Book Review: Radio Free Boston—The Rise and Fall of WBCN

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Radio Free Boston—The Rise and Fall of WBCN

By Carter Alan. Northeastern University Press, 2013. $25.95.

Political junkies can read Game Change or Double Down and appreciate all the fascinating detail while missing the thrilling feel of all that campaigning happening right around them. Likewise, Radio Free Boston can only be read in a vacuum. You want to have BCN on in the background while you’re reading, and it’s just not there. That just makes this book more necessary, more important.

WBCN was Boston’s premiere FM music station for much of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In some cities at the time, being the big on FM would simply mean playing the occasional album cut amid the usual top 40, with minimal chat or local context. But Boston was in the habit of fomenting revolutions, and that’s what WBCN did. Its staff took chances, whether that meant hiring Oedipus, the city’s first punk-rock DJ (who later became BCN’s music director) or letting morning drive guy Charles Laquidara stage a locked-door takeover of the studio or simply playing music nobody else was playing on any other big station in New England.

College and community radio stations were amazing 30 or 40 years ago. Emerson’s played all the new local bands and British punk. Harvard’s had its exhaustive marathons of all known music by a single artist. Tufts’ excelled at freeform programming, seguing the most unlikely songs. But it made sense for deep lovers of pop music to make time for some of the commercial FM stations. WBCN had power. They could invite any band they wanted to on the air. I still have cassette tapes of the nights they had the Buzzcocks on, and The Ramones, and local legends Human Sexual Response.

BCN was exceedingly hip and progressive, from its music programming to its news hours (with “Danny Schecter the News Dissector”) to its astrology segments (with “The Cosmic Muffin”). Here, hip didn’t just mean partying. In fact, when one of the DJs began treatment for alcoholism, it wasn’t hushed up or downplayed; listeners knew about it. When the staff went on strike against new management, it was front-page news in local papers for weeks, burnished by support and comments from major international rockers.

BCN had its ear to the ground more than other stations did, and that extra attention was noticed and repaid by loyal listeners. Among the bands the station caught, and trumpeted loudly, very early on in their careers when they getting no airplay elsewhere, were Aerosmith, U2 and The Police. Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band was one of the first BCN DJs. The station created and sponsored the Rumble at the Rat (later the Rock and Roll Rumble), the most important and integrity-filled “battle of the bands” contests in the country. It was much vital and human than its crass commercial subtitle, “The Rock of Boston,” let on.

Then, a few years ago, after four decades of dominance and pop radio prominence, it all fell apart. As with alternative newspapers, the elements which once made FM radio daring and distinctive had become commonplace. There was considerable competition from younger, louder stations, and syndicated programming. DJs aged, sometimes unattractively. Administrative mistakes were made. Fewer songs were played by fewer DJs, with fewer comments in between. WBCN suddenly ground to a halt. There are vestiges of BCN online—pre-programmed setlists for a few hours a day reverently broadcast under the station’s call letters—but there was an immediacy and impact to classic BCN that can never be recreated.

That’s why Carter Alan’s wondrous history of WBCN is so welcome. Alan worked at the station and has become a notable rock scholar. He brings just the right mix of respect, accuracy and myth-making passion to the project.

Knowing all the key players personally, he’s also been able to do an extraordinary amount of interviewing and research, more than a lot of less connected writers would have bothered to do. This is as full a report of the rising and falling fortunes of a radio station as any reader could expect.

Yet the history of BCN remains in fleeting moments of airtime. Each of the station’s millions of listeners valued BCN for different reasons. For me, it was hearing bands such as The Clash and The Stranglers spin their favorite disks on air for hours, at the behest of BCN. It was the broadcasting of live concerts by Cheap Trick (a show I was at), The Police and other acts from the intimate Paradise club. It was the news coverage of student demonstrations and ecological concerns. It was the thumbing of noses at authority, in ways that could be reckless sometimes and socially responsible other times. It was the validation of my own formative tastes. The Ramones, for instance, may never have had a top 40 national hit, but you wouldn’t know that if you listened to WBCN, where “I Wanna Be Sedated” was played constantly as soon as Road to Ruin was released. Meanwhile, Laquidara’s morning show made it OK to like Frank Sinatra’s comeback single “New York, New York.” And the station always found room for local bands, in special weekend shows but more importantly on the regular playlist, where you could hear Willie Loco Alexander or Letters to Cleo right up alongside Judas Priest or Cyndi Lauper.

If you listened between the lines, BCN could be a constant education. For some of us, the station was a bridge from childhood to adulthood. There was a basic silliness, but also a prevailing sense that this music, and this attitude was important.

Carter Alan gives us the story that deserves to be told, of a mass media institution that changed minds and freed souls and excited generations of hipsters in the world’s biggest college town. But when you’re done reading his careful chronicle of this golden age of rock radio in Boston, you just miss BCN all the more. Alan reflects this, and thanks you for your allegiance, in a touching afterword. He truly draws blood and tears from the Rock of Boston.

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