Boston is known as the birthplace of the American Revolution. One of its highlights was the infamous Boston Tea Party of 1773. Fast-forward to 1968, when Boston can lay claim to a second revolution and a second Tea Party. Only this time the Boston Tea Party was a nightclub, featuring a British invasion of bands, and the revolution in question was the birth of free-form radio in the guise of the radio station 104.1 WBCN. Filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein is the man behind a new film, “WBCN and the American Revolution.” The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: Was it a bold statement, back then, for a radio station to call itself the American Revolution?
Bill Lichtenstein: I think not. The radio station reflected many of these tremendous social, cultural, political changes that were taking place. Going first from music, and then into the anti-draft movement, which became the anti-Vietnam War movement. They saw themselves as being at the vanguard of social change of the late '60s and early '70s. So that's where the line came from. They would say on the air, "WBCN: The American Revolution."
Santoro: You can pinpoint to where WBCN was born, correct?
Lichtenstein: Oh yes. It was born on March 15, 1968. And the original broadcast came out of two places. One was 171 Newbury Street, where they had taken over a failing classical music station, but more importantly, because the people at this button-down classical station were concerned that these young people coming up here might smoke dope or play rock and roll music, which of course, likely they were, the owner of the station moved the facilities into the back room of this rock club he owned called the Boston Tea Party. So literally, WBCN started in the back room of the Boston Tea Party, with these two little DJ mixers and a couple of turntables. And you could hear bands playing in the background, and they would grab musicians coming off the stage like Lou Reed and sit them down for an interview. It was tremendously exciting.
Santoro: What did the call letters WBCN stand for?
Lichtenstein: WBCN was “Boston Concert Network,” which was part of a dream of an MIT engineer named T. Mitchell Hastings, who was involved in the early days of FM radio, particularly in solving the problem of how to get an FM radio to work in a car and not pick up the static of the engine. It made a lot of money, and his dream was to build a chain of classical music stations up and down the east coast. And he got to NCN, New York Concert Network in New York, HCN in Hartford Connecticut, and BCN in Boston. Then, by 1968, they weren't doing well financially, and they weren't getting advertising. Ray Riepen, who was a Harvard law student who was running this rock club, realized that all these bands he was bringing in, The Who and Led Zeppelin, you couldn't hear them on the radio. And so he approached Mitchell Hastings about buying the hours between 10:00 at night and 6:00 in the morning, and using those hours to play rock and roll. Then everything just took off.
Santoro: And that's when he realized that there was there was more money being made in the overnight playing the rock and roll than there was during the classical?
Lichtenstein: Yes. And they quickly went to 24 hours just because the money was so tremendous. Mostly because there were 250,000-300,000 college kids in Boston, and there was really no way to reach them, since this was before the internet. So advertisers jumped at the chance to reach that audience.
Santoro: And Ray Riepen, he really had the trifecta in this town. He had BCN, he had the Boston Tea Party as you mentioned, and he also had the Boston Phoenix newspaper. How did he find these DJs? Did he take them from BCN the classical station and move them in, or did he just handpick them from the club?
Lichtenstein: The stories are marvelous. College radio afforded students more freedom on the air than they had at that time on Top 40. And he literally drove around town just tuning into college stations. Without notice he would walk into a studio. And Joe Rogers, who was the first DJ on WBCN, he went to Tufts, but I think he was on the MIT station — recalls this guy walking in with a three-piece suit saying, “I'm gonna get me a commercial station, and I want you to be on my radio station.” And as Joe said, “We laughed and laughed until we realized he was serious.” He assembled a group of young people, a lot of them college students who had no formal training, and that was part of what he wanted was a conversational tone, which radio didn't have in those days, at least on rock and roll stations.
Santoro: My parents used to put me to bed — I was about 10 years old — and I would wait for them to fall asleep, and I'd get up and I would sneak downstairs into the living room to that big console stereo that we all grew up with. I’d put the headphones on, and I would listen to Peter Wolf do his show on the overnights, and it was unbelievable. And then I remember when I got my first paycheck at WBCN, they said to me, “You can come to the big parties now that Peter throws.” [I was] like, I can't meet that guy. I used to go to sleep listening to him, I can't meet him now. But it was fascinating what an impact it had, no just on me, but on everybody.
Lichtenstein: And you know a part of it again the charm was that these were not polished radio people. In fact, Joe Rogers recalls that as soon as the station took off, Ray Riepen started getting calls from radio professionals saying, “Look, get rid of these kids and we can really make this thing work,” and to his credit he didn't.
