I picked up this next book looking for a bit of local history. WBCN was my go to radio station during my middle and high school years and in many ways helped set the soundtrack of my youth. On car rides, in my room doing homework, or even late night in bed when I probably should have been sleeping, “The Rock of Boston” was there.
The book was written by Carter Alan, author and former WBCN DJ. Chronicling an oral history of the station from its founding in 1968 to the final sign off in 2009, the book’s narrative guides the reader through the history of the station by infusing the author’s own insights with a generous mix of quotes and stories from the people who were there. What emerges is an interesting portrait of everything from the station, the evolution of the radio business, and, of course, the music.
I had a great time reading this. The author’s enthusiasm was infectious and the story was well crafted and interesting throughout, though undeniably reverential. For me there were two distinct parts to this story, the first of which being the history of the station from before I was alive or listening. Going into this I knew very little of the station’s past or how it had grown into the local institution I knew it to be. I found the idea of it starting as a fledgling experiment in freeform radio really intriguing and had no idea how political the station was originally, having taken an active voice in opposition to US involvement in Vietnam and advocating on behalf of a variety of social justice issues as part of its regular programming.
The second part of this story began for me once the book got into the late-80s and 90s. It was around here that my own feelings of nostalgia took over as I was able to recognize more of the bands and on-air personalities. I found myself recalling many of the sounds of those years; from vague memories of the station’s 1988 anti-Apartheid campaign, complete with on air calls to boycott Shell Oil, to the infamous “Lunch Song” parodies and even the old station IDs. It was also a lot of fun getting the backstories of some of the hosts I used to listen to like Oedipus, Bradley Jay, Juanita, Melissa, and (my favorite) Nik Carter, which in many ways felt like catching up with old friends. I’ll admit I even got a bit fired up recalling the mid-90s feud between BCN and Worcester-based WAAF (a big part of which was fueled by WAAF shock jocks Opie and Anthony attacking on air one BCN DJ for being gay and another for being black).
It was during this time period that I started going to concerts and I have BCN to thank for more than a few of my most memorable shows; including my very first one (Gravity Kills at the Middle East in Cambridge), an intimate evening with the Smashing Pumpkin at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, and Cypress Hill at an all day festival in the Foxboro Stadium (the predecessor of Gillette Stadium). Unfortunately it was also during this era that the seeds were sown for the station’s eventual demise. The radio business was changing and several programming decisions began to slowly alter the audience, tone, and direction of the station. I can’t help but feel slightly vindicated in that the programing decisions I hated the most as teenager (namely picking up the Howard Stern Show and airing New England Patriots football games) were ultimately contributing factors despite being huge financial boons at the time.
Even though it ended with the station’s eventual demise, I thought this book was a great trip down memory lane and I read it with a smile on my face the whole time. If you’ve ever spent any significant amount of time in Boston and regularly tuned into the station, this book is for you.