WBCN: requiem for the rock

19 Jul

This Guy Right Here, at a WBCN event at Harper's Ferry

Note: In case you hadn’t heard, WBCN, the Rock of Boston, is closing up shop in mid-August after 41 years of broadcasting.  You probably know this, but I’m a DJ there.   This is mostly about my experience at the station – there have been plenty of obituaries written about 104.1 in the last few days.   Go read them, especially Danny Schecter’s.

It was January 2003.  I was driving back home from work, with a take-out order of egg lemon soup from the Greek place that I had ordered in hopes of fending off one of my nasty sinus infections.  I was driving on 495, it was about 5 o’clock at night, it was snowing lightly, and my phone rang.  It was my mother, telling me that she had received a phone call from Steven Strick at WBCN.

I-495 goes right over Concord Road in Westford, Massachusetts, where I grew up.  The 495 loop basically circles the outskirts of the Boston metropolitan area, and thus defines the region that any self-respecting broadcasting entity must cover in order to be taken seriously in this town.  WAAF covers it, but they used to broadcast from Worcester, so they don’t count.  WFNX, the “hip” alternative station from my youth, could be heard about 75% of the time, and sometimes you had to hold the antenna just right.  WBCN’s stick was on top of the Prudential Tower (say it with me now: “FROM THE TOP OF THE PRUUUUUU!”) and the signal easily reached most of the eastern half of Massachusetts, as well as parts of New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island.

You’re not here to read about station coverage.  Only radio trainspotters care about being able to hear so-and-so station at so-and-so distant location in blah-blah conditions.  The rest of us care about the content: the music, the DJs, the vibe.  And that’s what I cared about.  WBCN switched from album-oriented rock to “alternative” in 1995, which is around the time I started listening.  Old school listeners think that’s when it died, but that’s when it started meaning something to me.  WAAF was for mullet-headed hockey players and gas station attendants who thought Metallica started to suck after Cliff died.  WFNX was awesome and homesy and bona-fide alternative, but you couldn’t hear it if it rained.  Ah, the things we had to worry about before streaming audio.   WBCN fit the niche between the two: you could hear Cake and Beck and The Presidents of the United States of America, but the signal was strong enough that you didn’t need to stand in the corner of your room with your antenna pressed down with duct tape.   And that’s the last thing I’m going to say about signal strength.  I swear.

WBCN also had a history, man.   I remember being 6 years old and listening to Charles Laquidera and the Big Mattress with my Dad.  The song they were playing was “Just A Gigolo” by David Lee Roth, where he sang “I ain’t got nobody..” which I, of course, thought was “I ain’t got no body…”.  Cut to Mrs. Devanna’s Sunday School class, where we learned that angels had no corporeal form.   This guy right here, at age six, stood up and belted out “I ain’t got no body,” and hilarity ensued.   Dad used to listen to the Big Mattress in the ’70s and early ’80s, before he made the inevitable switch to NPR.  Charles and Tank and the Cosmic Muffin – God rest his soul – owned the airwaves in Boston for years, and it was weird and wonderful and smart and, heck, it was “theater of the mind” like my former boss Oedipus used to say.  Charles had an alter ego, Duane Glasscock, who had his own show Saturday mornings, and you can really only get away with that sort of thing on the radio.

The DJs that meant something to me, though, were people like Nik Carter and Bradley Jay and Melissa – all from the ’90s.  Nik was this larger than life imp; the cool, crazy older brother.  He’d hate me for saying this, but it’s true – in the 1990s, you couldn’t throw a Pog without hitting a dozen “Bad Boy Shock Jocks” (TM), but Nik did that whole “shtick” without ever being stupid or puerile or embarrassing.  He was – and is – genuinely funny, engaging, smart, and always had something interesting to say about every overplayed band or song.  The hardest thing about being a DJ in the modern era is sounding engaging when you’re introing the same Alice In Chains song everyone’s heard a million times already, and Nik always nailed it.  I’m not just saying this because we’re Facebook buddies – the guy was always a great jock, as was Bradley, Melissa, Mark Hamilton, Juanita, Shred…. all people I grew up listening to and later knew as co-workers and friends.

Because, see, that night, when Steven Strick called my mother, he was offering me a job at the Rock of Boston, 104.1 WBCN.   When I got the call from Mum, I was literally driving over Concord Road on I-495, and it took all the restraint in the world not to drive my car through the guard rail and leap Dukes of Hazard-like off the overpass and onto the street where I grew up.   Thankfully I didn’t, because these things never go as well as they do on TV.

So, for the next six years, I was a part-time DJ at a legendary rock and roll radio station.  I grew up listening to this station.  The CD of BloodSugarSexMagic I held in my hands and played on the air was the same CD some uncannilly psychic DJ had played on the air the time I had just broken up with my college girlfriend, gotten back in the car, and heard “Breaking The Girl.”  The etheriel world was now tangible.

Me and Billy from the Pumpkins. Pretty much the pinnacle of my damn life.

Celebrities I met:  Beck, Amy Lee from Evanesence, The Dresden Dolls, Dave Navarro, Chris Cornell, New Found Glory, Dashboard Confessional, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Everlast, Josey from Saliva, Gregory “Wicked” Maguire, Lars from Rancid, Kevin “Youk” Youkilis, Juliana Hatfield, Interpol, The Dropkick Murphys, Hoobastank, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Perry Farrell, Living Things.   I snapped a picture for Kris Roe from The Ataris as he pretended to break into Evanescence’s dressing room.  I talked baseball with Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.  I interviewed the publisher of High Times magazine, drove The 22-20s to an after-party, played Morphine’s washtub bass, and told Benji from Good Charlotte that they really should release “Girls and Boys” as a single.