But Ron Della Chiesa, who is now the voice of the Boston Symphony and was part of the classical music WBCN, was involved in the changeovers because he would be on the air at 10:00 or at midnight when it would go from classical to rock. He recalls a story early on where he was doing the changeover from him to Peter Wolf. And he had Peter on the phone at the Tea Party and Ron was at the studio on Newbury Street, and Ron recalls saying to Peter, “OK, you’re gonna be on in two minutes, just don't forget to do a station I.D.” which, in those days was very strict, you had to say it right on the hour every hour. And Ron recalls Peter saying, “Oh, what's a station ID?” And Ron says, “Oh, you just have to say WBCN in Boston.”
Santoro: And it wasn't just the music and the DJs that put WBCN over the top, it was also the news programs and the public affairs programs that this this rock station had?
Lichtenstein: Well, it follows the history of the country and what went on in Boston in that initially, in ’68, it was largely focused on music. By the end of '68, WBCN became concerned about the anti-draft movement and then the anti-Vietnam War movement and began to really see its role in covering events. They created a news department with a guy named Bo Burlingham, who was there for a few days and found out he'd been indicted with members of the Weather Underground in a bombing plot which later was dismissed. And then Danny Schecter came along, who had been an activist, and Danny really built not just a news department, but arguably the most radical news department in the country.
Santoro: You said a minute ago that 1968 was not unlike 2018. There were and are movements that are definitely defining the times. What are your thoughts on what's happening today and how would WBCN handle some of the events of today, like the March For Our Lives, or the Me Too movement?
Lichtenstein: One of the things that made WBCN so powerful by the early '70s was that it sat atop the Prudential building. So it wasn't a little underground station in the basement of a church someplace. You could see it from everywhere in Boston, and its mission was to give voice to people. I think people in Boston of that era knew if there was something going on, something of importance, they could hear about it on the radio, or, more importantly, they could call, and oftentimes were just a push button away from being on the air to describe a demonstration or something that had happened. I think WBCN would have been in the thick of all of this. A lot of it now happens on social media with Facebook where you can get you know different perspectives. BCN played that role back then. It was the only place you could get different perspectives on what was going on.
Santoro: Oftentimes young people say to me, what was it like to listen to WBCN and to be part of the WBCN family back in the day, and and I tell them that WBCN was so popular, that you could walk down Newbury Street on a hot August day — before anybody had air conditioners, so all the windows were open — and it sounded like one big speaker, because it was the only radio station that anybody listened to. And it was coming out of everybody's apartment. It was massive.
Lichtenstein: You know, people didn't necessarily have — and certainly stores restaurants didn't have — fabulous record collections. They couldn’t necessarily play blues and folk. So this was a source of music, and stores, to encourage people to come in, would oftentimes put a speaker in the window and turn up the station. It really wired the community together in a way that was tremendously important, particularly for a town with 250,000-300,000 college kids. And, it's one of the things that has been a part of the making of the film is to tap into all the listeners and support from that era. There were no archives, so literally these hundreds of hours of amazing broadcasts — everything from Bruce Springsteen's first radio interview, to Jane Fonda reporting for the WBCN news team from the Watergate hearings with a memo she found that had not been reported — we have tapes of all those things now, which are amazing.
Santoro: Well, this is what happens when you take a combination of intelligence plus passion plus creativity. What you get is radio that really begs to be listened to with both ears, not just one.
Lichtenstein: I think that's true, and I don't think the era has passed for that kind of radio. The last four days that WBCN was on the air — before it was taken off the air by CBS in 2009 and turned into a more mainline rock and roll station — the staff was given permission to put anything on the air they wanted as long as they didn't lose the license. I did a piece for the Globe and one for the Huffington Post, in one of them I wrote about the experience of driving around Cambridge and turning on the station, and there was a 22-minute Jimi Hendrix cut with a long drum solo, and then there was this lovely jazz piece, and then they were playing some really obscure Bruce Springsteen section of his interview. It just worked. And when I got home, for the first time in a long time, I sat in the car afraid to turn the radio off and run into the house and turn it back on because I might miss something. I really believe if a station were able to have faith and get bright people and say, “Look, here’s your four hours, do what you want with it,” that kind of radio could work again.
Santoro: What do you want viewers to take away from this film?
Lichtenstein: What I really want people to to feel, if they see this film in a theater, is that it isn't a political film. It's not like you have to agree with the politics of that time, or transpose them onto now. It's more that if there's something that's really bothering you about the world, that you should take action to change it, and you can use media, you can use music, art, poetry, it really shows a picture of how everybody during that era came together to change things for women, for gay people, for lesbian people, for trans people, for the war in Vietnam, for civil rights. All of those things exploded during that period, and we look at how WBCN intersected with them. And I think that's what we want: for people to feel empowered. If people see this film, and there’s something that's really bothering them, they should know they can do something to change it.