Rock-Solid Radio

Two years ago, Boston’s struggling WBCN-FM experimented with a program change from the standard classics to a free-wheeling amalgam anchored in rock and roll. The idea has since proved to be extraordinarily sound.

If Billboard or Cashbox evaluated the station, it would be placed under the “progressive” musical format subhead. Times, Newsweek, or a Sunday supplement would brand it “underground,” and were it part of a national network, the station would be saddled with the misnomer, “Love Radio.” At first, Boston’s WBCN-FM did title itself “The American Revolution” and proclaimed “Ugly Radio” (AM’s Top Forty) to be dead. Currently, the two-year-old concept in broadcasting freedom defies categorization by the critics, classifiers, and chroniclers of the new rock in records, and particularly in radio programming.

In the short history of its current format, the 100,000-watt station has proved that the innovative sounds can engender both audience appeal and financial success. Rating services have determined that WBCN is the most popular Boston FM rock and roll radio station and is seriously challenging the AM outlets. Connoisseurs of rock programming cite WBCN as probably the most widely acclaimed station in the eastern United States. As its audience and reputation have grown, advertising revenue has been reaching new heights virtually with each successive month, but has not risen at the expense of the programming (e.g., a $5,000 ad account was declined recently because the sponsor’s grating jingle did not blend with the station’s format).

WBCN’s air personalities often refer to themselves as people who “play rock and roll music.” If that definition is taken literally, it may well be the broadest definition of Allen Freed’s (the 1950s’ “King of Rock and Roll” disk jockey) coinage ever uttered. The “rock and roll” aired during a typical four-hour program could range from the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, and the Mothers of Invention to Glenn Gould and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Liberally interspersed might be British and American blues, folk, hard rock, jazz, gospel, country—in short, practically anything on record or tape that would enhance the listeners’ enjoyment and awareness of music.

Historically, the station for 10 years had reflected the typical concept of FM radio, and around a core of standard classics and middle-of-the-road selections, it had acquired debts in excess of a million dollars before its programing structure was altered. The idea for format change originated in late 1967 when Ray Riepen, a 33-year-old former tort lawyer from Kansas City, began his search for a station which could program rock music in a mature manner. Ultimately, he convinced T. Mitchell Hastings, Chairman of the Board and founder of Concert network, Inc. (which owns WBCN), to experiment with the new sound. WBCN’s amalgamative approach to pop music had its first airing, on a part-time basis, on March 15, 1968, when from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. weekdays, and all weekend, free-form broadcasting ruled 104.1 on the Boston FM channel. The immediately favorable listener response, coupled with a sudden increase in advertising, resulted in the station’s switching to its current format full-time two months later, on May 17.

Generally, musical selections revolve around related sets of material. After the first few months, practically every variation on drug and anti-war sets had been explored. Soon after, Steve Segal, a former WBCN announcer now with KPPC-FM, Los Angeles, refined the approach and formulated the current station concept of programming as a train of thought via music. In this approach, two to four related records are connected by a sometimes fragile relationship which can be musical, thematic, or consist simply of several different cuts which presumably evoke a uniform feeling. Each of the station’s six full-time announcers, all of whom are in their twenties, follows the formula.

“A song can be set up so that it’s changed entirely because of its framework. The context is so important,” announcer Mississippi Harold Wilson emphasizes. “The music is all flow of moods, and, properly displayed, sparks can flash between two cuts. We generally work with leitmotifs in which one song logically follows another, but radical conflicts of music and lyrics such as paradox, irony, or incongruity can work as well.” Fellow announcer Jim Parry says of the staff that “everyone approaches the music from his own orientation and manages to pull a sense of coherency out of it all.” Production manager Sam Kopper, who runs the sunrise segment, explains, “We’re the go-betweens on what is primarily a music station. We each have our own personalities and can claim to be conversational, but definitely can’t be fake. The overall spirit is that we’re playing music, having a good time, and trying to help the audience increase its musical awareness and broaden people’s horizons.”

