Radio Free Boston
by Harry C. Tuniese
Growing up, there was nothing like the radio for adventures in music. From my earliest memories of the Boston Top 40 of Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg at WMEX or Dick Summer at WBZ during the ’60s, spinning that dial introduced me to rock ’n’ roll and beyond. By the late ’60s, with the arrival of FM radio and WBCN, I was hooked and transfixed. A potent mix of new music and vibrant personalities created one of the greatest radio stations in the country and left an indelible mark on the local music scene.
One of the station’s premier DJs for 19 years, Carter Alan helped shape that direction, with his support and acceptance for so many now-famous groups (let’s just start with U2). He is currently a DJ, assistant program director/ music director at WZLX. He has already written three books about bands and the music biz, but it’s his just-released fourth offering that will be his future calling card: Radio Free Boston: The Rise & Fall of WBCN. It’s a fascinating, memorable overview of counter-culture idealism rushing headlong into the jaws of economic commercialism, following the entire arc of the station’s history from 1968-2009. I was suffused with deep nostalgia of the early capricious days and repulsed by the malaise of the hapless later years, long after I stopped listening with any regularity. I was quite eager to chat about all of this with Carter and he didn’t disappoint.
Noise: Tell us about your background and your earliest musical adventures.
Carter: I’ve loved radio since I was a kid. My dad had one of those reel-to-reel tape decks and my buddies and I would sit around pretending to be Top-40 disc jockeys. We would play with the speeds, sometimes sounding like chipmunks or slowing it down, all in a playful manner. When FM radio came around, when the jocks started talking and playing longer tracks, I got into that also. I’m from Pennsylvania and went to New England College in New Hampshire. My idea was to become a writer and to work for a newspaper or such. Since I also took many music courses, I wanted to somehow tie these two careers to music. Basically what I wanted was Steve Morse’s job at The Boston Globe… that’s what I was training myself for. (laughs)
Noise: How and when did you decide to become a DJ?
Carter: While in school up there, in the middle of winter, there’s not an awfully lot to do—go to the pub, ski, or study—so I’d end up at the pub. Upstairs, there was a little 10-watt station, WNEC-FM, and I wandered in one day to see what it was about. I asked some questions and they told me I’d have to take a test to get a radio license. Two friends and I came to Boston, took it, and passed—we got our licenses! Then we were trained to go on-the-air. Our first slots were from midnight to 3:00am every week night. We were consistent and we learned by doing it. When we first started we would imitate our favorite cool FM DJs—[talks in a very low voice]—“Hey there—welcome—it’s midnight and here’s Kraftwerk for the next twenty minutes.” It was great. After I graduated, I got a summer job at WKXL in Concord, NH, filling in for the vacationing regular jocks—I did several shifts with different styles, either Top-40, jazz, progressive rock, news—it was my boot camp. When summer ended, they offered me a full time job, but I was intent on coming to Boston. I moved here and interviewed at all the local newspapers, but nobody was hiring. A buddy of mine mentioned they were looking for community volunteers at his school’s station and M.I.T. (WTBS, now WMBR). So I started doing a progressive rock show in 1976—this was before punk—and then I met Oedipus and others, which was the beginning of The Late Riser’s Club on weekday mornings. That got me onto the radio here in Boston, though I did paint houses to survive. [laughs] My original goal was to be a writer, but I ended up there and eventually WBCN. And it’s all come around because I did lots of freelance writing in the interim—record reviews, short columns, etc.—for The Globe, The Herald, Sweet Potato, Pop Top, What’s New, and The Beat. It’s been a lot of fun!
Noise: Give us an idea of that special feeling of the times, when the Boston music scene and underground radio was coming up for air.
Carter: When I was in New Hampshire, it was a hippie scene—lots of Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna—but I was a heavy metal kid mixed with progressive rock—Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, or Nektar, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk. It was all well and good, but by the time I arrived in Boston and started going to the local clubs, it changed my life. I grew up in the sticks of Pennsylvania, then time in New Hampshire, so it was a bit disconcerting. I felt alone but coming to a big city and experiencing the scene—the people—the bands—it was amazing! One of my favorite memories is seeing The Jam early on at The Rat—jumping around and so totally alive and exciting. You’d show up, meet people, build friendships, have some of those people also play the music—it all just grew and fell into place. We’d be digging the music and wearing our black leather jackets. [laughs] When I’d go back to New Hampshire to do an occasional weekend show, I’d play the new music—i.e. Ultravox—but they’d freak out. Though I could see the thread that linked all these artists, it was difficult for them. Starting out, you may be mimicking styles, but you’ll always be working towards your own originality. This is the growth and interaction you’re hoping for—the buzz of loving music and your place in it. Doing radio, I was helping the cause by playing the music!
Noise: After doing college radio, what was it like walking into the pantheon of WBCN?
