Boston’s groundbreaking WBCN radio station at the center of new documentary


In the early 1970s, Here NowRobin Young’s worked at Boston’s AM radio station, WBZ.

But something wonderful was happening on the brand new FM dial: DJs were playing deep album tracks, saying whatever they wanted about the Vietnam War or women’s and gay rights.

When Young asked his boss if he had heard of WBCN station, he replied that FM would never last. But WBCN has become the soundtrack of the city’s 250,000 college students, the Internet of its time.

WBCN air personnel in the station’s record library. (Pierre Simon)

The station launched the careers of artists like Aerosmith and arguably played a role in ending the Vietnam War.

It all started in 1966 when Ray Riepen, a young lawyer from Kansas City came to town to attend Harvard Business School. He caught up with the burgeoning counterculture and responded by starting a small club called The Tea Party. Lou Reed and Led Zeppelin performed there.

Riepen asked classic radio station WBCN if he could experiment with alternative underground radio after midnight. So one evening in 1968, classic host Ron Della Chiesa hit the airwaves to DJs led by college student Joe Rogers, who let him rip.

The story of WBCN is told in the new documentary airing on PBS, “WBCN and the American Revolution”. Award-winning filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein directed and brought to life the film.

The film tells the story with a Greek choir of just about everyone who was there. And it also includes news footage of Noam Chomsky weighing in.

Lichtenstein lives in the suburbs of Boston and came to the station to answer the crisis line at the age of 14. At that time, there were only a handful of FM stations experimenting with free music.

WBCN has changed radio forever, says Lichtenstein.

WBCN announcers Charles Laquidara and Maxanne with Charles 'Master Blaster' Daniels, master of ceremonies at the rock club Boson Tea Party.  (Pierre Simon)
WBCN announcers Charles Laquidara and Maxanne with Charles ‘Master Blaster’ Daniels, master of ceremonies at the rock club Boson Tea Party. (Pierre Simon)

“Before BCN, radio was really a performance. [BCN pioneered] the idea of ​​having a conversation with your listeners, ”he says. “And then the music played by BCN – Frank Zappa to Cream to blues – you couldn’t hear it anywhere.”

The tone of the station’s conversation was CEO Riepen’s vision, Lichtenstein says.

Young people were the key to the station’s success: Riepen looked for kids on college radio stations who understood underground music culture but were not seasoned professionals.

Tommy Hadges dropped out of Harvard Dental School to work at the station. Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band made a change at the station, as did the formidable Maxanne Sartori, one of the first female rock DJs to discover Aerosmith and launch Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen at Joes Place, which aired on WBCN.  (Jeff Albertson)
Bruce Springsteen at Joes Place, which aired on WBCN. (Jeff Albertson)

Interview highlights

Against the political backdrop in Boston at this time

“1967 was the summer of love in San Francisco and was really about peace and love and maybe LSD could change the world. In ’68, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, things got a lot more political and really, the epicenter of the ’60s counterculture moved to Boston and got a lot more politicized. So BCN, which started out as a largely music-oriented radio station, really became at the center in many ways not only of the anti-war movement, but sort of all the effort to expose what was going on. with the war in Vietnam.

On popular morning show host Charles Laquidara, who casually commented after an advertisement about children receiving napalmed

“He did an advertisement for Underground Camera, a Cambridge, [Massachusetts], camera store and he mentioned that Honeywell Pentax cameras were on sale at a time when the Honeywell company was making anti-personnel weapons in Vietnam. They were known to target Cambodian children. And so at the end of the ad he said, “You have the option of buying a camera from a company that kills Cambodian babies. The store sued and the station ultimately lost, but the judge said because it was true he assessed only $ 1 in damages. But that kind of, you know, it was really unheard of for a radio station, I think, to express itself.

Protesters at Harvard University in 1969 (Timothy Carlson)
Protesters at Harvard University in 1969 (Timothy Carlson)

On Danny Schechter, the “information dissector” who has often made national news with his discoveries. At one point in the film, students occupy the offices of the Dean of Harvard. Schecter walks in with Michael Ansara, Student Leader for a Democratic Society, but gets angry and yells to get the students out of there.

“He and Michael Ansara start going through the confidential files of the Dean’s office. Harvard said they had no contract with the CIA; they find contracts with the CIA. Harvard said they are not involved in the Vietnam War effort; they discover that Henry Kissenger had gone to Vietnam at the request of the State Department while he was a professor at Harvard. The question is “What do you do with these documents?” Well Danny put them in a bag of books and then they published them and it became a huge problem.

On Lichtenstein’s forthcoming book on the station’s role in the anti-war movement

“We have FBI records that they were, the FBI was trying to figure out the type of information flow to young people. And [it] was their assessment, which was correct, that BCN was involved in some sort of spreading the word about what was going on with the anti-war movement and Charles Laquidara’s name is on an FBI file that we have. There was a famous raid at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, which was the former office of Henry Kissenger. Anti-war activists broke in and stole a bunch of documents. I was inside, I watched an anti-war protest and in fact, I walked in and called the station on the phone from inside and did a live report on the airwaves. inside.

“I would have been 16. Interestingly, when I got back to the station, Danny said, “Did you receive any documents? “I mean, I was so proud of myself for doing this report and Danny is like ‘Next time you’re in government [office], get documents! What was most interesting, I think, at that time was the connection between academia, government and war profiteers and a lot of that was on display, much of it in Boston, Dan Ellsberg [who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971], and what BCN was doing and Chomsky and you know, a lot of that was revealed here.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young and Chris Bentley. Tamagawa has also adapted it for the web.


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