A new documentary looks back at WBCN, a different culture, and very different politics
Is it still nostalgia if it makes you mad as hell?
One of the highlights for me of the just-completed Independent Film Festival of Boston was the April 27 screening of “WBCN and the American Revolution,” a documentary by Bill Lichtenstein about the storied, much-loved Boston radio station and the times in which it flourished. Card-carrying disco-era late boomer that I am, I felt it incumbent upon myself to attend, along with 900 or so fellow semi-geriatric malcontents in the main house of the Somerville Theatre.
I came away with two conclusions. One was obvious: The music was better then. One was less so: So were the protests.
The reasons for the latter are many: generational cohesion instead of social fragmentation; limited and more sober-sided media sources, for better and for worse; fewer diversions in our pockets and on our screens; fewer screens, period. A military draft that helped to mobilize a middle and upper class that had more political clout than the poor. A crack that ran through American society along the fault line of age rather than our endlessly fracturing politics of resentment.
The upshot is that “WBCN and the American Revolution” isn’t just about the broadcasting of a sound and a sensibility that mirrored the reality of many under the age of 30 in 1968. It’s about how that sensibility was welded by the times into a mass weapon of dissent; how, despite the agonized debates unfolding in the public square, millions of young people felt unanimous in their disgust toward the Vietnam War and the politicians and society that caused it, condoned it, furthered it. I watched the movie with awe for a focused resistance movement that seems to have evaporated in the modern era.
The movie itself is workmanlike and somewhat overlong — I’ve seen better documentaries and I don’t really care, because this one takes anyone who was there right back to that feeling of disbelief at what was coming out of your radio. “WBCN and the American Revolution” tells of how a sly fox of a lawyer-entrepreneur named Ray Riepen saw an opening on the ignored FM spectrum for a free-form radio station that played hip album cuts rather than Top 40 pap and that let its DJs do anything they wanted, stoned or straight. (Director Lichtenstein got his start there as a 14-year-old volunteer and worked his way up to newscaster.)
Riepen took over a moribund classical station (BCN stood for “Boston Concert Network”), hired some kids out of Tufts to spin platters, concentrated on local ads rather than national, and pursued a business strategy considered by industry insiders to be actively suicidal. He brought in soon-to-be-legendary DJs like Charles Laquidara, Norm Winer, Maxanne Sartori, and future MTV vee-jay J.J. Jackson; they were eventually joined by Danny Schechter “the News Dissector,” who died in 2015 but whose presence in interviews is all over this long-in-the-works documentary.
J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf was an early DJ; we hear audio of his midnight howls. An impossibly young and skinny Bruce Springsteen turned up at the station to play. Most important, as the first FM radio station to speak directly to the emerging counter-culture generation, WBCN served as a sonic rallying point for an era of active discontent. Lichtenstein’s film concentrates on the early years, from the station’s launch at the start of a tumultuous 1968 all the way through to Watergate. Archival finds and lots of crowd-sourced photos and film footage remind a viewer of how Boston Common served as a gathering place for community, solidarity, and protest, not just once a year but on a daily basis.
“WBCN and the American Revolution” includes footage of politicos like Boston City Councilor Joseph Timilty giving freaked-out speeches about the hairy invaders; at its best, the documentary shows an uncomprehending Old Boston confronting a determined youth insurgency. Something was happening here, and the established powers had no idea what it was.
We know what eventually happened. The draft and the war ended, Nixon resigned, the “Me Decade” began. Many of the youthful firebrands made their peace and their piece; all the hippies are getting hip replacements now. Someone measurably more mendacious than Richard M. Nixon is in the White House, and the pressure of sustained opposition that once defined an era is hardly seen anywhere except online. And online ain’t enough.
I guess all cultures go through periods of unity and fragmentation, of generational coming together (the 1960s) and everyone out for themselves (the 1980s). Maybe that’s just how a society breathes. But we’re also well into a 21st century in which the country has been seduced by a series of shiny objects — our president qualifies as one — which is probably the natural fallout of being taught in recent decades that entertainment is more pressing than activism.
The time span covered by Lichtenstein’s documentary is the pre-blockbuster era, America before “Star Wars” — that brief window when Hollywood struggled with weighty themes, psychological depths, and downer endings that reflected a fed up youth audience’s desire for unhappy truths. The movies have gotten so much better at lying to us since then, and we’re so much happier to feast on the lies.
Is that why the children haven’t taken furiously to the streets as their grandparents did? Because they’re all watching “Game of Thrones” and “Avengers: Endgame”? That’s too easy. We’ve all been sold and told that to sit those entertainments out is to miss a crucial shared social experience. Who wants to be out of the loop? Besides, they’re fun.
Once the loop was broadcast by radio stations like WBCN, at a frequency the people in charge couldn’t hear. In 2019, music has atomized into a million Pandora channels instead of a unified generational soundtrack. The people who once gathered around the radio no longer listen to the same thing, or go to a common source of information to learn what’s actually happening in the world, or seem to have the ability to fuse localized discontent into a larger fist of social expression. We head to the Common to march once or twice a year, and then we go home and log into our personalized playlists of music and attitudes.
In the 1990s and into the new millennium, WBCN weathered format changes and new ownership, the radio equivalent of losing one’s hair. By 2006 the station was airing shock-jocks Opie and Anthony, and on Aug. 12, 2009, WBCN left the airwaves for good. None of this is covered by Lichtenstein’s documentary, which is concerned with the glory years and not the weak ankles of middle age.
But to see this movie — “WBCN and the American Revolution” will make further appearances on the festival circuit ahead of a planned theatrical and on-demand release; further info can be found at www.theamericanrevolution.fm — is to be reminded of a time when fury at the Liars in Chief seemed to spill into the streets every day rather than evanesce into pixels, to a soundtrack that served as connective tissue. And it forces one to wonder what it would take for that to ever happen again.