The tip of Cape Cod explodes to life in summer, and this week filmmakers have descended on P-town for the 17th Provincetown International Film Festival. Hitting the big screen Sunday is “Outermost Radio,” a new documentary about WOMR, the town's fiercely independent, non-profit community radio station.
In the film’s opening, Boston director Alan Chebot flashes back in time to his childhood with home movie footage and his voiceover. “Hi there. I’m your filmmaker,” he says before describing what viewers are seeing.
“That’s me on a family vacation in Provincetown. We ventured a hundred miles from our sleepy suburban town to the outermost tip of Cape Cod. My father’s ‘63 Dodge transported us to world of sandy beaches, off-beat artists, actors, painters and poets.”
Sitting in his Allston production house, the filmmaker told me he never forgot that 1960s trip to P-town.
“I came from a town that was completely white, completely provincial,” Chebot said, “and here we are and people are outwardly gay in the streets. People were singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ literally under the window of the room we rented on Commercial Street. I was just agape.”
Decades later, as an adult, Chebot said he and his wife have frequently fed his fascination with Provincetown by driving around the Cape on Friday evenings. And they'd always tune in to WOMR's popular volunteer disc jockey known as Lady Di.
“Around 5 or 6 o’clock — as we were crossing the Sagamore Bridge — I would be listening to the show, which was Lady Di’s ‘Legs Up and Dancing,” he said. "And it was nuts.”
On air, Lady Di implores listeners to let loose. “Throw away those canes. Throw away those crutches, darling. It’s time to get your legs up and have some fun!”
Her on-air presence enchanted Chebot.
“I mean, she’s singing at the top of her lungs — off-key — everybody was ‘darling,' and it just felt like, wow, this person and this show embodies this sort of' anything goes' attitude.”
Chebot calls Lady Di’s show the “gateway drug” that led him to discover other quirky DJs who host programs with names such as Squid Jiggers Blend, WOMR Opera House and Psychedelic Oyster. The volunteers might play 45 minutes of Frank Zappa — or an hour with all songs starting with the letter P. (I remember being in Wellfleet one summer, and a DJ played Primus’s cover of Pink Floyd’s concept album, ‘Animals,’ in its entirety --followed by both sides of Pink Floyd's original. It was spectacular!)
The DJs' passion made Chebot realize he needed to tell their stories, and in 2011 he got permission to take his camera inside the humble Provincetown institution on Commercial Street.
“You’re in a place where there’s vinyl everywhere, where there are just rows and rows and rows of CDs and cassettes and 8-tracks,” he said. “I mean, the station goes back over 30 years, so it’s this place where you see posters from local acts to The Zombies. It’s kind of like all of these people who live there have brought their thing to it, and they’ve created this patchwork.”
While filming, Chebot got to know dozens of volunteer DJs, including his first WOMR love Lady Di, classical aficionado Howard Weiner and pacifist Chuck Cole, who has been on the air for 25 years.
Cole’s ancestors came off the Mayflower. Now he lives in an elaborate yurt year-round in Wellfleet. All of the DJs lead double, maybe triple lives: they’re musicians, guest house managers, former human resources professionals.
“It’s real people that come out and do radio in between times,” Chuck Cole says in the film.
In Chebot’s words, WOMR was started by a bunch of hippies in the ‘70s. Since then every music genre has made its way from the little studio to the station’s antennae to radios in cars, boats and bars across the Cape.
In his documentary, Chebot talks to loyal listeners and captures bands performing live on air.
“It could be anywhere from a folk singer to The Cat Birds, which are one of the loudest bands on Cape Cod, playing at six in the morning to wake us up,” Chebot said.
He was actually there to film Chandler Travis of that notoriously volumatic Cape band at that (for some) unseemly hour. On camera, the musician curses up a blue streak, because DJ and local chef Tony Pasquale asked him to come in at daybreak.
“Chandler Travis, a ray of sunshine at 6:52 in the morning,” Pasquale says on air, adding, “I have never heard so many F-bombs — and I’m from New Jersey.”
"I mean, I go to bed at five or six in the morning," Travis told me. These days he has four bands. Then he reached back into his memory banks to tell me how long he’s been making music on Cape Cod.
With a hearty laugh, he said, “This is hilarious, but I think it’s 40 years!”
Travis admitted he was skeptical at first about Chebot’s ability to reflect P-town’s essence on film — but now that he’s seen "Outermost Radio," the musician said he approves.
“For me, it’s a sympathetic portrayal of a bunch of people that I like. It’s got a little bit of a home movie quality to it,” he said. "Although obviously it’s way better than that.”
It would have to be higher quality than a home movie to get into the Provincetown International Film Festival, where Lisa Viola is senior programmer.
“Just because it’s a local film does not guarantee entrance, that's for sure,” she said.
Viola said four programmers, including her, screened 100 documentaries for the fest. In the end they chose 22, including "Outermost Radio," because it stood out.
“It’s a film that talks about community ‘at the edge of the world,’ as we like to say out here in Provincetown,” she said.
Viola has been traveling from Brookline to Provincetown to work the film festival for 17 years and says that even though she’s worked with the station in the past, this new documentary taught her something she didn’t know about its recent history: in 2012, a winter storm destroyed WOMR’s antennae.
“The station was knocked off the air,” Alan Chebot recalled, and he was there to capture the aftermath.
“That created quite a dramatic conflict [in the film] and something that the community had to overcome,” he said.
The sad occurrence gives his film even more power, as Chebot followed the fundraisers and acts of solidarity that saved WOMR and restored its full transmission.
“In our digital age, community is taking on a whole other meaning through devices,” Chebot mused, “but these are real people engaging on a real human level with each other — to get a station on the air, and keep it on the air, and to keep their freedom of expression alive.”
And Alan Chebot – an avid music lover – said he’ll take WOMR’s passionate, funky DJs and their personal curating over Spotify or Pandora’s computer algorithms any day, and he’s thrilled that WOMR’s story will be making it’s way into other film festivals across the country this summer. He just wishes he could’ve included every one of the volunteers in his documentary.