Bob Bittner made life in Boston a lot less stressful.
Bittner, who died May 26 at his home in West Bath, Maine, was the owner, operator, and sole on-air voice of Cambridge radio station WJIB. The station, which did not air commercials and could not be streamed, played a hand-picked mix of oldies and easy-listening music, interspersed with Bittner’s smooth, deep voice, and hourly quotes that reflected his independent, anti-corporate viewpoint.
“These songs are so well-curated, and you process it and realize that this is really one man’s life’s work,” said Greg Ralich, a listener whose love of the station led him to print and distribute stickers suggesting tuning into WJIB “in case of emotional emergency.”
“Bob believed in radio, and he did things his way all his life,” said Boston-based radio historian and Lesley University professor Donna Halper. “He could have worked for a corporate station and made a ton of bucks, but that wasn’t Bob. And he really had an ear for the songs that would make his listeners happy and comfortable.”
When Bittner bought the AM 740 frequency in 1991, it had already been home to pioneering folk (WCAS) and Black gospel (WLVG) formats. A year later Bittner adopted both the call letters and the easy-listening format that had been abandoned by longtime FM commercial station WJIB. Over the years Bittner settled into an eclectic mix of pop from his extensive vinyl collection, ranging from a 1940s recording of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” to Madonna’s “Borderline.” There were multiple versions of “Oh! My Papa” in rotation, as well as a lot of ABBA and Sinatra. He played the national anthem and “God Bless America” daily, and, during the appropriate season, folk singer Cheryl Wheeler’s “When Fall Comes to New England.” Sundays started with country oldies and then featured big bands and crooners. As Bittner added frequencies in Maine and Cape Cod, he called his one-man network “The Memories Stations.”
Without ads, Bittner relied on listener donations, raising about $100,000 a year through occasional announcements that would stop as soon as the needed money was secured. In 2016 Bittner told the Globe that he and his wife lived on Social Security and the sales of his collectible license plates on eBay. “Bob being Bob, he wanted to do what he did entirely by himself, and he found a community that bonded around him,” said Scott Fybush, who wrote an extensive memorial of Bittner for his NorthEast Radio Watch website.
“He was one of those people who was clearly driven by his passions and very focused on them, and because his passion aligned with a need that was out there, he was able to get love back from people who enjoyed it, creating a sort of magic circuit,” said filmmaker Derek Frank, who made a short documentary about Bittner.
WJIB reached far beyond the expected audience of seniors. It could be heard at businesses like Ricky’s Flower Market in Somerville’s Union Square. Ralich, 36, says he found out about the station a decade ago from a friend at a skateboard park in Jamaica Plain. Since the station can’t be streamed, he and his wife bought some old radios so they could hear WJIB throughout their home.
Drummer Tommy Benedetti was at a photo shoot for his roaring reggae band Dub Apocalypse and wondered what Somerville photographer Mike Spencer was playing in the studio. “The mix of songs and styles was so different. It was like a lightning bolt into my existence. I couldn’t wait to get home to play it for my wife, and I’ve barely turned it off since.”
The station’s audience continued to grow when it finally hit the Boston FM airwaves at 101.3 in 2017. And then came the pandemic. Bittner saw fund-raising numbers jump thanks to listeners who had both more time and more need for an escape. “When you think about how people were so lonely, especially older folks, I really think he saved people’s lives,” says Ralich.
“During COVID you could come home from the darkest day and all the cruelty in the world, and turn on WJIB, and it would wash everything away,” says Benedetti. “Bob felt like a friend.”
An announcement now running on the station says that Bittner, 73, passed away unexpectedly. The station, which had long been automated, will continue to broadcast at least for the near future, according to Fybush. In a pre-recorded broadcast on a recent morning after his death, right before Kate Smith sang “God Bless America,” Bittner mused: “Imagine, if you will, a corporate oligarchy so effective, so advanced and fine-tuned, that its citizens still call it a democracy.”
“He had really pointed commentaries, but always delivered them in his warm, gentle voice, and then the station would go right into a beautiful song, so I can imagine that audience members who didn’t agree with him were still OK with it,” says Frank, the filmmaker, of the quotes that sometimes drew the ire of the station’s more conservative listeners.
“Ultimately, I think that Bob’s audience was Bob,” says Fybush. “He was able to do exactly what he wanted to do, and he didn’t have to answer to anybody.”
In a 1993 interview with the Globe, Bittner stated his own purpose: to be a calming presence on the airwaves. In “this very aggressive society, we need something to slow us down,” he said. “All I know is, we’re filling a void and people love it.”