WBCN history reveals revolutionary power in local radio

The WBCN staff pictured in their 312 Stuart St. studio in the late 1960s. Photo courtesy of LCMedia Productions, Inc.

By Caitlin Faulds
BU News Service

SOMERVILLE – What started as a midnight to 6 a.m. slot on a failing classical music station, became the voice of a generation in 1970s Boston. Now, more than 50 years after WBCN sparked a “revolutionary new experiment in radio,” the bygone rock station is still making waves. 

The 2018 documentary, “WBCN and The American Revolution,” tells the origin story of Boston’s first rock and roll station through a combination of rock hits. Never-before-seen photos, videos and interviews with some of Boston’s most beloved radio hosts, were greeted with cheers at the Somerville Theatre screening Thursday night.

Bill Lichtenstein, who began volunteering with WBCN at 14, directed and produced the film. After crowdfunding and a decade in the making, it has been touring independent theaters and festivals across the U.S. for the last year and a half.

WBCN was grounded in good music. Founded by Ray Riepen, owner of South End music venue The Boston Tea Party, WBCN introduced voices like The Velvet Underground, The Who, Bruce Springsteen and Led Zeppelin to the city, and quickly found a home in Boston’s huge student population. Within three months, the station, run by amateur hosts and young volunteers during classroom breaks, was playing 24 hours per day.

The film claims you could once cross the whole of Boston to an uninterrupted stream of WBCN, music pounding out of passing cars and falling through open windows.

But WBCN provided more than just radio, the documentary shows. It was a revolution in itself, and one that Lichtenstein hopes Boston can recapture today.

One month after WBCN went live, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. Two months later, WBCN hosts woke Boston up with news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. By the end of the year, Richard Nixon would be elected on false promises of ending the Vietnam War.

Bruce Springsteen during one of his early performances at the Boston Tea Party. Photo courtesy of LCMedia Productions, Inc.

Students in Boston and Cambridge, being sent to war while still unable to vote, were flooding the streets in protest. WBCN joined the fight and carved the city’s anger in rock and roll.

News bulletins, protest plugs and a diverse show lineup – Boston’s first LGBTQ and all-woman hours – embedded WBCN in politics. But the station went further, according to the documentary, to unofficially sponsor a skywritten peace sign over a 100,000 strong Vietnam protest in Boston Common, airdrop food to Wounded Knee protesters and read excerpts from stolen FBI documents concerning student surveillance live on air.

Through music, WBCN provided a “soundtrack to the times,” an uncensored voice for the disaffected. The film reveals WBCN’s profound “radio consciousness,” its unapologetic commitment to diverse music and ideas – which could perhaps serve as a model for local radio today.

Back in Somerville Theatre, beneath gold-trimmed balconies filled with stage lights, Lichtenstein pressed for renewed activism and a return to community-led radio during a post-screening question and answer session.

“The crisis of American democracy comes when the world is facing a crisis,” he said, drawing parallels between the Nixon and Trump presidencies and the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. “Those committed then, be committed today,” he said.

The audience, after a long day of Senate impeachment trials and just weeks after renewed tensions in the Middle East, nodded agreement and seemed ready to listen to WBCN one last time.

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