The first two-thirds of “Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN” reads almost like a fairy tale: Once upon a time there was a radio station in Boston where a bunch of like-minded lunatics who loved music ran the show, joyously playing and saying almost whatever they wanted on the air. They talked politics, cracked jokes, and spun tunes by everyone from Eric Andersen to Frank Zappa. Unfortunately, they did not live happily ever after. But they certainly had a lot of adventures along the way.
Many of those exploits are collected in this exhaustively reported and captivating chronicle by former WBCN DJ/music director and current WZLX midday man/assistant program director Carter Alan. For all of those who came late to the party — when the station had reached its sophomoric, testosterone-infused nadir in the late ’90s — and wondered why WBCN was so revered, Alan explains what the fuss was all about. And he does so in a clear-eyed and entertaining account that aims for, and mostly achieves, a kind of objectivity even though he witnessed much of it from the inside.
From the first note of Cream’s “I Feel Free” carried by the FM signal at 104.1 in 1968 to the final note of Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” bringing the story to a close in 2009, Alan traces the station’s wild ride from its roots as a foundering classical music operation (WBCN stood for Boston Concert Network and employed a young Ron Della Chiesa), to its evolution into a free-form, counterculture outpost, and finally to a tightly controlled, corporate enterprise with two of its most popular, and controversial, shows emanating out of New York City.
Alan talks to most of the major players — including high profile jocks like Peter Wolf, Charles Laquidara, Mark Parenteau, Ken Shelton, Oedipus, and Matt Siegel (who went on to a still-thriving career at crosstown signal WXKS-Kiss 108) — and dozens of others who were not behind the microphone but were integral to building the station’s legend.
The book also neatly doubles as a cultural history, tying the changing of eras to the shifting playlists and politics of the station, one of the first of its kind in the country and ultimately influential in both the radio and record industry in formatting, discovering bands, progressive news programming, and innovative promotional schemes cooked up by a marketing department that was as inventive as the on-air staff.
While success in the music business involves a mysterious chemistry of talent and luck, it is fair to argue, as Alan does, that the careers of several popular artists and bands might’ve taken different trajectories without the support of WBCN DJs, including locals like Aerosmith, J. Geils Band, and ‘Til Tuesday as well as national acts like U2 and Bruce Springsteen.
The heady early days are described in detail, and Alan displays a real knack for scene-setting, putting readers backstage in the Boston concert world, inside the studios of popular shows like “The Big Mattress” and “Nocturnal Emissions,” and on the streets at events as jocks with insanely disparate tastes introduced artists, comedians, authors, and politicians to an audience hungry for new ideas.
The fractious latter days, with the arrivals of Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony among others, may receive less time but not less care in Alan’s telling, even if a tinge of bitterness creeps in. (And the less said about the unfortunate David Lee Roth interlude the better.)
Although Alan is understandably loyal to former co-workers and does his fair share of gushing about the importance of the station, he also forthrightly discusses the eccentricities, egos, and drug problems of the players in both the studios and the executive offices who lapsed into a smug complacency toward competitors and failed to deal with the demands of a bottom-line-driven business that ultimately gutted WBCN of its personality.
The fairy tale of WBCN may not have had a happy ending, but Alan tells it with the kind of flair that does its original free-form spirit proud.