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Carter Alan on WBCN and the making of rock radio

Carter Alan, music director and midday DJ at WZLX-FM, at his Hopkinton home. Alan was a DJ at WBCN from 1979 to 1998.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Carter Alan, music director and midday DJ at WZLX-FM, at his Hopkinton home. Alan was a DJ at WBCN from 1979 to 1998.

If the tale of WBCN were told in a rock song, would it be a defiant Sex Pistols-like punk anthem? A wistful narrative, sung in the key of Bob Seger? A woeful U2-ish wail of heartbreaking loss? Or a Led Zeppelin-esque epic of victory over the frozen wasteland of American radio?

More than four years after the rock station exhaled its last breath at 104.1 FM comes a chronicle that rekindles that time when magic ruled the airwaves. The book is “Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN,” and the bard is 19-year-veteran WBCN DJ and music director Carter Alan.

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“ ’BCN was a groundbreaking station for a lot of different things,”said Alan, now music director and midday DJ at WZLX-FM (100.7), ’BCN’s former rival and later sister station. “The legacy goes in a lot of ways.”

Alan’s book traces WBCN’s unassuming birth from the ashes of a classical music station in 1968, through its heyday as the “Rock of Boston” in the ’70s and ’80s, to its demise in 2009, when, Alan writes, the station was “drained of its blood in the consolidated radio industry of the new century.”

To recount the story, Alan interviewed most every personality involved and willing to speak on the record.

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“There was not a lot written about ’BCN in the early days,” Alan said. “I wanted to find the people because I wanted their words to carry most of the weight of the book.”

Alan almost didn’t write it. The task seemed impossible. Alan’s wife, Carrie Christodal, finally persuaded him.

‘We were all just a bunch of people that had thought, you know, we really loved this kind of music, and we loved the idea that we could play any songs we wanted.’

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“If you don’t write it,” she said, “someone else who didn’t work there will.” Alan rose at 5 a.m. each weekday to write at his Hopkinton home before his shift at ’ZLX, and logged hours on weekends, interviewing, transcribing, exhuming rare photos and ephemera.

“I love writing,” said Alan, also the author of “Outside Is America: U2 in the U.S.” and “U2: The Road to Pop.” “It does make you a social recluse.”

Key to the story? Charles Laquidara, legendary morning jock and a ’BCN fixture from 1968 to 1996.

“None of us expected it to be so huge,” Laquidara said during a recent visit to Boston from his home in Maui. “We were all just a bunch of people that had thought, you know, we really loved this kind of music, and we loved the idea that we could play any songs we wanted.”

For sure, WBCN captured the zeitgeist. The station emerged from the counterculture and came of age in a booming market for FM radio and AOR, or album-oriented rock.

Laquidara’s “The Big Mattress” effectively invented the idea of the acerbic, prank-filled morning show. The on-air staff agitated for social change, from the station’s own strike in 1979 to its anti-apartheid news coverage. Jocks championed then-unknown bands such as the Police, the Cars, Aerosmith, and U2. “Nocturnal Emissions” showcased cutting-edge music, and the Rock and Roll Rumble, ’BCN’s annual “battle of the bands,” helped launch local groups such as ’Til Tuesday and the Dresden Dolls.

“I remember one night, I was on the radio and the person who was answering the phone said, ‘Hey, there’s two guys downstairs that just played this concert,’ ” Laquidara recalled. “ ‘They wanna come up and just kinda hang.’ And I said, ‘OK, let ’em up.’ It was Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia and a couple guys from the [Grateful] Dead.”

For many local listeners (this writer included), ’BCN served as teacher in the School of Rock. News of shows at Metro and the Rat and in-studio concerts gave a peek behind the curtain otherwise inaccessible to a small-town teen. Live events and wild publicity stunts like giant pumpkin “drops” made the station seem like a party.

“We’d meet people who thought they knew us for part of their lives,” said Ken Shelton, longtime midday DJ. “They thought we were cousins. They wanted to hug us. It wasn’t just ‘Thanks for the T-shirt.’ ”

A phone bank called the Listener Line was the “Facebook and Google of its time,” said Bill Lichtenstein, director of a forthcoming documentary about WBCN called “The American Revolution” who began volunteering at the station in 1970 as a 14-year old news reporter. “If you need a ride, we’ll connect you. If you were taking some bad acid, and need to talk to somebody to talk you down, call us.”

The jocks’ unpolished, no-nonsense demeanors connected with the audience.

“We were fortunate, those of us who were there, that we were part of not only a Boston institution, but we were the cultural focal point. We were the cultural mecca,” said Oedipus, the station’s longtime program director. “We were as important as The Boston Globe and the Boston Red Sox. Everybody listened to
WBCN.”

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

From left: Former WBCN DJ Charles Laquidara, Carter Alan, and WZLX DJ Chuck Nowlin at Alan’s home recently.

Same for Carter Alan himself, who tuned in with his college pals as an undergrad at New England College in Henniker, N.H, in the 1970s. “We’d listen to ’BCN and then we’d come down and go to concerts,” Alan said. “I thought it was the coolest station I’d ever heard.”

Alan first met Oedipus at MIT’s radio station. He was hired by WBCN in 1979.

Another task of the book was to debunk many a myth. One, Alan said, “which has been the accepted dogma for 40 years” is that ’BCN’s first rock ’n’ roll broadcast emanated from the backstage area of local club Boston Tea Party. Nope. It all started at the 171 studios at 171 Newbury St. Did Laquidara once go on the air while tripping on mescaline? Yes. Did he once ask his listeners (as his alter ego Duane Glasscock) to mail a bag of excrement to Arbitron, the radio industry’s ratings service company? Again, yes.

The final chapters of “Radio Free Boston” end, inevitably, where the station ended. Which raises the question, what killed ’BCN? Was it the Internet or satellite radio? Howard Stern? Many ’BCN vets, such as Oedipus, pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed corporations to own multiple stations in a single market.

Alan, who left the station in 1998, takes a wider view. “I think ’BCN was always in a state of perpetual brokenness. That was part of its charm. It wasn’t a perfect, tiny machine.”

In its Golden Age, WBCN was wild, avant-garde, and authentic. But vestiges linger. Carter Alan recently raided a storage facility full of WBCN’s 30,000-strong vinyl collection, which were discovered to harbor marijuana stems and other drug residue when packed up from the studio’s longtime home at 1265 Boylston St.

During a visit, he grabbed a Queen album from his WZLX office floor to demonstrate ’BCN’s pre-digital record keeping system. To keep songs from being overplayed, on a slip of paper affixed to the front of each record, jocks would note in a different colored pen whenever they played a song.

“Oedipus was orange,” Alan recalled. “Let’s see if I can remember. [Mark] Parenteau was red. I was turquoise. But this,” Alan said, holding up a copy of Santana’s “Amigos” from 1976, “was before my time.”

Carter Alan will talk about his new book, “Radio Free Boston: The Rise and Fall of WBCN,” at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 at The Book Shop, 694 Broadway, Somerville (www.thebookshopsomerville.com), and at 6 p.m. on Nov. 22 at the Barnes & Noble in Braintree, 150 Granite St.

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com and on Twitter @ethanfreak.
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