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WBCN Documentary Dials Into Greater Boston's Radical Past
WBCN Documentary Dials Into Greater Boston's Radical Past
"There was so much going on in Boston that was critically important, nationally and worldwide, that had never really been written about."
On Wednesday, December 4, hundreds of old-school Boston radio fans flocked to the Regal Fenway for a special screening of WBCN and the American Revolution, the new feature-length documentary from Peabody Award-winning production company Lichtenstein Creative Media.
The documentary will be screening around Greater Boston for the next few months, but the Fenway event was a kick-off celebration of sorts. Over a dozen former WBCN "airstaff legends" were in attendance, and an after-party at the nearby Fenway Johnnie's restaurant promised long-time fans the opportunity to meet and mingle with their favorite DJs and fellow BCN enthusiasts.
The night started off with a brief introduction from director Bill Lichtenstein, who worked at WBCN as a teenager in the 1970's. Lichtenstein thanked the audience for attending the screening and explained that afterwards they'd all walk down Brookline Ave. to the after-party together.
"Last time I walked down the street with 300, 400 people was the demonstration," Lichtenstein said, foreshadowing the documentary's activist overtones. "So feel free to start chanting whatever political messages you identify with."
This invitation elicited laughter from the audience, and chants of "Impeach! Impeach!" began soon after. One audience member let out a cry of "Gene McCarthy for president!" in a more direct reference to the Anti-Vietnam War movement that coincided with the heyday of WBCN.
On one level, WBCN and the American Revolution tells the origin story of WBCN-FM, one of the first and most prolific progressive rock radio stations in the country. Relying on archival footage, photos, and present-day interviews with several key BCN personnel, the film captures the free-thinking spirit of a long-lost Boston.
After setting the scene with footage of yippies and anti-war protests on the Boston Common, the documentary dives right into the story of BCN's founding. In the spring of 1968, Harvard Law School student Ray Riepen and a handful of young DJs (initially poached from Tufts' college radio station) were able to transform WBCN from a failing classical music station into an underground rock powerhouse in just a few short months.
But although the now-defunct station has an extensive 41 year-long history of transmitting on the 104.1 FM frequency, the majority of the film is centered around these few pivotal years between 1968 and 1974, ending when President Richard Nixon resigned from office. The documentary's narrative always loops back to WBCN as its central organizing focus, but the true star of this American Revolution is the revolutionary energy of the era.
"It became clear that for [the film] to have any significance outside of Boston, it would have to overlay the events of that era more generally," Lichtenstein said in a phone interview. "At the same time, there was so much that was going on in Boston that was critically important, nationally and worldwide, that had never really been written about."
AS WBCN started to make its mark on the Boston airwaves, the station moved into the backroom of the Boston Tea Party rock club (which was also owned by Riepen) and expanded its programming to include regular news broadcasts. Eventually, journalist Danny Schechter "The News Dissector" was brought on to lead this division, and he quickly became an early staple among BCN devotees.
Schechter passed away in 2015, but his extensive interview segments are some of the best in the film. In one, he recalls how he infiltrated the April 1969 Harvard SDS sit-in of the dean's office. Left alone in the office, Schechter was able to access confidential files that revealed Harvard University's ties to the CIA. A few years later, he chose to broadcast confidential FBI documents on WBCN after they were stolen from an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania by a group of activists in March 1971.
At one point, the documentary draws attention to the fact that Massachusetts was the only state in the country that Nixon didn't win in his 1972 re-election, suggesting that WBCN had succeeded in its mission to create an informed public. Lichtenstein said he is aware of how connections can be drawn from BCN's glory years to our present-day media landscape.
"The issue of how the media can create social change is topical for younger people, and particularly the fact that we drove two unpopular presidents from office and ended the war," said Lichtenstein.
"BCN on a good day could reach maybe a couple hundred thousand people. Today most of us have in our pockets a phone that you can reach half a billion people by posting something [online]."
The film also highlights WBCN's efforts to diversify the mostly white, mostly male-dominated radio airwaves of the era. BCN was one of the first major radio stations to have women DJs, a decision that generated a good deal of controversy at the time. In 1973 it also began broadcasting "The Lavender Hour," the first regularly scheduled gay-themed commercial radio program in the country.
This inclusive, community-facing nature of WBCN has also impacted Lichtenstein's distribution plans for the film.
"We're going to be doing screenings, particularly for local radio stations and media organizations around the country, as well as rolling it out in theaters, and hopefully on TV," he said.
But Lichtenstein doesn't want the legend of WBCN to end with this film. To this end, he worked with UMass Amherst to create a library collection of the film's primary materials. This includes never-before-seen footage of the Boston Tea Party, shot by Andy Warhol himself.
"That footage disappeared for 40 years, and then they found it just a couple of years ago," Lichtenstein said. "It was very cool to use it in the film."
Lichtenstein has also helped create an online radio stream called The Sounds of the American Revolution, which broadcasts selected clips from the first seven years of WBCN. Lichtenstein's production company is currently working on a book version of the WBCN story as well.
WBCN and the American Revolution is a must-see film for underground/college radio fanatics, as well as for anyone who wants to better understand Boston's progressive (and at times radical) past. Lichtenstein and his team went to great lengths to capture the energy of the era, and the end result is a film that audiences of all ages can enjoy and learn from.