WBCN: An Oral History

On the fifth anniversary of ’BCN’s death, key players from its halcyon days reminisce about a time when Boston was all about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
WBCN

The WBCN staff, circa 1978. / photograph courtesy of the david bieber archives

Is it possible that WBCN, the greatest rock ’n’ roll radio station in American history, died five years ago this month? Like the biggest rock bands, it began as an underground revolution, then—in a haze of sex- and drug-fueled mayhem— transformed radio, went mainstream, enjoyed unimaginable financial prosperity, and was ultimately undone by that success, as its corporate masters foisted upon the Rock of Boston a series of edicts so stringent that it ended up as boring and pre-programmed as the AM-radio dinosaurs it had so creatively displaced.

But even after its run, ’BCN won’t go away. Last fall, former music director Carter Alan published a history of the station, Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN (Northeastern University Press), and a documentary film is in the works. There isn’t a museum yet, but Boston archivist David Bieber—who, as a grad student, profiled the nascent WBCN for this magazine in 1970, and later worked at the station—has leased key artifacts to the Verb Hotel, a boutique hotel opening this month next door to WBCN’s former studios.

The station had unlikely roots as a classical music outlet (its call letters standing for “Boston Concert Network”), but on the Ides of March, 1968, disc jockey Joe Rogers fired the first rock salvo—Cream’s “I Feel Free.” From that moment, ’BCN became one of a handful of FM radio stations seeking to supplant AM’s supremacy with freeform programming that captured the cacophonous sound of the counterculture. Emerging acts like Led Zeppelin and the Who segued into jazz, classical, and trippy sound montages.

Innovations at ’BCN—like the mix of music, talk, and humor that Charles Laquidara brought to his morning show The Big Mattress—were soon replicated across the country. So was its sound: Now-famous megagroups, from Aerosmith and the Clash to the Ramones and U2, all found early support on 104.1.

During the station’s heyday, its DJs, the music scene, and listeners were all intensely interconnected. Callers to the WBCN Listener Line got advice on everything from new bands to how to survive a bad drug trip. Jocks weren’t shy about getting political, either, ranting about Vietnam and apartheid, and sometimes becoming news themselves. Every night, these same jocks rode in vans plastered with the ’BCN logo, straight to the town’s hottest gigs to greet packs of fans. Early jocks included J. J. Jackson, who later became one of the first MTV VJs, and Peter Wolf, the future leader of the J. Geils Band.

The station survived and prospered through generations in spite of tumultuous turnover, not to mention a 1979 strike by its DJs and staff. At ’BCN’s peak, its top DJ raked in more than a million bucks a year. But in 1996, the new Telecommunications Act spawned a sudden nationwide consolidation of the radio industry, and that’s when things for ’BCN went south. There were other conspiring factors, too: The alt-rock format was souring. Syndicated shock jock Howard Stern turned mornings into all-talk radio. And the Internet’s savage evisceration of the music industry finished off what was left. On August 11, 2009—following a weeklong farewell from many of the station’s past contributors—WBCN died to the strains of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

On this, the five-year anniversary of ’BCN’s demise, we tracked down key players from those halcyon days—disc jockeys, news reporters, producers, and programmers—to get a behind-the-scenes look at our fair city, back when Boston sat at the epicenter of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

 

PETER WOLF 
At WBCN: DJ, 1968–’69
Since then: Lead vocalist for the J. Geils Band; solo artist; rock ’n’ roll legend. 

The fellow who put it together, WBCN founder Ray Riepen, who was sleeping on my couch, asked me to buy into the station. I think it was $10,000. I didn’t have $10. So he said, “Why don’t you just come in and play your music?” So on the first night, I was the second DJ. I took the late-night shift, from 12 to 7 in the morning. I got to interview people like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Rod Stewart, Ronny Wood, Smokey Robinson. Van Morrison would come by a lot.

Even college radio stations were not quite like WBCN. You didn’t have someone playing Hank Williams then Muddy Waters then Van Morrison then Velvet Underground, in 15 minutes. I would have paid to do it. I didn’t get paid to do it, but it was that kind of important experience for me.

 

CHARLES LAQUIDARA
At WBCN: DJ, 1968–’96, host of  The Big Mattress.
Since then: DJ at WZLX; inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2009; retired and living in Maui, currently working on an autobiography titled Daze in the Life

A bunch of us were sitting around, possibly experimenting with drugs. We were thinking how great it would be to have a radio station. At the time, they were all Top 40. They would play the same songs over and over. We thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have a radio station where they played Benny Goodman, “Sing Sing Sing,” from 1938, maybe mix that with the Carmina Burana, and then mix that with Jimi Hendrix and the Stones, and then come back with a folk song?