“We’re trying to lead rather than simply react,” General Manager Len Cohen says of the station’s aims, “and thus ascertain where music will be in the coming months and years.” This leadership attitude results in the broadcasting of any musical form which conveys “the excitement of rhythm, tone, color, and melody to captivate our kind of audience.” It also means turning down major advertising accounts which “we think are commercially demeaning to our audience,” such as raucous recorded announcements and infantile jingles.

Programming is a highly individualistic art at the station, with each man determining what records he wants to play. For the most part, the announcers are not actively negative toward performers; rather, if an album or a cut is not liked, it simply is not played. The Top Forty concept of 20 records played frequently, 20 others given less air time, and 10 “golden oldies”  intermingled has been totally abandoned by WBCN. The “chicken underground” FM stations which utilize a playlist of 200 albums also are ignored. Instead, each announcer is given unrestricted use of WBCN’s record library of some 4,000 albums and numerous singles and tapes.

Thriving on spontaneity, the station reflects the momentary mood and temperament of the individual playing records at any given time. As J.J. Jackson, the noonhour D.J., notes, “It’s good to know we can exercise our ideas, and go from Led Zeppelin to Rachmaninov in the same set.”

It is equally heartening for the announcers to receive a letter such as Daniel R. Gustin’s. Gustin, educational affairs director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wrote in part, “…I have been impressed with the way you are able to juxtapose music of widely divergent styles on the program. I have found this particularly impressive because, contrary to the usually accepted ‘rules’ of radio programming, hearing B.B. King sing the blues right after the adagio from a Schubert symphony really seems to me to be aesthetically pleasing— i.e., it ‘works.’”

 

The announcers realize that a small segment of WBCN’s audience is the really hip, super-critical listener who knows more about music than the staffers. However, as Sam Kopper explains, “We’ve gone beyond that audience in terms of whom we reach. We know there are listeners hipper than we are, and they’re a challenging group which forces us to keep informed. But we’re doing a mass thing, and if we assume a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, we’d become more sophisticated than most of our audience. We have to avoid the danger of appealing to the hip clique exclusively, and, rather, realize that many of the listeners enjoy the music and the vibes but aren’t always interested in exotic trips.”

D.J. Charles Laquidara, also the station’s program coordinator, comments that “we can’t be everything to everybody, or we’d have to play Ferrante and Teicher and Mantovani too.” Mississippi Wilson adds, “We receive totally contradictory letters criticizing the station. Some say ‘too much blues,’ others say ‘not enough blues.’ Still others say ‘too much jazz,’ or ‘too much folk,’ but we just have to rely on the fact that there are six of us trying to insure only that good musicians won’t go unnoticed.”

Even with these intentions, negative listener comments are mailed to WBCN and include such reactions as this one from a B.U. student: “You guys are simply not playing music that is substantial enough to inspire me. All this goddamned crazy electric guitar infatuation that any jerk wit ha full amp ‘system’ can blast out…” Or this from another listener: “I am very confused. Today I was listening to your radio station and heard some very strange things going on. First, you played a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King preaching non-violence. Immediately after that came the Jefferson Airplane telling me to tear down the walls and revolt. Then came a record preaching ‘love, peace, and happiness’…”

“Mostly I dig WBCN,” another complaint began, “but I don’t know what’s been happening to your heads recently. Everytime I listen it always seems to be 90 per cent hard, rocking, down depressing blues…I am eight pregnant months along and trying to recover from the flu, so I turn on WBCN and get a Black Mass followed by ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’…Couldn’t you balance your programming a little more?…My unborn baby has a pretty sensitive head and damn strong feet—every time he hears something he doesn’t dig, he kicks me in the ribs. Besides, he’s Pisces and they are super-influenced by music before birth…”

The old school of broadcasting thought which made mandatory the mixture of a little music, a little news, and a little public service has never infiltrated WBCN. The station’s philosophy is embedded in the assumption that more than enough other stations in the area report news on the hour, deliver thorough weather forecasts, and assume the role of a verbal Westclox. Kopper’s morning weather comments, for instance, range from “it’s going to rain today” to “it’s going to be sunny and nice.”

