Saturday, July 18, 2009

Requiem For WBCN

The Boston Phoenix -- which owns the generally underwhelming “alternative” radio station WFNX, one of whose DJs tellingly got his panties in a bunch the year Tom Waits scored a Best Alternative Grammy, because said deejay didn’t consider frickin’ Bone Machine as “alternative” as, say, Green Day -- gleefully reported this week that CBS Radio was pulling the plug on FNX’s competitor WBCN so they could replace it with the kind of Mix station that pumps out product from popular “music” brands like American Idol and the Pussycat Dolls.

According to the Phoenix obituary, CBS is whacking the 41-year Boston institution because of, duh, corporate greed and the death of radio...but also, according to a smug quote from WFNX program director Max Tolkoff, because the Rock of Boston “flipped to alternative and started to chase after ‘FNX in the early ‘90s.”

Which is only true if you accept the WFNX definition of “alternative” as shitty neo-grunge Nu Metal and a maddeningly repetitive playlist virtually unchanged since the day Kurt Cobain ate his shotgun. (Honestly, guys...even Courtney Love doesn’t want or need to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” every hour on the hour.)

Inventive, offbeat music that’s actually an alternative to the same old mopey, tuneless noodling that’s defined the mainstream “alternative” format for nearly two decades can, of course, be found every day on college radio stations like Emerson’s WERS...and way back in my beloved 1980s, it could also be heard on WBCN, side by side with the likes of Led Zeppelin, back when people enjoyed music in more than one marketing demographic -- which, as the success of the iPod reminded pretty much everyone but terrestrial radio and the music industry -- is pretty much ALL the time.

Before switching to a rock format in the 1960s, WBCN (a.k.a., the Boston Concert Network) was a classical music station of the sort my folks might have enjoyed in the early years of my own life, when symphonies, show tunes and Mitch Miller holiday albums accounted for 90 percent of my listening environment. Then, in 1981, my friend Steve Lewis gave me a cassette of the “Nocturnal Emissions” Christmas show he’d taped off 104.1 FM (complete with awesome time capsule spots for the likes of New Wave clothing boutique Hubba Hubba) and effectively rocked my world, opening my eyes to a brave new universe of music -- from Elvis Costello, Siouxsie Sioux and David Bowie (along with his bestest duet buddy, Bing Crosby) to the Kinks, the Waitresses, the Damned, the Residents and the weirdo who penned the immortal lyric, “I found the brains of Santa Claus underneath my bed...
“Nocturnal Emissions” was the oddball fiefdom of WBCN’s program director Oedipus, who (long before WFNX began broadcasting in 1983) had already helped to popularize the music of truly alternative acts like the Ramones and the Clash while famously breaking local bands like The Cars and Aimee Mann’s one-hit wonder ‘Til Tuesday. Indeed, that local flavor and focus was always my favorite aspect of the Rock of Boston, from its support of up-and-coming New England bands (exemplified by the annual Rock & Roll Rumble showcase competition) to Charles Laquidara’s Big Mattress drive-time show, which attracted both pointy-headed prog-head college students, North Shore professionals and working class South Shore Sullys -- and, though I’ve never heard him directly acknowledge it, clearly inspired a young B.U. student named Howard Stern, who adopted much of Laquidara’s morning party comedy format (including, at one point, Big Mattress alum Billy West).

Unsurprisingly, my parents hated WBCN and the muted but transformative adolescent rebellion it unleashed in me. I’ve always suspected, for example, that my mother deliberately trashed (or burned) a treasured 104.1 t-shirt I used to wear in the early days of my burgeoning New Wave consciousness. Which is sad, because while that particular piece of clothing surely wouldn’t fit me anymore, and though the station eventually became a soulless shell of its former self (not unlike the lobotomized Randle Patrick McMurphy at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), I could at least run it up a flagpole today and fly it half-mast in tribute to the once (and future?) Rock of Boston.