I didn’t talk fast, and I wasn’t sharp at all. My character, an alter ego called Duane Glasscock, had a heavy Boston accent. And he screwed up all the time! People really related to that. Especially here in Boston, people loved that. It was like I was one of them. We didn’t think of our listeners as being fans. Most of my listeners knew more about the music than I did. They were totally my peers.

Duane Glasscock went on the air one Saturday and complained about the ratings—that’s how radio stations got their money, if they got high ratings from Arbitron, which was based in Maryland. A really good rating in Boston at the time was a 3- or a 4-point average. Duane got 13. Duane went on the air and complained, “All these fat cats down in Maryland, they’re driving around in their Cadillacs, smoking cigars, and these guys decide what radio stations get all the money from the sponsors. They gave Mark Parenteau a 3, and they gave Charles Laquidara, that old guy, like a 3.6. Are you kidding me? Everybody, send a bag of shit to Arbitron.” Duane gave out the exact address, every break, for four hours. Arbitron got a lot of bags of shit. They still gave us good ratings the next time.

The following Monday, my boss, Klee Dobra, called me in. He said, “Charles Laquidara is a professional. Charles deserves every bit of respect he gets in the radio community. But Duane Glasscock is a fucking idiot. Duane Glasscock is fired. Do you understand me?” I said, “Klee, you can’t fire Duane. He’s got a 13, the highest rating ever in the history of ratings. All the rest of us have got 4s and 5s.” And he looks up at me. “Are you playing with a full deck? You’re acting like Duane and you are separate people.” And I said, “But you just fired Duane! And you kept me!” Anyway, he ended up firing Duane, but in less than three weeks he ended up bringing him back.

I quit radio in ’76 because it was getting in the way of my cocaine habit. When I came back in ’78, I didn’t want to come back, because I still wanted to continue being able to do cocaine. Luckily I’m still alive.

I remember one night, Paul Ahern, a record promoter, and I were sitting in his car, maybe smoking a fatty, and he said, “Charles, I want you to hear something. I’m thinking about retiring, and just managing this group and trying to get them going on tour.” He puts this cassette in. I said, “Paul, the guy singing with the high falsetto voice sounds like he’s Mark Farner, a Grand Funk Railroad wannabe.” The song was “More Than a Feeling” from the band Boston.

There was a time when you could hear ’BCN without a radio. Literally. You could start in downtown Boston and walk to Cambridge, to Harvard Square. Between the cars playing ’BCN, with their open windows in the summertime, and all the dormitories, apartments, and houses, you could hear ’BCN from one end of the city to the other.

 

SAM KOPPER
At WBCN: Program director, morning DJ, 1968–’71; live music broadcast producer and weekend DJ, 1975–’91.
Since then: Program director, DJ of WBCN Free Form Rock on wbcn.com and 100.7HD3.

In the early days, each shift was a DJ with a mike and three turntables and some cartridges, interacting with the audience on the phone. We could talk about anything: sports, weather, politics, sex. We could talk about all aspects of life along with the music. Jukebox stations are not radio; they are jukeboxes.

Rhapsody and Pandora and Spotify aren’t going to go away, but they are jukeboxes. They are not radio, because there is not a human being there. People don’t listen to technology; they listen to content. People are losing interest in radio, I’m talking twentysomethings, because there’s nothing compelling there. The jocks now are continually selling you something. It’s just constant marketing, and not enough soul. The idea of just listening, not being distracted by images, is an art of its own. The idea of the radio, and crafting it, and being a person on the other end, that will never die.

 

BILL LICHTENSTEIN
At WBCN: Newscaster and announcer, 1970–’78.
Since then: President of Lichtenstein Creative Media; director of  The American Revolution, a forthcoming documentary on the early days of WBCN.

WBCN came along in Boston at a time when virtually every aspect of cultural, social, and political life was changing dramatically in this country—the intersection of the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, basic rights, what it meant to be an American. At the time, it was hard to find what was going on. In that way, WBCN was the Facebook of its era. Not just because it played radically different music, which it did, or that it had a socially or politically aware newsroom, which it did. The station served as a kind of conduit between the station and its listeners. It was never a one-way experience.

The Listener Line had positioned itself almost as the Google of its time. If you needed a ride, we’ll connect you. If you were taking some bad acid and needed somebody to talk you down, call us. If there was a skirmish with police, people could call and say, “I was there and this is what happened.” There was an immediacy to it.

