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WBCN doc reaches a new audience while boosting community radio stations

A scene from the documentary “WBCN and the American Revolution” showing staff at the station's Stuart Street studios. credit: Bill Lichtenstein
A scene from the documentary “WBCN and the American Revolution” showing staff at the station's Stuart Street studios. credit: Bill LichtensteinBill Lichtenstein

Bostonians of a certain age fondly recall the heyday of WBCN and its anything-goes hedonism. But the station, which launched in 1968 and went off the traditional airwaves in 2009, was also groundbreaking for its commitment to social justice through independent reporting and commentary.

That’s the focus of “WBCN and the American Revolution,” the feature-length documentary directed by Bill Lichtenstein. He got his start in journalism as a 14-year-old correspondent for the station in 1970 and went on to become an Emmy-nominated producer for ABC News.

For the past year Lichtenstein has been screening his film to enthusiastic audiences at festivals and in theaters around the country. When the pandemic interrupted the rollout, he began offering the film to listener-supported community radio stations as a digital rental. The partnership has been mutually beneficial: nonprofit stations from Maine to Oregon have shared proceeds, while Lichtenstein has enjoyed a golden opportunity to demonstrate how WBCN’s activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s remains relevant today.

“We wanted to generate a discussion about the importance of community radio,” says Lichtenstein. “If you go back to the earliest vision of licensed federal broadcast as an industry, it was always about serving the community, the public interest.”

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Lichtenstein has partnered with the National Federation of Community Broadcasters to offer the film to its 200 member stations. So far more than a dozen stations, including the legendary WFMU in New Jersey, have screened the film.

“We wanted to be involved because we felt like so many stations are trying to figure out how to tap into people’s hearts and minds about the issues they’re seeing right now,” says Ernesto Aguilar, NFCB’s membership program director. “Seeing this film in this moment is really refreshing.”

Last week, on the day George Floyd was buried, Aguilar helped coordinate a coast-to-coast simulcast of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” That’s the kind of gesture that inspires Matt Murphy, station manager of WERU in central Maine. His station recently presented “WBCN and the American Revolution” in a Belfast movie theater, then moved the film online once the lockdown began.

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Murphy grew up in the Boston area listening to WBCN, and he’s not alone.

“We had a couple people come to the movie with their ‘BCN T-shirts on,” he says.