Film revives spirit of rebellious Boston radio

By Mike Janssen

Turn on the black light, cue up a Doors album and sink into your beanbag chair: The American Revolution is going to transport you to a time when radio riled America’s youth.

The 83-minute documentary, forthcoming in August 2013, chronicles the glory days of Boston’s WBCN, a commercial radio station that became one of the country’s foremost freeform rock stations and a mirror of the antiwar, anti-establishment foment of the hippie days. Musicians such as Lou Reed, Howlin’ Wolf and the Who formed the station’s soundtrack, while the station’s reporters hit the streets to capture the sounds of youth in revolt against Vietnam, Watergate and racial prejudice.

(Photo: © Peter Simon)

Director Bill Lichtenstein is known in public media for projects such as West 47th Street, a film about four mentally ill people that aired on POV in 2001, and The Infinite Mind, a public radio show about health and science that aired from 1998 to 2008. But before all that, he got his start in broadcasting at WBCN as a 14-year-old intern.

“People felt like they had access to the airwaves” through WBCN, Lichtenstein says. “People knew that if they called the radio station they would be heard, and possibly put on the air. It was a social network of its time. . . . It was critical for that period.”

WBCN aired only classical music until 1968, when rock-club owner Ray Riepen suggested to the station’s owners that they air rock music in the overnight hours. Rock was new to FM radio at the time, and Riepen’s deejays interviewed big-time acts as they left the stage of his club, the Boston Tea Party. In its early days, the station broadcast from the Tea Party’s dressing room.

In 1969 Led Zeppelin performed six concerts at the Boston Tea Party, a synagogue-turned-rock-venue operated by WCBN owner Ray Riepen. (Photo: Steven C. Borack)

Riepen also started the Boston Phoenix, the city’s alternative newspaper. “It would be the equivalent if Bill Graham in New York had owned the Fillmore, the Village Voice and WNEW,” Lichtenstein says.
In addition to the music, WBCN captured the countercultural mood of Boston and the country in its news reporting — Lichtenstein’s first assignment was to cover a Black Panther protest outside a police station. And listeners heard it all from a strong signal on top of Boston’s tallest building, which sent the broadcast into four states.

The station served as an electronic equivalent to the underground newspapers of the day, says Danny Schecter, a media critic and TV producer who served as WBCN’s “News Dissector” during the ’70s. “For many people in Boston, WBCN was the voice of the real America,” he says.

Lichtenstein started working on The American Revolution about seven years ago. The station lacked an archive, and he began searching the Internet for WBCN memorabilia. He was able to find a few clips, such as a long-lost recording of Bruce Springsteen’s first radio interview.

The director then posted queries online for photos, audio and video related to WBCN and the Boston Tea Party. He got hundreds of responses. “Without all this material that was shared with us, we wouldn’t be able to make this film,” he says. Lichtenstein has been working with an archivist to clean up and preserve the reel-to-reel recordings he’s turned up.

Kickstarter campaigns are providing about a third of the documentary’s budget, with additional funding coming from individual donors and Mass Humanities, the Massachusetts NEH affiliate. Lichtenstein anticipates creating a book, a radio show and a mobile app to complement The American Revolution, as well as an educational outreach campaign that will focus on the role media can play in promoting social change.

The film “speaks to how powerful radio was and can be in terms of reaching people and creating change,” Lichtenstein says. “Hopefully, it will inspire people to look at radio, media and public media, and see how they can be used to affect changes in their own lives.”

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