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On top in rock

Boston's 'BCN remains the station others try to beat

By Jim Sullivan
Special To The Globe / January 12, 1986
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Over the years carping about the state of Boston rock radio has been as much a way of life as complaining about the Red Sox. But what is the state of Boston rock radio today?

Nationally, the Boston market is held in high regard. "It's my job to know all the markets, and Boston is probably the best in the country," says Howie Klein, president of 415 Records in San Francisco. "There's the best AOR (album-oriented rock) station, WBCN; the most progressive Top 40 station with KISS-108; and a great alternative music station with WFNX.

It's incredible! I'm jealous. What we've got (in San Francisco) is pathetic. New York is a miserable market. Chicago, too. It's that way everywhere."

Boston also has a creative college radio scene; progressive programming can be heard on WZBC-FM, WMBR-FM, WHRB-FM, WRBB-FM and WERS-FM, among others.

For many people, WBCN-FM has long defined what constitutes a good, progressive, commercial rock station. It's a station with a strong commitment to local music, playing much of it on the air and sponsoring an annual competition for new bands called the Rock 'n' Roll Rumble. WBCN is almost always near the top of Boston ratings. For the last five years, it's placed in the top five of Rolling Stone's readers poll for America's best radio station.

Some critics, however, are charging that WBCN has lost its sting and thus created running room for more adventurous outlets like upstart WFNX-FM. Some are distressed by an absence of roots rock 'n' roll and reggae. Some feel the station has moved toward a more personality oriented, AM-like sound. ''Usually there's someone babbling," says one sometime listener.

"They play all the generic bands made for radio, with very occasional inspiration." Has the country's rightward drift dulled WBCN's edge and fortified its commercial impulses?

It's not a purely parochial question. WBCN is a national model. When its once-open shutters are closed, to whatever degree, that affects other radio stations across the country. It affects artists, too. After all, if WBCN won't give an innovative new band a shot, who will? This inherently makes rock 'n' roll more conservative and cools the creative jets.

To most Boston stations, of course, such issues are moot. Top 40 or Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) stations such as WHTT-FM, WVBF-FM and WZOU FM repeat a limited number of chart hits. They're teen-oriented stations, not expected to expose new music. KISS-108 (WXKS-FM) brings a wider diversity to its Top-40 format. Other stations have carved out specific markets. WBOS-FM plays mainstream country music; WMJX-FM plays soft rock; WZLX-FM plays the rock hits of the '60s and '70s; WMEX-AM plays hits of the '60s; WILD-AM plays current black dance music. WAAF-FM has expanded its sound over the past year, moving closer to WBCN, but it's primarily regarded as a straight-ahead rock station.

WBCN is the undisputed king of Boston rock radio, according to the latest Arbitron survey for fall '85. Overall, the 50,000-watt station trailed only WBZ-AM. For all its success, however, WBCN sometimes finds itself a local target.

"Is this going to be another hatchet job on 'BCN? That we're not as hip as 'FNX, that our calendars aren't hip enough, that I'm not hip enough?" asked WBCN program director Oedipus when contacted for this story. "I don't mind people taking shots at me. I just want them to be fair and honest."

WFNX-FM, based in Lynn, is the new kid on the block, a David to WBCN's Goliath. Formerly WLYN, the station was bought by Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich in 1983. WFNX is a 3,000-watt station that has made a small dent in the Boston market, but, arguably, a larger dent in its mindset.

WBCN and WFNX are not economic competitors. According to Arbitron, WFNX's market share is less than a ninth of WBCN's. WFNX's main problem is its limited range: Its signal reaches pockets of metro Boston, but it's inconsistent. "An amazing signal," muses owner Mindich. "I've 'driven the station' to Worcester, Cape Cod, Maine - and I've lost it in Kenmore Square."

WBCN and WFNX do seem to battle on the ideological front. Some Boston rock fans feel 'FNX has outflanked 'BCN on the progressive programming front. While rating points (and thus advertising dollars) are more important than image, WBCN has long cultivated a cutting-edge reputation; it broke many of the new wave acts, from the Cars to Costello to the Clash. And that's the thunder some radio listeners feel WFNX has stolen.

WFNX can be criticized for an overly heady approach to new music - favoring, say, "cooler" synthesizer-based English bands over American roots rock or harder-edged punk - but one will find many creative bands on its airwaves, including the Smiths, the Cocteau Twins, the Fall, the Long Ryders, the Pogues and Jesus and Mary Chain.

"Our aim is to provide intelligent music you can't find anyplace else,"

says program director Michael Bright. " 'BCN is a mass-appeal station;

therefore, you get lowest-common-denominator radio. They'll play some new artists, but for the most part, they're fairly mainstream, and that's their job. They're not going to take that many chances. That has its limitations with people who are a little more discerning."

WBCN was the harbinger of progressive radio in the late '60s and early '70s. Over the years, it's weathered ownership upheavals and station strikes. It rode out the phenomenal success of John Sebastian's relentless hard rock-oldies format at WCOZ-FM in the late '7Os. It retains a certain irreverence, a zeal sorely absent from more strictly controlled stations.

