What happened to Boston’s rock radio?
It’s not dead, but with the sale of ’FNX, the city lost another part of its identity
Looking back, we should have seen this coming. When WBCN left the FM dial in 2009, after more than four decades on the air at 104.1, it slammed shut a seminal chapter in Boston’s history of rock radio. Some called it the end of an era, which it was, while others groused that the groundbreaking station had lost its direction long ago.
At 101.7 FM, WFNX was sort of like ’BCN’s kid sister. Independently owned, it was the misfit born in 1983 with a chip on its shoulder and a penchant for taking chances on fledgling bands such as R.E.M., Nirvana, and Green Day, and later championing hometown heroes like the Dresden Dolls and Passion Pit.
Proudly claiming to be “the East Coast’s first alternative rock station,” ’FNX was by no means the only game in town for rock programming. But it was certainly in a league of its own. Even now, more than a week removed from its $14.5 million sale to Clear Channel Communications Inc. on May 16, it’s strange to talk about the station in the past tense.
“It’s bleak,” says Julie Kramer, who spent 25 years as one of WFNX’s most popular DJs. “When I heard the news, I was devastated. I was crying not only about the loss of my job, but also about what it means for all these indie and local bands. What’s going to happen to them now? Who’s going to play them? Someone has to be first, and someone has to start the story. And that’s what we did.”
Coming so closely on the heels of WBCN going away, WFNX’s sale poses a more serious question:
Is rock radio dead in Boston?
“I don’t think so,” says Scott Fybush, who runs NorthEast Radio Watch, an industry news site based in Rochester, N.Y. “I think what we’re seeing really parallels what’s happening with radio as a whole around the country. There’s still plenty of vibrancy to rock radio in Boston, but it has just moved to different places. If anything, it’s probably healthier than, say, in New York, which was a real rock town that completely lost its rock radio over the last few years.”
When we talk about the demise of ’FNX, which is still on the air until the Federal Communications Commission approves the sale by the station’s owner, Phoenix Media/Communications Group, it’s not a matter of mourning the death of a terrestrial radio station. We can — and do — hear and discover music from various sources these days, be they blogs, podcasts, satellite radio, or streaming sites like Spotify and Pandora.
If you want rock on Boston radio, you’ll find it across the dial. Tune in to WAAF for your fix of all manner of rock — classic, hard, heavy, Nickelback, you name it. There’s more classic rock at WZLX. Radio 92.9, formerly known as WBOS, spins plenty of U2, Coldplay, and Pearl Jam. WXRV (92.5 The River) is an independent station with an alt-rock bent similar to WFNX’s programming.
No, the looming disappearance of WFNX feels like losing a piece of our local identity. Starting in the 1960s, Boston has had an indelible reputation for its love of rock music, and part of that stems from the city’s radio resources.
“In this town, we’re spoiled more than others because we have so many unique outlets on terrestrial radio, and so many colleges have good stations,” says Peter Wolf, the J. Geils Band frontman who has a long history on local airwaves, dating back to his days as one of the founding DJs at WBCN in 1968.
“When something has such an important history in the community, it’s always sad to see it go,” Wolf adds. “The great thing about ’FNX was that it clearly knew what it was and what it wasn’t. Its aim was true, and that’s unusual.”
That commitment to its mission endeared the station to generations of listeners. One of the most striking developments since ’FNX’s sale was how quickly its supporters sprang into action. Within 48 hours, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr accounts by the name of Occupy WFNX had cropped up.
“If it weren’t for WFNX, I wouldn’t have discovered a ton of bands both big and small because the station wasn’t afraid to take risks,” says Andrea, a 34-year-old software engineer who started the Occupy WFNX accounts as a way for fellow fans to connect and share their support. (In the spirit of keeping the focus on ’FNX, Andrea prefers not to give her last name but says she lives in Medford.) “I have a feeling a lot of people feel the same way I do.”
Fybush says you simply can’t sift Boston’s rock culture from its radio history.
“When I was going to college in Boston 20-something years ago, it was unimaginable that someday there wouldn’t be a WBCN or a WFNX,” Fybush says. “There’s a synergy between having the music present and having a place for people to find out about it. It’s invaluable to have someone tell you why you gotta be at the Middle East on Friday night and why you gotta be at T.T.’s. on Saturday. Clubs used to need that radio piece. I think to a certain extent that has changed now with the advent of music blogs, Twitter, and things like Pandora and Spotify.”
Fybush suggests that ’FNX might have been a victim of its own pioneering programming.
“One of the reasons ’FNX probably didn’t do better than it did is because of the number of college stations that take a similar approach to radio,” he says, mentioning Emerson College’s WERS, MIT’s WMBR, and Boston University’s WBUR. “They have the ability to be even more out there in their selections and less constrained by commercial necessities.”
As the general manager of WXRV , one of the last independent stations in Boston, Donald St. Sauveur understands those financial pressures.
“We knock on wood every day. We’re blessed to have 400,000 or so listeners who have consistently supported us,” he says. “But it’s hard to compete with these corporately owned clusters of radio stations.”
WFNX and WXRV have had similar alt-rock programming, but St. Sauveur says they’ve shared something even more important.
“We’re both committed to the local music scene, to being live on the air with real people from the marketplace who know how to pronounce Worcester and Leominster,” St. Sauveur says with a laugh. “I think its loss says that even though market research suggests the masses don’t care [about local radio], you shouldn’t care only about conventional wisdom.”
The problem, of course, lies in the ratings.
“The inevitability of this for ’FNX, which had been suffering for a while, has always existed, but when it actually happens, it’s like, ‘Wow, here it is,’ ” says Anngelle Wood, the veteran radio personality who hosts the local music showcase “Boston Emissions,” which moved to WZLX in 2009 after WBCN went under. “People have really loved ’FNX, but I wonder how many of those people were actually listening to it. Still, they don’t want it to go away.”
Wood suspects the nature of how it’s going out is particularly bothersome to some fans.
“I think the sale to Clear Channel hurts the most for a lot of people,” Wood says. “I’ve never worked for a Clear Channel station, so I can’t say what really happens, but the conjecture is always that they homogenize radio and pipe in people from different places. It’s not live; it’s not local.”
At press time, Clear Channel had not announced any plans for the station, though there have been rumblings about a format switch — possibly to talk radio, commercial country, or Spanish-language programming.
Stephen M. Mindich, chairman and chief executive of Phoenix Media/Communications Group, which sold WFNX, retained the station’s intellectual property, including its call letters and music library. He sold the license to broadcast at 101.7 FM, which means the station could relaunch elsewhere. WBCN did that, splitting into two separate formats (classic rock and free-form) on a digital station, but its biggest challenge has been letting listeners know it exists again.
While ’FNX awaits the FCC’s approval, the station is broadcasting with a skeletal crew. Longtime DJs such as Kramer and Adam 12 have played their final sets.
But a defiant spirit — the same one that made ’FNX not just a radio station, but a way of life around here — has been alive and well in the playlists. It’s hard not to equate the station’s struggle with songs such as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Clearly, WFNX is not going down without a fight.
“I know you can listen to radio on the Internet. And I know you can download this and that. You can spend half your life on iTunes,” Kramer admits. “But when you’re driving in your car, and that awesome song comes on the radio, and someone’s talking about it being a beautiful day, and you roll down the windows, and the wind is blowing in your hair — there’s nothing else that feels like that.”
Radio that isn’t local just isn’t the same, whether it’s coming from Clear Channel or a satellite company like SiriusXM.
“The people at Sirius don’t know if it’s sunny or rainy outside your door,” Kramer says. “But we do — or we did.”
James Reed can be reached at jreed@