One of the things that it pioneered is a style of production, those highly edited montages: Nixon with music and comedy. As a young person, that mix of political comedy and rock ’n’ roll was very powerful to me. There’s a direct lineage to Jon Stewart. ’BCN was arguably the most credible news source in Boston, in the same way that Jon Stewart is arguably the most credible journalist on TV.

In that final week, CBS said to the staff, “Do anything you want. We don’t care. Play anything you want, say what you want. Just don’t lose us the license.” Suddenly for a week, it was amazing radio. They played taped interviews with Springsteen, the Clash, an interview with Tim Leary. It was like the old ’BCN, and it was remarkably brave radio.

 

OEDIPUS
At WBCN: DJ and program director, 1977–2004.
Since then: Director of the Oedipus Foundation. The Oedipus Project (oedipus1.com) champions new, alternative, and experimental music.

We were fortunate that we were part of not only a Boston institution, but also a cultural mecca. We were as important as the Boston Globe and the Boston Red Sox. Everybody listened to WBCN. Yes, in the years that followed, we had competition. But still, it was always WBCN. Everyone listened to WBCN, until it started to fall apart.

We reflected the culture of the city. I like to think we made the city and the people listening to it, we enhanced their lives. We not only entertained them, we also educated them—whether it was the Vietnam War, Nelson Mandela, apartheid, inequality, women’s rights, the labor movement. WBCN was more than simply an entertainment vehicle. We raised millions of dollars for charity.

When I took over as program director, we were getting our ass kicked by WCOZ, “Kickass Rock ’n’ Roll.” We needed to turn it around, and we were able to turn it around. There was just a belief that we could do it. What was great about that period, in the ’80s, was they let me program the radio station. The company let me take chances. I remember the owners telling me, “You’re gonna make mistakes, and you’re gonna learn from your mistakes. But we like you because you’re intelligent and you’re not afraid to take chances.” Who says that today? I was the artistic director of a 24-hour opera of the mind. Twenty-four/seven, we were writing scripts, we had a musical backdrop, we had music going. But we were also out in public. We had to dress, we had to make appearances, we had to interview.

We’d go out and hang out with the bands. Usually, we’d be going to see bands that nobody wanted to see, when they were brand-new. People forget that there was a time when the Police were brand-new and they played the Rat, in Kenmore Square. I remember when I first played “Roxanne” on the air, people thought it was the end of the world. People were going, “This sucks! This guy can’t sing! He’s singing about a prostitute!” The Ramones, they play them at football games now. There was a time when we first played them, it was like, “Oh my God! This is awful! This is noise!” As program director, I made sure we always had at least one local band in rotation. When I say local, I don’t mean Aerosmith, I don’t mean the Cars, I mean local. That played the clubs. So these bands, because we thought they were good, could be heard next to the Clash, or could be heard next to Fleetwood Mac. They would be heard next to the great bands of the time. The Del Fuegos is a perfect example, or O Positive, or the Blackjacks. There were so many of them, and there was always at least one in rotation, if not more.

Radio’s fate was sealed in 1996 when they signed the Telecommunications Act. That killed radio. Suddenly, you can own multiple stations in one market. You can own multiple stations across the country. And when I say multiple, I mean hundreds, if not a thousand, stations. So that effectively destroyed radio. It was just a matter of time before it became centrally controlled and they could put all of these cost-cutting measures into effect. And once you control everything, you don’t need to be creative, you don’t need to be dynamic, you don’t need to deal with a bunch of weird characters. Suddenly all of my decisions were vetted. I wasn’t allowed to run the radio station the way I wanted to. When these new people came in from New York, they just didn’t get it. They weren’t part of this culture, and they weren’t part of this kind of radio culture. They were just business guys who only looked at numbers. They started questioning decisions we made, because all they cared about was ratings and dollars.

 

MATT SIEGEL
At WBCN:
 DJ, 1977–’79.
Since then: Host of  
Matty in the Morning on Kiss 108.

I had horrible taste in music. I was only there for a short time. I was there at the end of the heyday in some ways. I was a kid then. Their reputation was extraordinary across the county. They were just a bunch of crazy hippies. That just doesn’t exist anymore.

Charles Laquidara was the biggest star of them all. Back in the day, Charles was really my mentor. He took me under his wing. That, for me, was the best thing about working at WBCN: He took a liking to me. He was 10 to 12 years older than I. I was like his kid brother. He thought I was good. He gave me confidence to find my own style. He reminds me, every time I see him, that I’d be nowhere without him. At Kiss, for an entire decade in the ’80s, I was up against Charles. I was competing against him. It was a friendly rivalry, but it was definitely a rivalry.

