WBCN and the American Revolution: How a Radio Station Defined Politics, Counterculture, and Rock and Roll
by Bill Lichtenstein
WBCN was a Boston rock and roll radio station from 1968 to 2009. It was instrumental (pun intended) in launching the careers of major bands. It was also part of the social fabric of the Boston college scene. This book and a companion video documentary tell the story of the early years of the station in the context of the era.
“Nothing sparks the change or fuels the youth revolution to come in Boston as does the arrival of a thirty-year-old tort lawyer from Kansas City by the name of Ronald Ray Riepen who comes to town to study for a graduate degree at Harvard Law School… Riepen is asked to do a favor by Jessie Benton, the daughter of the American realist painter Thomas Hart Benton, whom Ray knows from Kansas City… Jessie Benton tells Riepen that she is working with Mekas and Warhol to expand their New York-based film center, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and that the Ford Foundation has agreed to bankroll a second location for the film organization in Boston… She asks if Riepen can help by negotiating and signing the lease for a building they have found to serve as the Boston home of the film cooperative.”
“Ray meets with the landlord and signs the lease for the space, a century-old Unitarian Meeting House in the South End of Boston with a giant Star of David on the front. Riepen advances $5,000 of his own money for the lease deposit and is, therefore, not expecting the call he gets shortly thereafter from Jessie Benton, who tells him that the deal has fallen through. As a result, there is not going to be a Boston branch of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and the Ford Foundation is not going to pay for the cost of the lease, including the deposit.” Oh, shit.
BOSTON TEA PARTY
“Riepen recalls suddenly finding himself as a law student stuck with a lease on a former house of worship in the South End of Boston. ‘I quickly had to figure out what I was going to do—besides file for bankruptcy!’ he recalls… It occurred to him that ‘with hundreds of thousands of students in Boston, the best chance I had to pay the rent of this thing was to play rock music there and have a rock club.’ … He calls the club the Boston Tea Party.”
“‘The Tea Party put up posters and handbills around town every week to advertise who was performing there,’ [recalls Steve Nelson, the first manager.] … There was a cultural wave happening and people just started showing up at the Tea Party no matter who was playing. In the beginning, it was mostly local bands, but later more established acts came and performed. Regardless, tickets were just $3.00.’”
“Over the next four years, crowds of young people show up to see emerging rock artists destined to become superstars, including the Who, Cream, the Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, the Velvet Underground, Traffic, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Jeff Back, Rod Stewart, Elton John, the Allman Brothers, the Kinks, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Santana, Joe Cocker, the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, and such jazz greats as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Rahssan Roland Kirk, and Miles Davis.”
A NEW KIND OF RADIO
“As late as the beginning of 1968, the only place rock music is heard on the radio in Boston in on Top 40 AM stations… By 1968, 70% of the record sales were albums. But the Top 40 radio stations were still playing the pop singles.”
Riepen “envisions a new kind of radio—a station where all kinds of music are played and the announcers speak in conversational tones rather than howling and shouting at their listeners. And instead of twenty minutes or more per hour of loud national commercials with their jingles pitching products from acne cream to drag races, the radio station would air only eight ads each hour, featuring local stores and community businesses.”
“Riepen searches in Boston for a commercial radio station in financial trouble, one that may be willing to lease him some of its airtime. Going through Dun & Bradstreet business credit reports, he finds WBCN-FM, a struggling Boston classical music broadcaster that is on the verge of a second bankruptcy. Riepen contacts the owner, T. Mitchell Hastings… and asks about using the radio station’s airtime between 10:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.”
“T. Mitchell Hastings owns the Concert Network, four FM radio stations along the East Coast, including WBCN. The BCN stands for Boston Concert Network.”
“With airtime secured, Riepen sets off in search of announcers for his new kind of radio. He drives around the Boston area while listening to college radio stations. When he hears an announcer he likes, he goes to the radio station while they are on the air, walks in, and introduces himself, telling them he is looking for announcers who would like to go on ‘real radio.’”
“‘Part of Ray Riepen’s genius when he started WBCN is that he didn’t hire professional radio people. He found kids, like me, who loved the music and had a bit of radio experience. The sound was very natural,’ recalls Richard Barna, a student at Brown University… who was hired by Riepen to be an announcer at WBCN.”
ON THE AIR
On March 15, 1968, “at 10:30 p.m., the station transitions from classical announcer Ron Della Chiesa… to Tufts student Joe Rogers… And while the station has no record library of suitable music to play, the announcers bring records from their own collections in milk crates or boxes when it’s their turn on the air.”
The classical music station staff didn’t want the kids using their studio. “Riepen solves the problem by purchasing two turntables, a microphone, and two small Sparta audio mixer boards—the kind a DJ mix use at a bar mitzvah party—and he installs them in his rock club, the Boston Tea Party, in the cramped dressing room used by the bands.”
“Sharing a green room with rock bands did present a few problems, as WBCN announcer Jim Parry recalls: ‘…Ten Years After was performing one night, and they were admiring the record library, and Ray Riepen in an expansive mood says, ‘Hey you guys want some records to take home?’ Alvin Lee, who was the lead guitarist of the band said OK! And he grabbed everything—all of the records from B through D. He took them all and left. So we could not play anything from the Beatles to the Doors for about a month or so until they got replaced. It was kind of a loose operation.’”
“WBCN’s new format was so successful that it expands within two months to twenty-four hours a day.”
One exception to the student announcer lineup was Peter Wolf, who worked the 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. shift for several months in 1968 before leaving to tour as the lead singer of J. Geils Band. Another notable WBCN announcer was J.J. Jackson, who worked at the station from 1968-1970. He was later one of MTV’s original VJs.
