunge film extravaganza, “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s.”

And be sure to check out this Letterboxd list of all of the films that appeared on Up All Night, which aired from 1989 to 1998.

 About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.

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