Thing is, I was never a “great” DJ.  I was all right.  I started off shite.  See, I got the job as part of their WBCN’s Next DJ contest, the first time Opie and Anthony got kicked off the air.  That’s how Adam 12 was hired, too, and he kept the mid-day slot up until the end.  I submitted a tape of me babbling into the microphone of my computer.  I can’t find this thing anywhere, but there ya go.  They selected me, actually put me on the air one afternoon, and my friends all got together and voted for me multiple times.  For some unknown reason, I was one of the four guys they hired as part-timers.  I started out doing the graveyard weekend shift, where I babbled and sucked and spewed a word salad of nonsense that was just awful and embarrassing for about a year, and then I got pretty good.  This, apparently, is how it works.

Oedipus helped a lot.  He was Program Director from the mid-80s to about 2004, and in addition to breaking The Police in America, being one of the first DJs to ever play Punk in Boston, and generally ruling the universe, was also an amazing mentor to countless young DJs.  He’d call you in to his office, you’d chat for a while (and try not to sound like an idiot), and then he’d ask to hear your aircheck tape.  The first few times, he may have stopped it halfway through and chucked it at my head.  Strangely, this was very effective.

Thing was, Oedipus was definitely one of the old school of PDs who had actually been DJs at some point in their lives and understood how it felt to be on the front line of a major operation, underappreciated and overexposed to the elements.  I’ll never forget how he told off a bouncer at some station event who wasn’t letting me into the VIP area.   He loved his staff, loved the music, and knew and loved the city.  He got that what made radio special was the content – that you didn’t become “the Legendary WBCN” by sounding like everyone else.   By the time he retired as PD, radio as a whole was already becoming freakishly homogenized.  iPods and Napster and MySpace gave you exactly the music you wanted on demand, and radio responded to these new threats by shooting itself in the damn foot.  We could have become the place where people heard the good new music first, where people heard insightful and fun commentary on the music and the lifestyle (the one thing you can’t get from your iPod) 24 hours a day… and instead, we responded by playing more of the same, safe crap we’d been playing for years and telling our DJs not to talk so damn much.  The tragedy of the whole thing was that in 2004, when Oedipus left, the radio station – and music radio as a whole – needed people who saw things his way in order to survive.   And I’ll say no more, except that I don’t blame anyone specifically for this – I really don’t.   The disconnect between the guys upstairs and the guys on the front lines is, sadly, growing, and is not just a problem within the radio industry.

I’m not the best person to speak on this subject, anyway.  I started out doing the weekend graveyard shift, worked my way up to prime-time weekends with rotating week-long overnights (practically full time, if you added up the hours), and ended up where I started – weekend graveyard shifts.  That’s fine, because it beats working for a living, but I always got the sense that I was hired because I could do a certain kind of radio, and then the vibe of the station changed, and I didn’t really fit.   Maybe I’m delusional, but dammit, I’m still here.

A lot of people are going to be out of a job next month.  I’m lucky that I’ve got another job right now.  I wish everyone the best in the future, I really do.  Radio ain’t hiring, and a lot of people are going to have to figure out what to do next.  The fact that the job market ain’t great right now surely doesn’t help.

The point is, after 41 years, WBCN’s going away.  I got the chance to be there for six of those years, skulking in the background, soaking up the last dregs of the glory of old.     A lot of great things were broadcast at 104.1 megahertz on the FM spectrum, from the top of the Pru to your car stereo or clock radio and into your head by way of your eardrum.  For better and for worse, the place defined my 20s.  I came here fresh out of college, and I’m leaving the same month I turn 30.  No one knows where we’ll wind up next, but there’s a new FM Sports Talk station launching soon, and our morning show – who’ll finally get to do their thing without having to play music every twenty minutes, whether the audience wants it or not – can be heard there.   Still, this is special place, and Boston’s gonna miss it.  I know I am.

Andy Hicks was a DJ at WBCN, 104.1, for six years.  He still thinks this is pretty cool.


6 responses to “WBCN: requiem for the rock

  1. beth

    July 19, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Oh, Andy. I knew you’d do a beautiful post.

    BROADCASTING LIVE FROM THE TOP OF THE PRU…I definitely remember that.

    Ironic that ‘BCN’s being replaced by a sports talk station. Nik’s interviews with Tom Brady were some of my favorite Boston sports radio ever.

  2. fruitflavor

    July 19, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    I love that there’s a picture of the new American Girl doll next to the audio of the first time you were on the air. Connection????

    PS- I would totally buy your American Girl doll. Just sayin.

  3. E. Christopher Clark

    July 20, 2009 at 5:47 am

    Nice tribute, sir. It really is too bad that they’re going away.

    And you made me miss Nik like crazy with this post. I used to listen to that guy every damn day.

  4. Wyatt Jennings

    July 22, 2009 at 7:21 am

    Say hello to Tony.

    We worked at KTIM in 1976.


  5. Wyatt Jennings

    July 22, 2009 at 8:06 am

    BTW if you do NOT know Tony’s role at WBCN, then I am sad to say you have to be BS…

    • geekusa

      July 22, 2009 at 8:36 am

      Tony Berandini, right? Yeah – I didn’t know him too well, as he and Oedi left about a year and a half after I got there and he mainly – at the time – worked on the business end of things. But he was a great guy who basically built that station (and essentially “discovered” Toucher and Rich, no matter what others might claim.)


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