Wow. 41 years. March 15, 1968. That was my eighth birthday. I don’t know where to actually start so I’ll do my best to keep this as brief as possible. Short version? WBCN-FM is going off the terrestrial dial for good on August 13, 2009. It was born on March 15, 1968. The Boston Concert Network is taking a powder. Its valuable real estate right of the dial is going to be assumed by sister station WMBX, better known as Mix 98.5, and its god awful “Hot Adult Contemporary” format (what is THAT exactly? Tried and true hits distilled down to the very bone over the past four decades and repackaged as new to the clueless casual music fan masses until they change the channel?) are Movin’ On Up in classic George Jefferson style. Hoo-ray for them. My periodontist listens to Mix 98.5. I can’t tell you how much I miss hearing The Spiral Starecase or The Sanford Townsend Band between cleanings. The mid dial 98.5 frequency will be handed off to talk radio. Psyched! Another talk show in Boston! This is a very sad day for those of us who worked at WBCN in one capacity or another. The station had vacated its long time 1265 Boylston Street address behind Fenway Park sometime ago, but what a history. I was only there four years, but I can tell you some wild stuff went down inside those walls. It was never boring. What it was could be described as exhilarating.
I was a 22 year old line cook at TGI Friday’s on Newbury Street when I got the call up to the big leagues. I had filled out paperwork to answer the vaunted Listener Line early in 1982 after graduating from Emerson College. Having wondered what happened to the fastest four years I’ve ever experienced, I thought it might be a good idea to work at the local rock station since I had visions of being a DJ once upon a time. What a rocket scientist huh? The position was strictly volunteer, but I felt like I was on my way. Silly rabbit. As fate would have it I was assigned a four hour shift during the Mark Parenteau show. Mark was a tall, lanky, golden voiced fun loving guy that worked the afternoon drive show. Mark had jumped ship from rival WCOZ in the late seventies to join a stellar WBCN lineup that included Charles Laquidara, Ken Shelton and Carter Alan. I got to know these people pretty well during my time there. I lived and breathed the station nearly 24 x 7. Mark invited me, after a couple of weeks of working the Listener Line to join his intern staff.
Over the next four years I worked with about five or six other interns until I was the senior guy on his staff. Trust me, that wasn’t anything to write home about. He had his share of turnover, but that wasn’t the issue. I was too happy to come in and work for free and watch the stars come and go. I’d work two of the five shifts and maybe more depending on the schedules of others. I had a couple of crappy paying jobs, but generally I just loved being around The Rock of Boston. I was paid to work remotes and edit comedy tape for Stitches Comedy Club, but it was peanuts. Larry “Cha-Chi” Loprete, one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet (he still does Breakfast With The Beatles every Sunday morning at 8 AM which you can listen to live or stream later on via the web at www.wzlx.com), used to throw me a bone every now and then with a free ticket or poster or whatever he could. There were plenty of personalities in that building who looked down on young “college” kids like me, but Larry wasn’t one of them. I didn’t dwell on the ones that did. I just loved the radio. I still do even though it doesn’t resemble anything remotely to what I grew up with. Even so, the news that WBCN is leaving the airwaves hits the psyche hard.
Nothing ever came of my affiliation with the station, but I don’t regret working there. I had a ball. The station held off WCOZ (Kick Ass Rock & Roll) and later Classic Rock Station WZLX to hold its own in a tough market, but the peak of the station was probably 1980-1986. Nobody could touch them and all the artists surfaced there at one time or another. On any given day I would see somebody famous. I’m not much of a stargazer though it might not sound like it. I refused to mug for photos (i.e. pop into the outskirts of a group photo at the last minute) or ask for autographs. I was just happy to be there. I figured something good would come of knowing these folks eventually. It never did. It’s hard to describe without airing dirty laundry, but suffice to say they don’t call it the go go 80′s for nothing. It was a good time. The death knell, to me, for WBCN was when they farmed out The Big Mattress morning show in favor of The Howard Stern show. WBCN used to be about the underground and free expression. It was never about strict playlists either. It was all about personalities, current events, breaking new bands, promoting comedy, controlled mayhem, attitude and (mostly) new music.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised when stuff like this happens. There have been so many changes in the world since I was a kid (including this here blog to name just one), but there are institutions and then there are institutions. Nobody that I know was left at the present day WBCN (which is scheduled to soldier on in digital format only on the web…thanks alot…can I please pay for that too?) and I couldn’t name a single on air personality. I stopped listening in the late eighties, which I’m well aware is part of the problem, but a listing WFNX is lucky nobody has come along to knock them off their perch as well. They seem to have more freedom, but they are also victims of tired programming. It just seems like no station has its autonomy anymore and the FM dial has been rendered all but useless. Computerized playlists and repetitive programming is what really Killed The Radio Star. We survived MTV. The decision to allow companies to own more than one radio station in a single market was a crusher too. Mega conglomerate ownership ruined the individuality of programming. DJs loathe to be told what to play as a rule, but with no latitude whatsoever? Why be a DJ at all? Classic Rock stations are what’s left behind after other stations like WBCN take all the risks. Now what? Who breaks future Classic Rock in Boston? It won’t be WFNX, though I have noticed they’ve been sneaking Classic Rock into their format without so much as an announcement lately. Their alternative/Indie bread and butter is not going to change too much. This should be very distressing to rock artists as well. WBCN was a shell of its former self at the end, but it still had the most famous call letters in Boston’s long and explosive rock history. Rest in Peace.
That was REAL short huh? Oh well. I’m leaving you with the very first rock song that was ever played on WBCN as it began its 41 year run. It’s from a little known power trio called Cream.