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WBCN-FM, a collective of free-spirited radio pioneers, launched from the fading grandeur of a classical music radio station rapidly spinning out of business. On the night of March 15, 1968, Mississippi Harold Wilson (Joe Rogers) touched the needle to Cream’s “I Feel Free,” declaring FM independence and the beginning of Boston’s underground radio experiment, dubbed “The American Revolution.” Boston Tea Party owner Ray Riepen saw that the stereo LPs being played in apartments and dorms weren’t getting radio airtime. So he persuaded station owner T. Mitchell Hastings to give DJs free rein to play album cuts on an overnight “graveyard” shift to determine if there was an audience and ad dollars to float the new format. The station was an overnight sensation with listeners. National record labels and the Hub’s paisley collection of head shops, record emporiums, natural food cafes and water bed stores clamored so much to run their commercials on ‘BCN’s airwaves that by May Tchaikovsky got the news and rock programming went 24/7.
The first DJs operated out of studios at 171 Newbury Street and included Peter Wolf in his pre-stardom days, Jim Parry, Al Perry, Tommy Hadges, Sam Kopper and Steve Segal. Soon the station moved across town to Stuart Street with JJ Jackson and Charles Laquidara joining the circle. Except for Wolf’s up-tempo shtick rockin’ the wee hours, a laid-back, “stoner” style prevailed with a free-form attitude toward the music – no restrictions and no playlist. Danny Schechter and others would create a similarly inspired liberal attitude in the news department, connecting WBCN’s community with what they needed to know in a national and local environment that remained openly hostile to the American counterculture.
In time, WBCN’s free-spirited beginnings would retrench as the station moved to the top of the Prudential Tower with its higher overhead (pun intended), and new owners with higher financial expectations arrived along with radio competition. But despite ever-tightening reins on programming, WBCN’s irreverent creativity and openness to new music, young bands and emerging trends would captivate Boston for years. By the 80’s, after winning a union strike, the station went on to achieve its greatest success, which placed “The Rock of Boston” on top of the Boston ratings heap through the entire decade. Unknown names like Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, the Cars, U2 and the Clash were made household words while the station actively supported local music through its annual Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble and the burgeoning comedy scene with the Comedy Riot competition.
As the 90’s beckoned, WBCN’s taste for fresh sounds placed it in the Alternative Music format, but rapid changes began to sap its vital energy. Following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which relaxed ownership rules for media, the station became just one small part of a vast empire at CBS/Viacom. The arrival of shock-jock Howard Stern’s syndicated show to mornings that same year created a schizophrenic entity of WBCN, with community-based concern and music vs. callous commercialism and coarse talk. In the new century, with older listeners leaving in droves and loyalty among younger ones harder to retain with competition from alternate media such as iPods, the internet and free music sites like Napster, ratings began to nosedive. A formerly bulletproof radio property became riddled and CBS stemmed the bleeding by shuttering WBCN on August 12, 2009. But the spirit and sound of ‘BCN still lives on HD Radio and online, with “The Rock of Boston” at 98.5 WBZ-HD2, and the original free form format at 100.7 WZLX-HD3, where BCN’s original program director, Sam Kopper, holds court.