WBCN-FM, a/k/a the “Rock of Boston,” has as storied a history as any Boston radio station, but its 41-year run on the local airwaves is ending with a whimper. As Phoenix affiliate 101.7 WFNX first reported this week, CBS Radio, WBCN’s corporate parent, is moving WBMX (Mix 98.5) to 104.1, WBCN’s current frequency, and launching a new, all-sports station — to be dubbed “The Sports Hub” — at WBMX’s old spot on the dial. Toucher and Rich, WBCN’s morning team, will fill that same role at the Sports Hub starting in mid August, just in time for the Patriots preseason. (They’ll be joined in the afternoon, the Phoenix hears, by weei.com’s Mike Felger and Comcast SportsNet’s Gary Tanguay, each of whom will reportedly get a show.) WBCN won’t vanish entirely: die-hards will be able to find it on both the Internet and HD2 radio. But its local profile and aggregate listenership will be radically diminished.
The consolation, such as it is, is that WBCN hasn’t been itself for some time. In its heyday, the station was known for unusually varied programming, for championing talented acts that were still in their infancy but subsequently became superstars, and for showcasing unique broadcast talents like Charles Laquidara, Mark Parenteau, and “News Dissector” Danny Schechter. Recently, however, WBCN has wooed listeners with (among other things) Howard Stern, the execrable Opie & Anthony, and Patriots play-by-play — proof that the station’s subversive, counter-cultural origins are long forgotten.
“ ’BCN is not the station that everybody remembers,” says Keith Dakin, program director at 101.7 WFNX (which has long been a WBCN competitor). “This is just another example of a station that used to be really cool and adventurous in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s falling victim to the corporate machine.”
So, should we blame WBCN’s demise on corporate media’s intolerance for idiosyncrasy and intelligence? Not according to former WBCN local-music director Shred, who points the finger instead at the tepid state of rock today. “AC” — adult contemporary — “is just a hotter format right now,” he tells the Phoenix. “Rock has been on a downturn for a long while now. . . . Name me the last band to break exclusively on rock radio. I can’t name that band. The last one was, like, Tool — and when did they break, the 1990s?”
Max Tolkoff — an alt-radio eminence who twice served as WFNX’s program director, and recently held that same post at Los Angeles’s now-defunct KDLD (Indie 103.1) — has another, more tactical explanation. “To me, the big change for ’BCN came when they flipped to alternative and started to chase after ‘FNX in the early ‘90s,” says Tolkoff. “I’ve talked to a lot of people in their 40s who were early ’BCN fans ... who have said that they thought ’BCN started to go downhill when they started to play alternative music. Because they weren’t staying true to their rock roots.”
Schechter, however, is utterly convinced that negligent corporate oversight is to blame. Under the ownership of Hemisphere Broadcasting and then CBS, he contends, “The station’s legacy and importance — the reason it built a national reputation and worldwide respect — was deliberately buried by the need to meet quarterly revenue projections and serve its corporate masters by competing with commercial drek. The jockocracy took over long ago with all the Patriot worship. . . . The news was downgraded and just about disappeared, public service was derided. . . . It’s all part of the implosion of media in our time.”
Wherever you lay the blame for WBCN’s demise, there may yet be a silver lining. Before news of CBS’s plans broke, says Schechter, he’d been invited by former WBCN DJ Sam Kopper to contribute to a new, free-form WBCN substation slated for broadcast on HD2. It’s possible, then, that the new, Internet-and-HD-based WBCN will actually be truer in spirit to the station’s origins than the soon-to-be-defunct FM station was.
Spokespeople for WBCN and CBS Communications didn’t return the Phoenix’s calls by press time, however, so the format of WBCN’s new Internet/HD operation remains unclear. So, too, does the fate of the station’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble and River Rave, both of which have long been landmark events on the Boston-music scene. For now, only two things are certain. The already-crowded Boston sports-media marketplace is gaining yet another player. And yet another iconic Boston institution is biting the dust.