While news was not carried on the station for more than a year, in mid-1969 when WCBN began subscribing to the Reuters News Service. Last October, Norm Winer, a 22-year-old Brandeis University graduate, became the station’s news director. His attitude towards coverage is, “I have an almost moralistic obligation to keep the audience aware of subjects in which the people are most interested. Attention is given to  the news our particular audience wants to hear or the news I think it should want to hear.”

Since he is a one-man news organization, Winer combines staying at the station and tending the Reuters machine with conducting interviews and gathering street reactions. Over the last few weeks, he has taped conversations with Chicago 7 defendant Abbie Hoffman, birth control advocate Bill Baird, and David Truong, the son of the imprisoned runner-up in the last South Vietnamese presidential election. A relatively new feature, “The Cat and Dog Report,” serves to reunite lost and found pets with their distraught owners and is aired every evening at 11 p.m.

Early this year, the station also began to present editorials because, according to Winer, “people now have come to accept us as an opinion-making, opinion-shaping medium.” An outgrowth of the editorial is the news item coupled with a suggestion for political action telegrams, a voice-your-reaction listener stimulus created by Laquidara and Wilson. “A year ago, a rating service determined that at any given moment, a minimum of 40,000 people are listening to WBCN—a figure which has increased considerably since then,” Laquidara says. “We began to realize that with that many listeners, we can move bodies, we can do things.”

Wilson initiated the audience motivation by recording a public service announcement to inform listeners of the existence of the 15-word, 90¢ telegram and how to send one to a public official. The editorial aspect was added when a news item was read immediately following the telegram details. (Since the station selects the item, it must be labeled an editorial within the context of its presentation.) Among the issues presented have been birth control and the jail sentence of Bill Baird for distributing contraceptive devices, and the Supreme Court nomination of G. Harold Carswell.

“Because of the omnipresent rules and regulations of the Federal Communications Commission, we have a great internal system of checks and balances—we impose our own limitations,” Charles Laquidara notes. J.J. Jackson comments, Sure, we could be super-militant, but we’d also be off the air next year. We’re much more effective working within the F.C.C. parameters and staying on the air. Basically, we’re all searching for the same goals, and as corny as it might sound, the overriding ambition is for America to be as America was meant to be. That means that Charles may be more involved in ecology than I am, but I really care, just as I may be more concerned about what happens in the black community, but I know he cares, too. And the most important consideration is that unless I am personally willing to lead the charge on a particular issue, I don’t want to get the audience involved.”

A further means of activating the WBCN audience is via public service announcements, jointly handled by Andre Beaubien, who does the afternoon show, and Jackson. “We can’t put on a Robert Goulet Heart Fund appeal because it doesn’t relate to our audience,” says Beaubien, “but we can perform a real public service to a specific segment of our audience by giving out information about the presence of Project Place (a sanctuary for down-and-out young Bostonians), or the need for volunteers for the Cambridge Free School, especially since no other station in the city plays those spots.” When WBUR-FM, B.U.’s station, lost its entire record library after a fire in March, WBCN not only made numerous pleas for listeners to donate records or money, but also loaned WBUR 1400 classical records.

Special programming at WBCN further leads to community participation and accompanying reactions. A recent example was the twice-aired documentary “Eco-Catastrophe!”, adapted by Charles Laquidara from an article on pollution. Following this 25-minute reading mixed with sound effects, phone lines rang continuously for two hours. Ecology organizations, college professors, and government agencies ranging from the Lowell City Development Authority to the U.S. Department of the Interior all praised, requested, and were given tapes of the program. “Eco-Catastrophe’s” popularity led to a re-broadcasting to allow many other listeners to hear or tape it. More than 200 people either brought or sent bank tape to the station, where copies were made for them at no charge.

A special on women’s liberation prepared and presented by the Boston chapter of Bread and Roses, drew less response, but, as Mississippi Harold Wilson comments, “We are the station of the community—that’s why the women came to us.” The ladies prepared the entire program, which frequently criticized the station and its music, and were given uninterrupted air time from 7 to 8 on a Sunday night.

