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The rock radio wars: BCN vs. FNX

When upstart WFNX launched in 1983, the battle was on to win listeners and uncover the city’s next stars.

WFNX’s Kurt St. Thomas (right) interviewing Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (left) and Dave Grohl on Lansdowne Street in 1991.

julie kramer

WFNX’s Kurt St. Thomas (right) interviewing Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain (left) and Dave Grohl on Lansdowne Street in 1991.

The fans loved the band, and they were booing.

Every time the singer mentioned the call letters of the radio station that was broadcasting live — WBCN — the rowdy crowd at the Godfathers show in 1988 at the Paradise erupted in a chorus of jeers. Another station, WFNX, had been playing the Godfathers in heavy rotation, but it was BCN, Boston’s big rock station, that snagged the promotion. An aggrieved FNX team had struck back in part by handing showgoers FNX T-shirts welcoming the British alternative band to Boston. All night, a crowd of largely FNX listeners heckled the rival station.

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“Looks like you’re having some radio wars here,” the singer said, as former FNX DJ Duane Bruce recounts in his book Hang the DJ.

BCN, based near the Lansdowne Street club scene for much of its history (behind the current Verb hotel), was a certified institution. Launched in 1968 as a “freeform” FM radio station letting DJs play — and say — what they liked, it was famous for introducing American audiences to bands like U2 and Aerosmith, and to the idea that DJs could be as important as their music (i.e., Charles Laquidara’s kooky morning show The Big Mattress; the station was also where Kiss 108’s Matty Siegel cut his teeth).

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But as alternative music emerged, Boston’s vibrant new music scene was ready for a new voice. WFNX, launched in 1983 as the broadcast arm of the alternative weekly The Boston Phoenix, went from annoying pebble in the “Rock of Boston” shoe to a viable alternative to BCN. FNX was the first in the country to play Nirvana’s Nevermind in its entirety. It brought to town another Seattle band called Pearl Jam — as an opening act. And in 1994 the station hosted an infamous free Green Day show at the Hatch Shell for a raucous crowd of 70,000 to 100,000.

Like BCN, FNX also rallied behind local bands — Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Letters to Cleo, Buffalo Tom — helping fuel the Boston rock scene. On-air personalities like Bruce, Kurt St. Thomas, Morning Guy Tai, and Joanne Doody would hang around the studio on Exchange Street in Lynn even when they weren't on air.

Today, both stations have faded into the ether, victims of radio’s corporate consolidation. WBCN signed off the air in August 2009, playing as its last song Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.” (It still exists as a digital-only station, but “hot adult contemporary” station Mix 104.1 has its old spot on the dial.) WFNX hung on until July 2012, when the last DJ spun the Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed” before shutting out the lights. Now the old, familiar frequency broadcasts country music as 101.7 The Bull. For a time BCN and FNX were bitter rivals, says longtime FNX DJ Julie Kramer (now at the Globe’s Internet-based RadioBDC). But they shared a common cause, she says, one that’s not so common in radio anymore: “You were going to discover the next big band.”

James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.
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