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Bill Lichtenstein

Bill Lichtenstein

Posted: August 11, 2009 01:14 PM

WBCN and "The American Revolution"


On July 14, CBS, current owners of the legendary FM rock station WBCN-FM in Boston, announced they would be closing the station effective August 13, to make room for the city's second "sports talk" radio outlet. The demise of the "Rock of Boston," as WBCN is known, including the retirement of its call letters, quickly became the talk of Boston. And it's not hard to understand why.

Since March 1968, WBCN has been a major artery for relevant music, culture and politics for generations of listeners in Boston. The press coverage surrounding the station's closing has focused on WBCN's impressive role in breaking four decades of bands, including the Who, Aerosmith, J. Geils, and U2, among others. However, it was arguably during WBCN's early days, from 1968 to 1975, as one of the nation's first "free-form progressive rock" radio stations, that WBCN had its greatest impact in Boston and nationally, as it both chronicled and helped promote the great social, cultural and political upheavals of that era.

I worked at WBCN starting in 1970, at the age of 14, first as an intern, and soon after covering news and hosting my own weekly show. With the recent announcement of the station's closing, I reflected on the station's early days, and its legacy, in an Op-Ed article in the Boston Globe.

It began:

"The year was 1968. Young Americans were dying in an unpopular war halfway around the world. Protesters were battling police on campuses and in the streets throughout the country. A national upheaval was underway involving the anti-war, civil rights, feminist, and gay and lesbian movements. These revolutions would forever transform the nation socially, culturally, and politically. But you would never know it from listening to the radio, where fast-talking DJs played ads for acne cream along with Top 40 pop ballads like Frank and Nancy Sinatra's "Something Stupid.''


And then came WBCN-FM.

The radio station, which billed itself as "The American Revolution,'' was the vision of a young, hip entrepreneur named Ray Riepen, who simultaneously created the "alternative'' newspaper The Boston Phoenix and the legendary rock club the Boston Tea Party. WBCN began broadcasting from the back room of the Boston Tea Party on March 15, 1968. From the moment it hit the air, the station helped define, as well as promote, popular culture and politics in Boston for the '60s/boomer generation in a way that nothing had before. And its impact quickly spilled over nationally.

Since Tuesday's announcement that WBCN's owner, CBS, will take the station off the air in August, its role in launching music careers, including The Who, The J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, and U2, has been widely cited. But WBCN was more than a cultural innovator. It was a social and political force as well, particularly from 1968 to 1975, when, long before Facebook or MySpace, the station served as the social medium that connected a generation in Boston . . ."

(Click here to read the entire Boston Globe Op-Ed article: "The Glory Days of the Rock of Boston.")

The closing of WBCN-FM comes at a time when there is a growing disconnection between the general public, and community and national media, as well as a fading of the belief that one reporter, or one newspaper, or one community radio station, can make a difference. To help today's young people understand the power of media to create social change, a new documentary film, The American Revolution, is being produced. It will examine WBCN, from 1968 through 1975, and the social, cultural and political impact the station had. My company is producing the film, and as part of its creation, we are collecting personal recollections from that era, as well as archival material, including audio, photographs, and memorabilia, both from WBCN as well as that era generally. You can see more about the documentary, and how to share your recollections and material, at the film's web site at WBCNthefilm.com

It is ironic that for the final four days of WBCN, CBS relaxed its programming rules, so that, for the first time in decades, announcers could play or discuss whatever they wanted on-air. I was driving around Cambridge yesterday, listening to WBCN, which sounded as good as it ever had. There was the live version of Jimi Hendrix's "Band of Gypsies" (with the five-minute guitar solo); unreleased live U2 performances; the Ramones; tapes of unsigned local bands; a discussion about Timothy Leary's lasting impact on popular culture; and even some dead air. It may be going away, but for one last weekend, WBCN was back. And it was good.

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