Attachment to the station, both of listeners and announcers, is considerable. Beyond the continuous phone calls for requests, each day’s mail produces favorable reactions such as: “Dear BCN—If it weren’t for you, I’d leave home—Love, Gail” (quoted in its entirety). “…Thank you for giving me Tom Rush, Richie Havens, James Taylor, Tim Hardin, and Buffalo Springfield in the morning when nothing seems promising…Do you realize what you do to my mother’s mind when she leaves the room when you’re playing Santana’s ‘Jingo’ and reenters when you’re playing ‘The Messiah?’”

Over the two years, some gradual changes have been added to diversify programming. Jimmy Byrd does a gospel program Sunday through Friday from 6-7 a.m., and Little Walter (DeVenne) spins oldies from 6-8 p.m. on Sundays. Little Walter, who also has a show on WTBS-FM, the MIT station, theorizes, “There are a lot of new kids listening to the old material, and looking back shows them how music movies in cycles. Not only is the old music a groove to listen to, but it also indicates where rock is headed. People have called me and asked, “Why do you play records with “Ooh, ah, ip, ip, ip?”‘ and  I tell them there’s an element of love in such a song. Basically, the cat’s singing lead and has a story to tell—it’s no different than the way Paul McCartney sings ‘Hey Jude’ today.”

A programming device which as prove to be an effective promotional tool for both the station and local area rock, folk, and jazz clubs has been the in-person radio interviews of the performer appearing at a local club.

“It’s nice to have musicians rapping on the air, and I’ve never received calls telling me ‘get back to the music!’” Kopper says. “Roland Kirk came in totally bitter and talked about the racial problems he’s encountered as a black jazz musician, and many people reacted favorably and called to tell us how much they enjoyed the interview.” In crystallizing WBCN’s attitude toward interviews, Kopper relates that the station “is a vehicle for the performer, his music, and his attitudes. It’s our service to the community to present interviews free of pressure and political maneuvers, interviews which our audience—not a record promotion man or club owner—wants to hear.

“If anything, we tend to counteract the push for airplay or interviews of any particular club, in consideration of other clubs which are also our advertisers, and while it may not always sound like we’re not hyping the Tea Party, if its acts do get more airplay it’s because the club consistently books the top rock entertainment in Boston.

“The Tea Party’s atmosphere is much closer to the earlier folk situation, which was based on a true interest in music. Many times we’ll see a group there live on opening night, play it heavily on the station for the next few days, then let the music fit back into its perspective.”

As for the promo men who “service” the station, Kopper recalls that “last summer they realized that this is the station to bring albums to. However, it took them awhile to realize that we’re untraditional radio—we neither want to get involved in the payola thing nor pay attention to ‘this record’s happening in San Francisco’ claims.” Promo men assertions like “it’s a complete dynamite gas” or “this album’ll blow your mind” went unheeded, particularly since they were usually made in reference to bland recordings. Finally, the distributors and their bring-it-up-front men realized that if WBCN’s announcers liked a record, it would be played—period.

“Now they give us a stack of records, call back in a week, and ask for our opinions,” Kopper says. “We’ve had producers call from New York for reactions, and record companies have asked us what we think a particular group’s next single should be if it’s to be taken from an album we’ve been playing.” Thus, the promotional copies of singles go to WMEX and WRKO, the two Boston AM Top Forty outlets, while WBCN-FM receives the concentrated album attention. Kopper claims that WBCN sells more albums on a dollar basis than the Top Forty stations, despite the latter’s larger audiences. For this reason alone, it’s not difficult to accept WBCN local sales manager Al Perry’s cautiously unhumble statement, “The promo men have become more appreciative of our attitudes.”

“It seems to me that locally we were influential in making Judy Collins’ ‘Both Sides Now’ a successful single,” says Kopper, “as well as some Canned Heat, Steppenwolf, and Traffic singles which we first played as album cuts.” The traffic and Led Zeppelin albums illustrate the influence of the station on the music marketplace. “The distributor brought us a tape of Traffic’s second album four weeks before the record came out. We were the only station playing Traffic, and when the album was released, it was completely sold out locally in a few days. After similar pre-release play on Led Zeppelin’s first album, the local stores received their shipments in the morning and all copies were gone by afternoon.” Perhaps even more than the record companies, the performers themselves are most aware of WBCN’s ability to stimulate album sales. Four days before any station in the world had “Led Zeppelin II,” WBCN was playing the pressing group guitarist Jimmy Page had sent in. The station also has received far-in-advance recorded material from Rod Stewart, Peter Townshend of The Who, and the Small Faces, among others.

