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Documentary about a talismanic radio station to screen in Woodstock

  • Bruce Springsteen performs at the Harvard Square Theater in May 1974, in this image from "WBCN and the American Revolution," a documentary film about the groundbreaking Boston radio station WBCN. (Barry Schneier photograph)

  • The on-air staff of Boston radio station WBCN circa 1969. (David Bieber photograph)

  • Journalist and filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein directed "WBCN and The American Revolution." (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/13/2020 5:00:27 PM
Modified: 2/13/2020 5:00:16 PM

Bill Lichtenstein got a volunteer job at WBCN-FM at the age of 14, shortly after it was reinvented by a young law school student named Ray Riepen in 1968. By then, the station was playing in so many stores and apartments around Boston that you could walk from one end of Newbury Street to the other and hear it all the way. Students in headphones studying in college libraries bobbed their heads in unison, and postcards from listeners flowed into the station by the duffle-bag full.

The flames of an uprising were ripping through the city, and fanning them was the eclectic, anything-goes sound of this little underground station.

Those heady days stayed with Lichtenstein throughout his career as an investigative journalist and radio and film documentarian, long after the station’s identity was reabsorbed by mainstream radio.

Fifty years later, Lichtenstein is telling the story of WBCN for the first time, through the documentary film, WBCN and the American Revolution.

“It just seemed like a story that needed to be told,” Lichtenstein, 63, said in a telephone interview last week. “A lot of things have changed, but a lot of things haven’t changed.”

The film, which has been playing at film festivals and theaters around the country for the past year, comes to the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre on Feb. 28. Lichtenstein will attend the screening and reception, along with executive producer Robert Sennott, a former Pomfret resident and Upper Valley Haven board member.

The filmmakers brought the station to life through newly unearthed archival materials, including recordings and photos of Bruce Springsteen’s first radio interview, a visit by Jerry Garcia after a gig and a live broadcast by Patti Smith.

“In many cases with historical documentaries, you tell the story first, and then you go find visual elements to reinforce the story,” said Lichtenstein, who with his crew combed through more than 100,000 audio and visual items collected from listeners.

“Here, we really wanted the story to be told through the archival material, with the interviews to fill in as the mortar between the bricks,” he said.

The story begins in 1968, amid the culture clash playing out around Boston, as it was all over the world, at the height of the Vietnam War.

A couple of years earlier, Ray Riepen had arrived in Boston from Kansas City to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard Law School. Sensing a market for music among the thousands of college students in the city, he opened a rock club, the Boston Tea Party, and was soon booking bands that would later play arenas. A May 1969 Boston Tea Party calendar displayed in the film shows performances by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Joe Cocker, The Velvet Underground and The Allman Brothers.

“We had the real thing,” Riepen said in the film.

Next, Riepen, shown in ’60s era photos in business suits and a slicked-down haircut, set his sights on radio. At the time, FM radio was in its death throes, playing a menu of mostly classical music, while AM radio churned out Top-40 hits on endless repeat, interspersed with cheesy ads and vacuous DJ commentary. Meanwhile, following the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, young people were consuming music primarily through full-length albums.

“I got the idea that in a town of 240,000 students, it might be appropriate to play the music they were buying at the record stores,” Riepen said in the film.

Riepen convinced the owner of WBCN, a classical station that was barely staying afloat, to let him take over the midnight to 6 a.m. shift, then recruited local college students to work as announcers. On March 15, 1968, The American Revolution, as it was originally called, gave its first broadcast.

The shows were entirely free-form and experimental. “Whatever rock was happening, fine. You want to play some folk, no problem. If you wanted to play some Beethoven or some Carl Orff, no problem,” Tommy Hadges, a WBCN announcer, said in the film. “Mix it up. Throw in some Monty Python, throw in some spoken word ...”

The formula — or lack of one — worked. And Riepen had hit on something much larger than music.

“Suddenly, we had on the radio what was the soundtrack of our lives,” Michael Ansara, a listener and activist, said in the film.

Broadcasting from backstage at the Boston Tea Party on Berkeley Street, the program became an overnight sensation. By May 1, it had taken over programming of the station 24 hours a day and was rapidly growing in influence. The film describes through interviews with numerous announcers (mostly clean-cut versions of their former selves), including Charles Laquidara, Danny Schechter, J.J. Jackson and Maxanne Sartori, how WBCN reflected and radiated the sentiments of a generation.

“The extent to which media was a critical part of creating social and political and cultural change was something that stayed with me from those days,” said Lichtenstein, whose past projects include the documentary films West 47th Street and If I Get Out Alive, the weekly public radio series The Infinite Mind and the radio documentary Voices of an Illness. “The ’60s were more than smoking dope and going to concerts and flashing the peace sign.”

The film shows, sometimes humorously, how the station became enmeshed in the political issues of the day. Not long after a group of women brought a box of fuzzy yellow chicks to the station to take an announcer to task for using the word to describe women, the station hired its first female announcers. One of them, Maxanne Sartori, went on to discover bands that would later rule the airwaves, including Aerosmith and the Cars.

The station also employed openly gay announcers, refused to run ads for cosmetics and other products that fed into capitalist consumer culture, relentlessly covered Watergate and took a stand against censorship, sometimes subversively, sometimes blatantly.

The experiment lasted just a few years. Riepen sold his interest in the company in 1971, and although the station remained on the air until 2009 and continued to dominate the rock music scene in Boston, it slowly transformed into a more commercial enterprise in the mid-’70s.

But its influence lived on.

“It reached 250,000 students a year from all over the country,” Sennott, who now lives in Mashpee, Mass., said in a telephone interview last week. “They spread that activism that they heard on BCN.”

Sennott, 67, worked on the WBCN listener line as a freshman at Boston College. “I loved radio, and I loved that whole scene so much,” he said. “It really helped frame my whole life. I saw what could be accomplished. With just a little bit of elbow grease you could change the world.”

Sennott, who has helped with fundraising and promotion for the film, among other things, wants to get more young people to view it. He sees parallels between the anti-war movement and the climate movement among today’s youth and thinks the message would empower them.

“It’s a really important film because it shows what we did and how we did it,” Sennott said. “I think it can spark excitement.”

Lichtenstein agrees. “The tools today are so much more powerful. You can reach a half million people with your phone, but it’s more than just clicking ‘like’ on Facebook,” he said. “I think young people are struggling with how to be heard. … We live in a time when it’s never been easier to communicate, but never more difficult to be heard.”

WBCN and the American Revolution plays at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre on Feb. 28 from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. A reception with director Bill Lichtenstein and executive producer Robert Sennott is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., and a Q&A session will follow the screening. Tickets are $9 ($8 seniors and students) and go on sale one week prior to the event. Visit pentanglearts.org.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.




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