I can trace my success to ’BCN. I don’t know how I would have developed differently had I not had the ’BCN experience.

 

DAVID BIEBER
At WBCN: Creative services director, 1978–’94. 
Since then: Director of special projects for the Phoenix Media/Communications Group; director of the David Bieber Archives. 

We did incredible events. I remember we were doing this promotion for the Cars. Elektra Records said, “Hey, why don’t we give away a car?” Okay: That’s easy, that’s ordinary. So we said, How about the car we give away, it’s suspended from a crane tied into the Strawberries Records on Memorial Drive and hanging over the Charles River? Mark Parenteau was up in the car, doing a live broadcast. It was probably not OSHA-sanctioned. We always tried for an element of humor and drama.

I don’t want to say it was nonstop partying. There was an element of partying, yes. Partying in the 1980s was different than partying in the 2000s. But there was a responsibility and a mission to get the job done.

There was a period in the mid- to late ’80s when ’BCN was regularly the number one station in Boston. Once you reach number one, once you reach that magical economic success, once you reach X number of millions of dollars in billing, where do you go? You can’t go backward. You have to be exceeding your success. And when you exceed your success, that leads to excess.

 

PAUL “TANK” SFERRUZZA
At WBCN: Listener Line operator, van driver, producer, sports reporter, 1978–’95.
Since then: Sports reporter for WATD and WBCN Free Form Rock, now retired.

The station went on strike in 1979 because the new owners, Hemisphere Broadcasting, came in. When that happened, loyal staffers set up a faction of people to try to get hold of advertisers, to get hold of musicians, to ask them to pull their support. The WBCN Strike Alliance was set up in a house just down the street from Boston College. We got musicians to ask the station to stop playing the music, and the advertisers just walked away. I was put in charge of getting that up and running.

When the strike was over, Charles needed someone to be his brain. I was one of Charles’s personal producers—coordinating Mishegas, the prizes, the contestants, the wake-up calls. That’s how we found Billy West, from The Ren & Stimpy Show and Futurama. He called up wanting to be a contestant. We needed someone who could do Bugs Bunny. Billy called up doing bacon frying. Eddie Gorodetsky, who went on to do The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, he was our head writer. It was a blast for me. I was just a kid who went to high school to be a baker. I had never been to college for anything.

The music meant something to the DJ, and to the moment in which it was being played. That does not exist anymore. Now it’s just the play list, and you play it when it’s time. But then, if it was kind of vicious out, you could play “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors. Now it’s just the luck of the draw.

 

CARTER ALAN
At WBCN: DJ and music director, 1979–’98.
Since then: Assistant program director and midday DJ, WZLX.

The myth that WBCN started at the Boston Tea Party, which has been the accepted dogma for 40 years, isn’t true. This is what happened: WBCN started on Newbury Street, 171 Newbury Street. They had a studio upstairs, that’s where the classical music station was, and that’s where it started. Back then, ’BCN was a full-service radio station. You went in there, you got your tires checked, they washed your windshield, put the gas in, and you didn’t even have to get out of your car. But now radio is more of a specialized thing. You go to a station for a specific reason and it’s just the way things have gone.

We would all play a consistent amount of new music, and then there were times every hour when you could go to the outer library, which was 30,000 albums. You could play anything. We had a grid that we taped in front of the albums, and everybody had their own color pen. So if today’s October 15, you’d put “10 slash 15,” and then depending on what hour you played it, if it was the first hour, you put a little diagonal X up in the upper-left corner. We all had our colors. Oedipus was orange. Parenteau was red. I was turquoise. The next jock on would be like, “Hey, I’m going to play—oh, man. Parenteau played that at 4. So I’ll wait.” If a certain jock was playing a record we liked all of the time, our answer was to put it in the REO Speedwagon section so he couldn’t find it.

WBCN was a top station in the country. It was also a groundbreaking station. The morning-show format with Charles, The Big Mattress, every station uses that idea now—a “morning zoo” where you’ve got a couple of hosts, you’ve got sidekicks. The whole idea of it being a parody of a Top 40 thing with humor, but poignant humor that made you think. When he started doing it, nobody was doing that. In a lot of ways, what Howard Stern does really grew from what Charles did. Howard Stern went to BU listening to Charles. Charles Laquidara is fearless. He would do all kinds of stuff. There was the time he got dosed on mescaline from eating laced matzo ball soup and went on-air. I’ve heard that story six times, and it’s told differently each time. That’s why I say it’s a fable. It happened!

