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Revolutionary Boston radio station WBCN at center of new documentary 

Way back in the early ‘70s, Here & Now’s Robin Young worked at the powerhouse AM radio station in Boston, WBZ.

But something wondrous was happening over on the brand new FM dial: DJs playing deep album cuts, saying whatever they wanted about the Vietnam War or women’s and gay rights.

When Young asked her boss if he’d heard of the station WBCN, he said that FM would never last. But WBCN became the soundtrack of the city’s 250,000 college students — the internet of its time.

The station launched the careers of artists like Aerosmith and arguably played a role in ending the war in Vietnam.

It all started in 1966 when Ray Riepen, a young attorney from Kansas City came to town to attend Harvard Business School. He picked up the beat of the surging counterculture and responded by creating a small club called The Tea Party. Lou Reed and Led Zeppelin played there.

Riepen asked the classical radio station WBCN if he could experiment in alternative underground radio after midnight. That’s how on one night in 1968, classical host Ron Della Chiesa turned over the airwaves to DJs led by college student Joe Rogers, who let it rip.

The story of WBCN is told in the new documentary streaming on PBS, “WBCN and the American Revolution.” Award-winning filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein directed and breathed life into the film.

The film tells the story with a Greek chorus of just about everyone who was there. And it also includes news footage of Noam Chomsky weighing in.

Lichtenstein lives in the suburbs of Boston and came to the station to answer the listener line at age 14. At that time, there were only a handful of FM stations experimenting with free-form music.

WBCN changed radio forever, Lichtenstein says.

“Before BCN, radio was really a performance. [BCN pioneered] the idea of having a conversation with your listeners,” he says. “And then the music that BCN played — Frank Zappa to Cream to the blues — you couldn’t hear anywhere.”

The conversational tone of the station was the vision of general manager Riepen, Lichtenstein says.

Young people were key to the station’s success: Riepen sought out kids at college radio stations who understood underground music culture but weren’t seasoned professionals.

Tommy Hadges dropped out of Harvard Dental School to work at the station. Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band had a shift at the station, as did the tremendous Maxanne Sartori, one of the first female rock DJs who discovered Aerosmith and launched Bruce Springsteen.

Interview Highlights

On the political backdrop in Boston at that time

“1967 was the Summer of Love in San Francisco and was really about peace and love and maybe some LSD could change the world. By ‘68, with the war in Vietnam escalating, things became much more political and really, the epicenter of the ‘60s counterculture moved to Boston and became much more politicized. So BCN, which started as a radio station largely focused on music, became really at the center in many ways of not just the anti-war movement but sort of the whole effort to expose what was going on with the war in Vietnam.”

On popular morning show host Charles Laquidara, who casually made a comment after a commercial about kids being napalmed

“He did a commercial for Underground Camera, a Cambridge, [Massachusetts], camera store and he mentioned that Honeywell Pentax cameras were on sale at a time when the Honeywell corporation was making anti-personnel weapons in Vietnam. They were known to be targeting Cambodian children. And so at the end of the commercial, he said, ‘There’s your chance to buy a camera from a company that kills Cambodian babies.’ The store sued, and the station eventually lost, but the judge said because it was true, he only assessed $1 in damages. But that kind of, you know, it was really unheard of for a radio station I think, to speak out.”

On Danny Schechter, the “news dissector” who often made national news with his findings. At one point in the film, students take over the dean’s offices at Harvard. Schecter goes in with Students for a Democratic Society leader Michael Ansara but gets upset and yells to get the students out of there.

“He and Michael Ansara begin to go through the confidential files in the dean’s office. Harvard said they had no contracts with the CIA; they’re finding contracts with the CIA. Harvard said they’re not involved with the Vietnam War effort; they find that Henry Kissenger had gone to Vietnam at the behest of the State Department while he was a Harvard professor. The question is ‘What do you do with these documents?’ Well, Danny snuck them out in a book bag and then they published them and it became a huge issue.”

On Lichtenstein’s forthcoming book on the station’s role in the anti-war movement

“We have FBI files that they were, the FBI was, trying to figure out kind of the flow of information to young people. And [it] was their assessment, which was accurate, that BCN was involved in sort of putting out the word about what was going on with the anti-war movement and Charles Laquidara’s name is in an FBI file that we have. There was a famous raid at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, which was Henry Kissenger’s old office. Anti-war activists broke in and stole a bunch of documents. I was in, I had followed along after an anti-war demonstration and I actually went in and called the station on the phone from inside and did a live report on the air from inside.

“I would have been 16. Interestingly when I got back to the station, Danny said ‘Did you get any documents?’ I mean I was so proud of myself for having done this report and Danny’s like ‘The next time you’re in a government [office], get some documents!” What was most interesting I think, out of that era was the connection between universities, the government and war profiteering and a lot of that was exposed, largely in Boston, Dan Ellsberg [who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971], and what BCN was doing and Chomsky and you know, a lot of that was revealed here.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin Young and Chris Bentley. Tamagawa also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

WBCN air studio circa 1970. (Peter Simon)
WBCN air studio circa 1970. (Peter Simon)