Its reputation for breaking new music is unsurpassed. Its general manager, Tony Berardini, rose from the ranks of programming - not the usual route through the sales department - and continues to host a heavy-metal program Sunday night at 10. Its program director, who goes only by the name Oedipus, came from college radio. It has recruited other personalities from college radio, including Carter Alan, Tami Heide and Albert O., recently voted best deejay by the trade publication College Media Journal. WBCN accrues industry honors and accolades regularly.

"WBCN is an art-form," says Columbia Records' Paul Rappaport, vice president of record promotion. "Most radio stations are run with very stringent rules. 'BCN provides a framework for their air talent, and the talent is allowed to paint a picture within that framework." Adds 415 Records' Klein: "WBCN is the only AOR left in country that's a community service station. We have pretenders, people trying to be a 'BCN - horrible, stupid corporate (expletive deleted) actually saying 'We're going to be a'BCN-type station.'"

Most criticism of WBCN concerns what the station represents (or once represented, critics charge) and what Oedipus represents (or once represented). That is: a certain reputation for exposing cutting-edge music. Oedipus, who came to WBCN from WTBS-FM (now WMBR-FM), was the man most responsible for turning Boston on to punk and new-wave music. As a deejay, he brought the risk-taking philosophy of college radio into the format of a massive rock station. "I've always had the punk attitude," Oedipus told Boston Rock magazine in 1981, shortly after being named WBCN's program director. "I was at war with (WBCN) - the very station I'm working for, and I would say (on the air, about punk rock) 'You cannot hear this on any radio station, not even this radio station except now, and this is the greatest music.' "

How different is his tune now? "We try to play 360 degrees of rock 'n'roll," Oedipus says, stressing the responsibility that comes with his job.

A recent sampling of 'BCN programming found old and new rock – Pete Townshend, the Dream Academy, the Kinks, the Cult, the Rolling Stones, Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Elton John, the Cars, the J. Geils Band, Kiss.

Records imported from foreign countries are verboten; Oedipus reasons most people couldn't find them in mall record stores. He still hosts a new-music show Sunday nights at 7, but says, "We have a big responsibility. We have to play the Loverboys of the world. 'FNX doesn't have to do that."

Loverboy is a good case in point. Like its apparent role model, Journey, the group is an example of formulaic mainstream rock, the antithesis of the best punk and new wave. Why are they part of WBCN's programming?

"Because they're part of rock 'n' roll history," argues Oedipus, "and to ignore them is elitist . . . I might never go to see Journey live, but they fill the Centrum for three nights. Somebody must like them out there. If I play Journey and next to it I can break U2 - which we did - it's worth it to me. Next year, maybe U2 will be passe, but maybe I'll be trying to break Jesus and Mary Chain. You might not think we take a lot of chances, but we take chances that aren't heard of in the genre of radio we do."

How seriously does 'BCN take 'FNX?

"It's not even fair to compare us," says Oedipus. "There is no audience out there; it doesn't exist. Who wants to live on top of the newest and latest thing all the time?"

"If 'FNX were a 50,000-watt station, I think 'BCN would have good reason to feel threatened," says WFNX owner Mindich, whose weekly newspaper has always worked closely with WBCN and other radio stations. "At 3,000 watts, it's not going to destroy 'BCN. In terms of its market and success, we can probably get the ratings up to 1.5 or 2.0. (A rating point is equal to 1 percent of a given population.) It's never going to be number one in the market." Mindich says so far WFNX has operated in the red. He predicts a slight profit for 1986.

And so, WBCN remains the station others try to beat. WAAF, based in Worcester, captured a 2.4 Boston metro share, and music director Russ Mottla compares 'AAF's programming to 'BCN's, noting that his used to be a hard-rock and heavy-metal station. "That's a hard perception to change. But we've turned into a full-service rock 'n' roll station - 'til tuesday, old Stones, the Hooters, Charlie Sexton, Hoodoo Gurus."

KISS-108 garnered a 5.O share with its mix of mainstream pop, new wave dance, rap and disco. "The real core of the station is Top 40," says program director Sunny Jo White, adding that airplay is based on local sales and listener surveys. But KISS' programming goes further than most Top 40 stations. White stresses the diverse taste of the Boston metro market and notes, with some surprise, that most requests for rapper Doug E. Fresh come from the white suburbs. The fact that Fresh is not a major talent on the national scene doesn't matter, says White. Boston likes him. "I think it's important for us to be up to the expectations of our audience," White says. ''In Boston, they want to hear new music."

Well, some do. Coming up strong is WZLX (Classic Hits), which recently changed its call letters from WKKT. (Also on the oldies front is the '60s- oriented WMEX-AM, which got a 1.0.) WZLX's rise to a 3.1 may reflect America's Back to the Future pre-occupation: WZLX plays no new music and concentrates on hits from the '60s and '70s.

"I realize that there's valid new music out there," says night-time deejay Lindsey Robbins, who came from WYDD-FM, a rock and new-music station in Pittsburgh. "In Pittsburgh, I did appreciate that, but I'd much rather play great classics from Grand Funk, Tommy James and the Animals than be cranking out Madonna and Wham! every other song."