Carter: While doing radio at M.I.T., I had been at ’BCN answering phone calls for Tracy Roach. When Tommy Hadges hired Oedipus, it was this very big thing for the punk scene—everybody went WOW! Oedipus thought he might be fired after one show, but he didn’t, he lasted, and the mainstream kept shifting—so he was there right before the wave. Over time, I got to know many of the staff, so when ’BCN went on strike in 1979, lots of local people offered benefits to support them. There was one show at The Space featuring Human Sexual Response, when Tony Berardini (WBCN general manager) got up to speak and was heckled. I got up on stage and explained to the crowd how earnest their situation was—they were out of work and really on our side too. Afterwards, Tony and I were chatting—both being heavy-metal fans—and he mentioned he needed someone to fill Oedipus’ late-night slot, since he was moving to prime time. It was a trial period and I was a bit timid—terrifying, too much responsibility, exciting, wonderful, and fifty stories atop the Prudential Center!—but it was astounding because it was the right kind of station for me and I could still interact with the music. It wasn’t that I was such a good DJ, but I caught the vibe and I loved music.
Noise: Were you caught up in the station’s history?
Carter: WBCN pioneered and defined progressive rock radio for a generation of listeners. Some of the older DJs (Al Perry, Jim Parry, or Joe Rogers) who worked at the old studios on Newbury St. or Stuart St. never felt comfortable that the studios switched to their new locale up above the city, because to them ’BCN was really just a little hippie station, now with new bigger shoes to fill and greater expectations. I never was part of the old guard —I thought it never compromised a bit and sounded cool as ever. And, we got lots of new equipment! [laughs] In my overnight shift, I could play what I wanted to, as long as I “play a band every so often that can sell out Boston Garden” (to quote Tony B). People would also call in, make crazy requests, and I could accommodate them. I had a canvas to paint on—radio is theater of the mind!
Noise: During the early ’70s, WBCN determinedly played an important part in the development of the Boston music scene. It presented an image of how people embraced new musics, news, and culture. By the mid/late ’70s, an elitism that made your station essential gave way to a broader based MOR format, basically to compete in the marketplace. Research, ratings, and commercial rock as revision became dominant. The People’s station had become passe. Was this change hard to accept and comprehend?
Carter: It was all okay until competition comes along with the expectation of how much money you SHOULD make. When you cease being a mom and pop operation, you get into a bigger situation that you have to deliver more. When we first got into that struggle with WCOZ, who were shaving off the corners of what we were doing, we had to react—we were getting killed. If the ratings are going down and your listeners are defecting to a station that plays more hits with a narrower focus, you have to do something. Being a lover of music, this represented a challenge: how to be creative no matter what box you’re put into! Were we going to face this or just become whitewashed and generic? Obviously, our listeners were hearing stuff they didn’t want to hear—we had to be doing something wrong. So we gave them some of those hits so WE could play what WE wanted them to hear. We wanted to turn them on by building bands and building hits because that’s what ’BCN was about. You create that loyalty and the people will stay with you—whether it was J. Geils Band or Aerosmith. U2 is another great example—we played them early on, they developed into a sales force and a power for us, and then you build other bands next to them. It took a while but we did it.
Noise: How did you prepare the overview of the book? As the story unfolds, you make us understand the difficulties and challenges behind creating a radio station… from the bosses to the jocks.
Carter: Mmm… that was really the idea of the book. Not to just tell the story, but rather to capture the voices of the people who lived through that time and keep myself out of it. I wrote it chronologically, and starting out there was very little information about the old ’BCN—only a handful of articles. I went old school because they don’t have those old newspapers or periodicals online—I spent a lot of hours in the Boston Public Library, which was fun because it’s like a treasure hunt, finding those old spools of celluloid. [laughs] There was a Boston Globe article, a Boston Magazine, or a Boston Herald story and not a lot else—so you had to go and talk to the people. Then you had to cross reference because if two stories conflicted you had to sort them out or print both. WBCN was originally a classical station with no overnight income, needing a new cache of listeners. Ray Riepen, a young attorney/ hippie entrepreneur who initially owned the Boston Tea Party, invested in that possibility of an underground radio station. And it paid off big time!
Noise: The first half of the book gives precise, intimate, and incisive portraits of many of the initial iconic djs that brought WBCN its fame. Their enthusiasm and involvement to reconstruct that era gives your story its charm. Please comment on some of them.
Carter: I needed the people’s voices to move the book along because there was so much myth about the very beginning. For example, many people assumed the original broadcasts were from the Boston Tea Party, but DJ Joe Rogers (who launched that first night on March 15, 1968) assured me it was really from their first studio on Newbury Street (what a surprise to me). When I then spoke with Don Law, he agreed—broadcasts from the Tea Party came later. So, I had to sort out the fact from the fiction. I loved talking with Peter Wolf, another of the original DJs—what an amazing memory—he can go back in time and pick out even the slightest details—nothing escaped him. Everybody was willing to help out. I did multiple sessions with Charles Laquidara, mainly because he has “shiny object syndrome” and kept reflecting on other memories of the times—i.e. which guests did he have on which show and when—but he was immeasurably helpful. As I wrote each chapter, I would send it to him to cross-check, to make sure these things really happened that way, and if there was some doubt, it just made me do my research better. And other major people like Oedipus or Tony Berardini, who was general manager for so many years, helped with the business side of it right up through becoming part of the Infinity/ CBS empire. He would get my chapters and help me tell the complete story correctly. Other commentary from people like Jerry Goodwin (“The Duke of Madness”) helped set the comedic tone I was looking for—remember this was, as Sam Kopper said, 20 years of madness! I had to do the homework with lots of interviews to sift through, which made it so much fun and exciting.
