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globe magazine | Perspective

Why reports of the death of Boston radio are greatly exaggerated

Let’s honor WFNX’s independent spirit, its talented staff, its indelible place in Boston music history. Let’s also acknowledge that we don’t need it. Really.

Illustration by Shout

PEOPLE, PEOPLE, PEOPLE. Let’s not overreact. Granted, seeing WFNX-FM swallowed by The Man (aka media behemoth Clear Channel) is a raw deal. Doesn’t The Man already control enough insipid corporate radio stations across the country? But despair not, I say. Yes, let’s honor ’FNX’s independent spirit, its dedicated staff, its indelible place in Boston music history. Let’s also acknowledge that we don’t need it. Really.

Why? Because Boston has the most vibrant radio culture of any city in America, and not because of those commercial stations. I couldn’t have told you, before looking it up, where to find ’FNX on the tuner. I never felt the need. Yeah, ’FNX played better music than its schlocky kin. But commercial radio is still commercial. Which means annoying ads. And keeping ratings up. And playing it safe. No, thanks.

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The true heart of Boston radio beats lower on the FM dial, in the provinces of the college stations, which produce more original programming, creativity, and access to fresh, exciting music in a week than you’ll get in a lifetime of listening to the commercial airwaves. Friday mornings bring the indie rock institution Jon Bernhardt on WMBR (88.1), the MIT station. Sundays I never miss the brilliant country, bluegrass, and gospel sets of Cousin Kate on Boston College’s WZBC (90.3). Harvard’s WHRB (95.3) has for decades featured imaginative “orgies” of artists’ music, from John Coltrane to Sergei Prokofiev, in a continuous loop. I could go on.

My point is that these lovably scruffy and sometimes experimental college stations, with their sharp, adventurous deejays, diversity of shows, and lack of business imperative, constitute a sort of radio utopia. The collective soundtrack is unpredictable, sometimes confounding, often sublime. As with anything, college radio is not universally good; the shows can be uneven. I wish, for instance, that Emerson College’s venerable WERS (88.9) hadn’t scrapped its old weekday lineup of folk, then jazz.

I am, though, consistently impressed by what I hear. And I’m amazed at how often the deejays seem to know just what to play. The best hosts read the day — Is it rainy and gloomy, or do the blue skies suggest infinite possibility? What’s the state of the world? Is a pick-me-up in order or a dose of mellow? Has someone notable died? — and then choose music to match. I welcome these nods to our collective humanity, these attempts at shared experience in an increasingly a la carte world. Good luck figuring that one out, radio automatons.

Often, while cleaning the kitchen or working on a story or inching through traffic, I find myself forgoing my own playlists for theirs. It’s a constant tussle between competing tendencies — returning to the stuff I already like or choosing the radio in hopes of catching something I didn’t even know existed. When you add in our two leading NPR stations, WGBH and WBUR, there’s stiff competition for the six presets on my car stereo.

As for ’FNX, I didn’t grow up with it, but I respect its cultural-historical resonance with those who did. I gather many coming-of-age tales would be incomplete without it. The station’s demise, as we mourn the untimely deaths of Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, and Adam Yauch, feels like an especially cruel reminder of youth’s transience.

Allow me to propose a Requiem: shows like Captain Al’s R & B Jukebox, WMBR’s killer soul program on Sunday evenings. A few weeks ago, a fill-in host gave Summer a fitting send-off with an uninterrupted set of her biggest hits. One of the tributes was Summer’s “On the Radio,” from 1979: “If you think that love isn’t found on the radio / Well tune right in / You may find the love you lost.”

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at shelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @swhelman.

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