What Happened to the Boston Phoenix?
And can it rise again?
Just as the Phoenix exploited the opportunity presented by an underserved market for cultural criticism, WFNX did so with the underserved market for music. It was the first station in the city to play bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and it continued to explore alternative music well into the 2000s, with a four-hour show on Sunday nights devoted to local bands. WFNX-sponsored concerts at City Hall Plaza drew audiences in the tens of thousands, and local acts Guster, the Dresden Dolls, and Passion Pit all got early radio play on the station. “Symbolically, they meant a lot,” says Oedipus, the longtime program director at the rock radio station WBCN.
But not many people were able to listen: WFNX was limited by a weak signal. Per FCC rules, its 101.7 frequency could not broadcast in Greater Boston at more than 3,000 watts, because anything higher would interfere with nearby frequencies. This restriction limited ’FNX’s listenership to the immediate downtown area and several communities along the North Shore. The signal faded to static 20 miles west of Boston and was all but inaudible south of Dedham. By contrast, WBCN, which shut down in 2009, broadcast at 50,000 watts.
Radio has always been a precarious business, and in May, Mindich, already struggling to keep the Phoenix alive, sold his license for 101.7 to Clear Channel, the massive media company based in Texas, for $14.5 million. (The station is now called “The Harbor” and plays a mix of classic rock and adult contemporary that’s worth actively avoiding.)
But breaking and promoting new music on the radio, which had been a core function of alt-rock stations for decades, has become vastly less important in the past five years. Radio stations were once tastemakers, but they’re now more likely to follow trends established online. Shred, a former radio DJ and now a booker for the Middle East in Central Square, says he believes that musicians in Boston have been mostly unaffected by WFNX’s demise. They’d be online, promoting their music on their own, even if the station were still around.
In 2007 Mindich put in motion a succession plan. The Phoenix’s longtime president, Barry Morris, stepped down at the end of 2006, and Brad Mindich, who was then 38, took over day-to-day operations. Morris, according to several people I spoke with for this story, is a driven, detail-oriented boss. Brad told me that Morris had been a “tough manager” with an “unbelievable will to get things done.” Brad, though, took a different approach. Several people told me that he decided to lead with a softer touch. “Brad’s M.O. was, ‘I’m not Barry, I trust people,’” says a former sales executive who was laid off this past summer.
Brad told me in October that his business strategy was meant to transform the Phoenix from a collection of independent entities into a unified media company. He used the word “convergence,” which in plain English means luring advertisers with offers to promote their products simultaneously across the company’s various formats. “From a sales standpoint,” says Rick Gallagher, the former Phoenix CFO and COO, “modern media buyers are not going to be too happy if the newspaper person comes in to sell them something, and then the radio person comes in, and the Web person comes in, and the mobile person comes in.”
The company-wide collaborations weren’t limited to sales, and for a time the strategy seemed to be working. “There was a game plan that made sense, a decent idea of creating a synergistic media empire,” says Lance Gould, who edited the Phoenix from 2007 through 2010. Carly Carioli, who was then editing the website, took on a major redesign, and Phoenix music writers intensified their collaboration with DJs at WFNX. Brad Mindich, who was formerly a professional musician, gave the station wide discretion in programming and staffing.