There were all the artists—Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, U2—that the station broke and changed lives. There was the Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble. Some bands weren’t as big, like the Psychedelic Furs, but they were important. Take the Clash. Oedipus was one of the first to play the Clash. Because the station got involved in giving these bands a higher profile, people could see them in clubs. Now the clubs are making some more money, so they keep booking the bands. Now bands don’t have a second job—they can actually survive on playing in the band. Now they can actually afford to put out a halfway decent independent record which gets noticed by the major label, and now they get signed by the major label and become stars. Also, back in 1981, people didn’t have station vans driving around and going to events. ’BCN did that.

’BCN was creative and successful for a long time. It got a little harder as time went on. Putting Howard Stern on the air was certainly a good decision financially, but it brought our defenses down quite a bit. It led us to all of the other decisions. I’m not a real fan of what he did or what he does. But you’ve got to admit he’s creative and managed to make it successful. Suddenly, you have two talk shows on in the morning and afternoon drive, so what is ’BCN? Is it a talk station? Is it a music station? The Patriots on the weekend: Is it a football station? Once Oedipus left, the station was kind of in a free fall. There were valiant attempts to bring things back on track, but it was rough at that point.

If you go to the ’BCN storage lockers, everything is in there. All the records are still in there, a lot of the old reel-to-reel machines, a lot of the old tapes and commercials and their reel-to-reel boxes. WBCN was always in a state of perpetual brokenness. That was part of its charm. There wasn’t bitterness; there was just sadness at the end.

 

LISA TRAXLER
At WBCN: DJ, 1984–’90.
Since then: DJ at WZLX and KISS; editor in chief at Citysearch; marketing director at Ticketmaster Online.

The women at WBCN, we had to carve out a place for ourselves. It was not just your talent—you had to be able to hang with the boys and you had to take a certain number of lumps that the boys didn’t have to. It was harder to do, but also a tremendous amount of fun to be the rose among the thorns. I had been at a number of other radio stations before WBCN. You’ve seen the movie Almost Famous. The kid comes into the station. I was like that kid. I was the rare DJ from somewhere else. ’BCN was already its own entity, its own country, its own reality. There was a very strong sense of history being made at the time.

I’m absolutely positive of WBCN’s legacy. Its legacy was in the artists it helped break. The Police, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Clash. Without that cornerstone, you would not have the direction that music took. You have a world with just the Eagles. Can you imagine a world with just the Eagles? The entire musical landscape of America, and maybe the entire world, would have been different.

WBCN wasn’t just the jocks and engineers and sales and support staff. You were ’BCN. It was a club for everyone. We were the big mouth for it. It was about everybody. We’re all on a mattress together. That’s the station by extension. Let’s drop a pumpkin, let’s drop some cash, let’s drop some acid.
I always thought it would have been good to put a recording device on the station intercom. That told the story of what the station was really like. If anyone had anything to say, it went on the intercom. So many of the best stories would get me or somebody else in trouble, which is probably why they’re great stories.

 

ADAM “ADAM 12” CHAPMAN
At WBCN: DJ, 2003–’09.
Since then: DJ at WFNX and Boston.com’s RadioBDC.

I listened to ’BCN when I was little, because that’s what my parents listened to. I can remember sitting in the back of my parents’ Plymouth Valiant. It was a Sunday night, Oedipus was hosting Nocturnal Emissions, and he played “Never Say Never” by Romeo Void. I remember hearing the lyrics, “I might like you better if we slept together,” and I remember not knowing what it meant. But I remember my parents changing the station.

I was the last full-time DJ that Oedipus hired. I’ve become the de facto spokesperson for the final era. We all wish we could have been around in the ’70s and ’80s. Oh, the stories you heard. You heard the stories of the camaraderie that they had back then. The freedom that they had.

In spring of ’05 we moved from Boylston Street to Brighton. Boylston Street still had the old-school spirit. After the move to Brighton, the space was different. They put us in the basement in a building with ’ZLX and Oldies, and then Mix 98.5 moved in there. It felt more like a bank. We were next door to an Acura dealership. It didn’t have that cool radio vibe. The old Boylston Street studios were all beat up. When we moved out, they were taking all the old records out of the cabinets in the studios. There was coke residue on the records, and marijuana stems in the back.

’BCN was part of the fabric of Boston. If you grew up in the Boston metro, ’BCN was part of your life in some way, shape, or form. WBCN was a cultural phenomenon through its music, events, and personalities—it united Boston. It gave people points of parity with one another. I still can’t go to an event without at least one person mentioning WBCN.


From Our Archives: June 1970
Rock-Solid Radio at WBCN-FM»


Ethan Gilsdorf Ethan Gilsdorf, Contributor ethan@ethangilsdorf.com