Noise: Several major developments are essential to WBCN’s later years: a new generation of listeners not tied to my era’s perception of musical credibility (equal changing tastes), a shift away from community outreach, and the arrival of Howard Stern and his shock-talk-radio style. Help me understand the choices and values made that collapsed the home that your founding fathers built.
Carter: In dealing with broadening our playlists, by selecting bands we never would have played before just because they weren’t cool or hip enough—we had to counter the other stations. If I went to shows and met some of these groups, they were all great and friendly. They loved playing music and there was an audience out there that wanted to hear them. As a radio station, we are there to educate, but, most importantly, to ENTERTAIN, and if we don’t, we’re going to go out of business. Oedipus finally realized this—in fact, we all did—and we started programming THOSE bands to assure we got OUR bands played. ’BCN tried toeing the mainstream line while embracing the cutting edge. If it took playing The Grateful Dead to make sure we got The Clash heard, so be it! This continued right up through the alternative and grunge eras too with Black Crowes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Nirvana, etc. It also made sure we got lots of local groups airtime too. Our change of attitude made sure we stayed in business. Regarding the news aspect, it wasn’t just the function of the station—it was the sign of the times. Other affiliates and stations appeared, or regulations were relaxing, which meant you didn’t need to broadcast a certain amount of public affairs, and we just didn’t to hold on to that news image. I was sad to see it go, but we realized you just couldn’t do everything. Danny Schechter (“The News Dissector”) makes some great comments in the book about losing the connection to the community—and he’s right. We saw the diminishing ratings and returns—less and less of our audience remained interested, though you might say boosting local acts or sponsoring local shows (like The Rumble or The River Raves) acted as community outreach. But, the station got too fragmented—some people wanted Howard Stern, then would leave—some people were there just for the music and then they would stop listening. As we tried to move the station to its next point, we still felt plugged in—championing new bands, picking great songs that the record labels brought to us, just trying to keep the music vital—but the face of the community changed too much. For myself, I didn’t want to be part of a station that Howard Stern was on—he represented every thing that was reprehensible about radio and he took ’BCN to a place that it could never come back from. Decisions were made that led it down a dark path. I left the station and I was disheartened.
Noise: Did your publisher agree with your presentation—a memoir of a city, of artistic freedom, of music and politics and identity, and of the cultural, technological, and financial forces that killed rock radio?
Carter: In writing this book, I didn’t want to become negative and had to keep it objective, though my editor, Stephen Hull, was adamant about eventually bringing myself into it to explain my reasons for leaving. He and my wife, Carrie, talked me into doing this, though he had envisioned a coffee table picture book with old photos. But, after reading the drafts of my first two chapters, he wanted to emphasize the conflicts and clashes of cultures, from the beginning between Mitch Hastings and Ray Riepen and then take it from there. Through all these interviews, I realized nobody was right or wrong—EVERYBODY had an opinion of what happened because no one was really out to screw anybody. These were major choices made to save the station, though in hindsight, it proved to be a dead end. In all, it took three years to write and I was often consumed by anxieties, but Stephen calmed me down and said take your time. It evolved into a serious history—it’s finally written down. We even waited a bit longer for its release date this fall and the publisher’s enthusiasm never wavered. The first few reviews are coming in and it looks very promising.
Noise: You’ve held several book release appearances, especially the magical one at the sight of the old WBCN building on Boylston St. (now Jerry Remy’s), wherein many of your comrades came from around the country to share in this experience. It was a major love fest for what the station meant to people. Have you considered the legacy of heritage you created?
Carter: ’BCN meant a lot to ALL of the people that worked there in every stage—as well as to ALL the listeners through the years. Even the last few jocks—Juanita, Mark Hamilton, Hardy, or Adam 12—they were as totally into it as I was back in my time. People can say they inherited a broken ship, but they loved it—they were committed. When everyone came out for the party—even Tami Heide flying in from Los Angeles—and said they were so glad and proud that I wrote this—I was knocked out.
Noise: Are you planning to write more to fulfill your original ambitions or are you most happy working at WZLX as a DJ and music director?
Carter: (laughs) Mmm—definitely writing. It’s just finding the right subject to devote months and years to pursue. It’s very hard to get up at 5am, write for hours, keep at it, and then go to work. The ’BCN story was a valued target that I could focus on—I call it “the misery of regimentation”—but it was tough. Perhaps another history like ’BCN—or even a novel. But that’s hard, creating a total world and then going to live inside it, establishing characters and their desires—but I’d like to try. I did love the excitement of seeing this project come to fruition and carry the energy of that into something else without waiting too long. Writing a book is a craft—it’s a skill—and as the mechanics get better, you build courage. That’s the development I want to embrace.
Noise: It’s been a treat knowing you all these years—priceless! Thanks.
Carter: Indeed… from The Rat to 2013—unbelievable!