DRAFT BEER, NOT STUDENTS
“WBCN calls itself ‘the American Revolution’ as a way of associating itself with the growing and increasingly visible resistance and opposition to the draft.” Sam Kopper comments on the mood of 1968. “‘You have the quick sequence of Johnson resigning, Martin Luther King’s assassination, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and then Nixon winning the election. All the while, an ill-conceived, unjustified, idiotic war is going on.’”
“For the station’s youth audience, the Listener Line is Google before there is a Google. Additionally, the Listener Line allows WBCN’s audience to serve as the eyes and ears of the station and the city, to call in with information—about free concerts, rallies and demonstrations, protesters being arrested, teach-ins and musical and political events—that the station can share with its listeners. Those who phone the station are aware that they are always just a thrown switch away from finding themselves live on the air, where an entire city can respond to whatever their issue or matter of concern is.”
“This kind of interactive communication made WBCN vital to the lives of its audience and relevant throughout the city. As Danny Schechter, WBCN’s ‘News Dissector,’ explains: ‘The reason WBCN could do these sorts of things and even do them in a sort of profitable way was that management got out of the way… You didn’t have big corporate overlords like you have in most media companies… At BCN, control wasn’t the big word. Creativity was the big word, and community was the big word.’”
CHICKS WHO CAN TYPE
“Rochelle Ruthchild, a college history professor and loyal fan of the station, is listening in her car… ‘I hear Charles Laquidara—and I love Charles Laquidara. He makes this announcement saying that Project Place needs volunteers—and, if you’re a chick and can type, call us. And I thought: I cannot believe this.’”
“Rochelle Ruthchild raises the matter at a meeting of Bread and Roses, the recently formed women’s liberation group… Ruthchild and a group of thirty women from Bread and Roses visit WBCN’s office at 312 Stuart Street in Boston—unannounced… with a cardboard box—and they opened it up and dump eight baby chicks on [station manager Leonard Cohen’s] desk. And they say, ‘These are chicks. We are women!’”
“‘One of the demands was that we wanted a woman DJ.’ … Ultimately, a total of three women are hired as announcers, including Maxanne Sartori, Debbie Ullman, and Dinah Vaprin.”
The book includes chapters on The Lavender Hour, a program for the LGBT community, and Lock-Up, “an unprecedented weekly program of musical requests, dedications, and news relevant to those living behind bars.”
“Perhaps the greatest champion of new artists and music at WBCN is Maxanne Sartori… Maxanne arrives at WBCN soon after she turns twenty-three, and over the next seven years she discovers and champions such bands as Aerosmith, Queen, the Cars, Billy Squier, the New York Dolls, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and many others… But perhaps WBCN’s two areas of greatest impact on music during the era involve reggae and Bruce Springsteen. ‘In 1973, WBCN pretty much introduced reggae not just to Boston but to the whole country,’ recalls Norm Winer.”
The Cars credited Maxanne when the band was inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame in 2018. “She started playing our demo tape in heavy rotation alongside the biggest records of the day… A&R reps for major labels started flying to Boston to check out this local band, The Cars.”
ALL THE NEWS YOU CAN USE
Charles Laquidara recalls, “Bo comes in with this thing he ripped [from the AP teletype]… and he says, ‘Charles, we have a problem. Read this,’ and it says, ‘Attorney General John Mitchell has just announced that indictments are being issued in Detroit for 13 Weathermen.’ And I said, ‘So what’s wrong with this?’ and he says, ‘Seventh name.’ I looked down, seventh name, Bo Burlingham: my news director.’”
“Ray recalls the visit from Bo and Michael: ‘Bo came to my office with Mike, and he tells me, ‘I’ve been indicted, and I thought you ought to know.’ He explained that he had been a part of the Weathermen. And I said, ‘Well geez, this is a federally licensed business. It makes me nervous to have a guy that’s indicted for dynamiting federal buildings on the payroll. I’ve got to let you go, but I’ll give you a job at my newspaper [the Cambridge Phoenix].’”
“As a commercial station, WBCN’s revenue comes from advertising, but from the beginning, the station’s air staff insists that only ads for local businesses be accepted and refuse any spots from national advertisers or for any product that is not seen as being socially positive… As a result of WBCN’s popularity and credibility with its listeners, advertisers allow the station to write and produce ads that have a distinctly countercultural tone to them… Some of the live reads were the most entertaining things you could possibly ever hear.”
WBCN moved to the Prudential building in 1973. “The increased rent for the plush offices atop the Prudential and the related costs put pressure on the station to sell more ads. As Tommy Hadges recalls: ‘There was a tension growing between the demands of paying bills and what we all wanted. We all wanted to be faithful to the original concept of WBCN and the mission of BCN.’”
Ad salesman Tim Montgomery: “‘I’ll never forget the first time I went to New York with our national rep and made my first call. I put on a tie, and I went to this huge agency, McCann Erikson. I walk in, and the media buyer, a rather imposing woman, stood up behind her desk and cursed me out. She then threw me out because, apparently, they had sent the station a tape reel—all the ads came to the station on eight-inch audio tape reels—and the production manager from WBCN at the time had written ‘F- you’ on the box and mailed it back to the agency. I had a lot of those experiences.’”
This book ends with the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. To read about WBCN’s later years, read Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN (2013) by Carter Alan, who was a DJ at the station from 1979-1998.
Lichtenstein, Bill. WBCN and the American Revolution: How a Radio Station Defined Politics, Counterculture, and Rock and Roll. The MIT Press, 2021. Buy the book from Amazon.com. Buy the 2-hour DVD documentary.
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