As for overall media influence, Kopper predicts that WBCN will be having a lot more. “We should be number one in this market, but achieving that will take more time and training—on our part as well as the part of our audience. When that happens, the commercial people, the ones who’ll jump on a bandwagon whenever there’s a dollar attached to it, will be following us. The difference will be that when we’re number one, we’ll be in a position to tell people to do it our way. The 40-year-old ad men who think that they can sell to teens and young adults will realize how wrong they are.”

Kopper berates many ad men who have little or no knowledge of the young contemporary market. “If they knew our audience, they’d realize our listeners would rather have bad apartments and sizeable record collections instead of advertisers’ values, which are the reverse.”

The station has refused to take certain ads, such as cigarette commercials, although some tobacco spots were broadcast at first due to a contract made before the format change. (Such ads frequently were followed by an American Cancer Society spot.) When a prepared ad arrives at the station and doesn’t mesh with WBCN’s attitude toward selling goods and/or services, the advertiser is requested to allow the station personnel to rewrite or rerecord it. If the request is denied, the station would prefer not accepting the advertising account rather than distorting the consistency of its sound. WBCN’s rate structure has been altered considerably since the 1968 format change. In the ensuing 24-month period, the enthusiastic listener response to WBCN resulted in a rate card which quickly rose above the classical music charges and was increased for the fifth  time on May 15. (A one-time, one-minute commercial in AAA time is now $32).

Kopper comments that “currently, we sell out consistently in prime time, but on a program like mine, 7-10 a.m., we average two or three spots per hour. Eventually, when all hours are sold and no spots are open, the rates will periodically continue to go up because we want to strictly enforce the standard of only eight minutes of commercials per hour.” WBCN reached a break-even point, in relation to its operating expenses at the time, at the end of its first summer of operations. Fall and pre-Christmas advertising has been strong both years, and net sales for last March rose to the highest in the station’s history, surpassing all other FM stations in the city not only in sales, but also, operating 24 hours a day (a rarity in FM radio), in budget.

The announcers’ involvement extends far beyond the four hours of airtime per day. Andre  Beaubien asserts that “working here has really become my whole life. I do my show, work on the public service announcements, listen to records to keep up with new releases, listen to the other guys on the air to keep up with them. For the work involved, sure it would be nice to make $300 a week, but here it’s a matter of really enjoying what I’m doing.”

“We built this station; it represents what we think and believe and has become an extention of our life styles,”  says Jim Parry, adding that when several of the announcers received offers to work for a Philadelphia station at almost double the amount of their WBCN salaries, “we declined because there we would have been forced to fit into their mold and work within their corporate limitations. Here there’s a direct  communication of what I’m feeling—I can get my attitudes directly across to the audience without having to ask management what albums I can play or what I can say.”

Similarly, J.J. Jackson didn’t even bother to submit an audition tape to WNEW-FM, the New York Metro-media station that expressed interest in hiring him. Thinking back about his previous jobs (with Tufts University’s WTUR-FM and with a computer organization), he explains, “This is the first job where I actually miss the place if I don’t come in for a couple of days.”

Despite the station’s relatively low level of remuneration, positions have consistently been sought at WBCN. “Lately, we’ve been swamped,” Kopper says. “We’ve always received audition tapes, but our recent increase seems to be a proportionate indication of more and more people getting into the current scene, particularly music.” Laquidara reports that the station receives at least five unsolicited audition tapes every month, but he’s only heard three acceptable announcers in the past year, and despite the search for “a dynamite woman announcer, we haven’t heard her tape here yet.” But, he concludes, “These people are starting off so far ahead of where we were when we began two years ago, that it makes me think we’re headed in the right direction.”

 

Mr. Bieber, a journalism graduate of Kent State University, was a Cambridge free-lance writer when this article was published, completing his Master’s thesis at B.U. on FM radio and its impact on the rock and alternative cultures.


From Our August 2014 Issue: A WBCN Oral History»

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