Documentary Explores Beginnings Of Popular New England Radio Station

Mar 2, 2020

A recent documentary centers on Boston’s WBCN radio, a 40-plus year fixture on the New England airwaves.

Rock radio is fading out in many cities around the country. Last month, WAAF, a rock radio station in Massachusetts, was sold and abruptly changed its format after 50 years. It’s been more than a decade since WBCN left the air. Both stations were widely heard in New Hampshire.

We could focus on the demise, but Bill Lichtenstein, a filmmaker and one-time ‘Rock of Boston’ staffer, decided to tell the story of the beginning of WBCN. He started back in 1968, as a 14-year-old kid answering the station’s listener line.

This transcript of Rick Ganley's conversation with Bill Lichtenstein has been lightly edited.

Lichtenstein: People were told call with anything – questions, your roommate's having a bad acid trip, whatever, and we'll be happy to try to help you. And so I started answering the listener line. I was one of a number of young people that were recruited to do that.

Ganley: And I know you eventually moved into the news department. The film focuses a lot of attention on the news aspect of the station. And I think most listeners thought of BCN as this progressive music outlet. What kind of news reporting were you doing back in the early 70s?

Lichtenstein: It's sort of hard to imagine in the days before the Internet, for younger people or to remember what it was like. But really, you know, if something happened, if there was a demonstration or some kind of a contentious situation with the police and protesters, to find out what happened was often difficult because there weren't that many sources of news. There was in Boston, The Boston Globe, or sort of the straight newspapers and evening newscasts. But these didn't try to really report the news from the perspective of those trying to create change.

And pretty quickly, they assembled what was probably, if not the most, one of the most radical news departments in the country. You know, it was really trying to cover the news and what was going on in a way that was relevant to the young people listening to the station.

Ganley: There were other so-called underground stations around the country getting going at that time – San Francisco, L.A., New York City. What made what made WBCN in Boston unique?

Lichtenstein: Well, it really started in San Francisco with KSAN. They got the idea that you could also play rock on FM, which was a perfectly good idea and that started, but they hired professional announcers. New York at WNEW, but again, it was a commercial station with professional announcers. What made WBCN really different was the fact that the people who were recruited were all young people, students from colleges. And there was this tremendous freedom to say what you want, play what you want. And really, the 60s sort of took off, the radicalization of the 60s, as we know it took off in Boston during that period.

Ganley: The documentary does bring up the issue of women on the air, which was a rarity in those days, and also briefly mentions the gay rights movement. Again, not a mainstream subject at the time. Was WBCN really a beacon or was it still primarily a straight boys club?

Lichtenstein: You know, I think WBCN was a boys club without realizing it until it was made apparent you don't have any women on the air, and that women who were very much fans of the station, because it exposed a very radical pro-feminist perspective in all ways, simply didn't have women on the air. And in this one incident, which, you mention, in the film, there was a protest which led to the hiring of several women as announcers on the air, which really changed things.

And I think young people today would be shocked at what an aberration it was to have a woman on the air. In fact, WBCN was attacked by Jerry Williams – it's in the film – this conservative talk show host of note in Boston for many years, was ridiculed for putting women on the air. The argument being women have high pitched voices and don't belong on radio.

Same with the gay and lesbian liberation movement. It was something people were living. And so the thought of putting it on the radio was just sort of a logical one. It hadn't occurred to people that suddenly there would be this gay program on the radio, which really was a fairly dramatic departure from what was on the radio in those days.

Ganley: Now, of course, there was a lot happening in rock music in the era. You know, speaking of female deejays, I remember listening to Maxine back in the day talking about Aerosmith. She really kind of brought them to the forefront. The documentary features some archival sound and film from a very young Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith, Patti Smith. [WBCN was] a station that really made artists. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Lichtenstein: Yeah, I mean, I think especially compared with today, where so much of radio is programmed by a few conglomerates like iHeartRadio controls, sort of, the music that's turned on hundreds of stations throughout the country. WBCN really saw itself as championing the artists who were either coming to Boston to play for what were in those days 250,000 college students, so a lot of artists came through here, or artists who were coming up in Boston. And there was a sense of we wanted people to succeed. Why wouldn't we?

And so bands like Aerosmith, bands like The Cars who were from Boston. Peter Wolfe was an announcer on WBCN before he was the lead singer of The J. Geils Band. So these were groups that we played, not just because it was convenient, we really wanted to support the local music community. And I think it was a much different way of artists coming up through the system. Whereas today it's much more about trying to come up with a YouTube viral video. In those days, it really was about going out and attracting an audience and holding your craft and then WBCN's airplay went a long way to put people on the map.

Ganley: Stations that were more tightly programmed did have bigger audiences, though. Isn't that what people wanted?

Lichtenstein: I would say yes. I would say at some point what made WBCN WBCN was sort of copied and was replicated. But at the same time, I can't think of many stations that 50 years later have the kind of intense fan – that means so much to so many people. WBCN, I think, really meant so much to so many people because it was fearless and courageous and I think told it like it was, as we say in those days.