Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Radio Radio

If you live anywhere near Boston or have come in contact with any form of the Boston Globe within the last two weeks or so, you know that WBCN, for 41 years "The Rock of Boston," is off the mainstream broadcast airwaves. (I qualify the word "airwaves" because 'BCN is apparently still on the Internet and on HD radio, whatever that is. But you won't be able to get it in your car in Greater Boston anymore, and that's the point here.)

The Globe has gone nostalgia crazy over the death of BCN, which was the sacrificial lamb in a CBS radio shakeup that will introduce a new all-sports station to what is arguably America's most sports-obsessed city. And although the Globe's coverage has seemed unceasing and overdone to say the least, readers seem to be eating it up. A blog post on 'BCN's sad final hours has generated 90 comments (thus far), most of them from nostalgic over-40 types who remember when the station was a rock-and-roll ground-breaker, whatever that's supposed to mean. (I do suppose that 'BCN, having signed on in 1968, was a very early FM station. FM radio didn't really hit D-FW in a serious way until a decade or so later--more on that in a minute.)

I moved to Boston for the first time in 1997, long after WBCN had succumbed to corporate radio and had lost whatever revolutionary, indy cred it once had. Apparently, though, the former classical station (the call letters stood for "Boston Concert Network," which would make a fine name for a local band today) was one of the first true rock stations in the US, cranking out Zeppelin, Cream and the Stones back in the '60s when that stuff was new and edgy, as well as discovering local acts (the Cars and J Geils Band, among other, from what I've read) and introducing DJs (back when DJs were people who spun records on the radio, not in clubs) who became local legends. In fact, Peter Wolf of J Geils fame was once a 'BCN DJ himself.

There's lots more about 'BCN at this blog about Boston radio...and while we're at it, let's take a moment to note the passing of George Taylor Morris, who, while never a 'BCN DJ, was heavily involved in Boston radio for some years. I remember Morris as the host of "Reelin' in the Years," a syndicated oldies-slash-reminiscence show in the '80s that managed a rare combination: nostalgia with dignity. RIP, GTM.

Anyway, all of this 'BCN nostalgia takes me back to my own youth in the Dallas-Fort Worth radio market and makes me remember how important plain ol' over-the-air rock radio used to be. (Of course, that's back when rock existed, but that's another post altogether. The kids are all into hip-hop now, and I think I know why--but I won't elongate this post any more than I already have.)

I don't know that D-FW had a "revolutionary" rock station, but it did have a few that managed to stick around through my youth. Back when records (yes, I'm old enough to have had records of my own) and tapes were the only real mass media for recorded music, radio was important. Records were kind of a pain--singles only lasted one song, and then you had to switch them out for something else. Albums were better, but you had to physically move the needle past the filler tunes to get to the songs you actually wanted to hear. And cassettes--well, they were just a general pain in the butt, and they had terrible sound quality. (In case you're wondering, eight tracks are a fleeting memory for me; I never had an eight-track player, although my parents did.)

So, radio was a big deal, and radio personalities mattered. There were three stations in D-FW that managed to survive format changes, corporate takeovers and the "hot station of the moment"--the new pop station that got all the kids' attention for about six months and then faded--to become institutions...for a while. They're all gone now, but they were huge while they lasted.

My earliest radio memories are of AM radio, which was still the standard for everything in D-FW until some time in the late '70s. (KVIL, a massively popular FM soft-pop station, really cemented FM radio's popularity in D-FW. It was a ratings monster for decades and might still be--I haven't checked recently.) My parents used to listen to WBAP-AM (which is very old and still going strong, with a signal that reaches as far as Montana) back when it was a country station. It's news-talk now, as you might imagine.

My earliest rock-radio memories are of 92 1/2 (not 92.5, for some reason) KAFM-FM. But that one didn't last long. The one I liked best in my childhood and miss the most was 98 KZEW, the Zoo. The "Home of Rock & Roll" landed more bumper stickers on Camaros, Firebirds and even pickup trucks than any other station in D-FW radio history--and for good reason. The Zoo rocked, and I mean it rocked in a way that no radio station has since the early '80s.

The Zoo had some great personalities, but it was really all about the music. It was a hard-rock station that didn't mess with ballads or pop crossovers. You knew what you were getting when you tuned in to it--Boston, Rush, Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones, AC/DC, Sabbath...the list goes on. (Keep in mind that most of those bands were still releasing albums in the late '70s and early '80s.) Late in its life, sometime in the late-'80s, the Zoo went a little bit soft and started toying with Elton John-type stuff. It didn't last much longer. But in its heyday, it was the best rock station in town.

Then there was 97.1 KEGL, the Eagle, home to Kidd Kraddick (who apparently has a nationally syndicated show now) in the morning and the station that, in the early '90s, advertised itself as the only rock station with "no rap and no disco." That, we liked, because while some rap was interesting, it was slowly taking over the airwaves and crowding out the hair bands and hard rockers my friends and I loved. The Eagle, at some point, was one of our last refuges for real music--Guns & Roses, AC/DC (always a favorite), even some older classics. It was a massive disappointment, as you might imagine, when the Eagle caved to mainstream teen preferences and played Tone Loc's "Wild Thing." You can imagine the backlash--and I'm not kidding about this. People were angry. I was one of them.

The Eagle rocked progressively more softly, unfortunately, as the years went on, and I believe it disappeared from the D-FW dial just a few years ago after what must have been a 30-year run. (I really don't want to take the time to look this stuff up--sorry.) It was fun while it lasted, although it was probably the most corporate and least genuine of my three rock-radio staples.

On the other hand, the most venerable and honest station--also now gone, which is still a shock to me--was KTXQ, or Q102, as it was much better known. Q102, "Texas' Best Rock," at least seemed genuinely local, although I have no idea who owned it. It was by far the best in D-FW about playing local music. Stevie Ray Vaughn (RIP--I still miss you) was a staple even before the rest of the country caught on to him, and a regular feature called Texas Tapes offered the best undiscovered bands from around the state. Whether any of the Texas Tapes bands ever really made it, I don't remember--but the show was a great way to hear local music that nobody else was playing. Had I been old enough back then (I was mainly a listener in junior high and high school), I would have gone to some clubs to check out those bands. Alas...

Anyway, Q102, for me, had by far the best personalities on the local airwaves. Bo and Jim in the morning were tremendous. (I still remember the famous "It's Bo or Nothing" billboards from the mid-'80s or so that caused a genuine stir in D-FW. They featured an outline of sorts of an otherwise-naked man wearing nothing but a bow over his, well, central region. The supposedly risque billboards sparked a real controversy--as in one with fairly extensive coverage on local TV and in the papers [gotta love the Bible Belt]--and ended up not lasting all that long. But, as the old saying goes, there was no such thing as bad publicity. In that sense, they worked.)

Beyond Bo and Jim, there was Redbeard, a genuine rock journalist who surely must still be around somewhere. The afternoon guy who also did lost of special segments, Redbeard got all the big rock acts of the day into the Q102 studios and actually conducted serious, thought-provoking, non-fawning interviews with them. It was like rock NPR or something--meaningful and memorable in a way rock radio rarely was then and definitely isn't anymore.

Q102 also was home to a show--whether it was locally produced or not, I don't know, but I think it was--called "Flashback," which was a sort of mystical-sounding rock-oldies program. It's hard for me to describe Flashback--if you've heard it, you know what I mean. But it was cool. Just trust me on that.

Outside of NPR, broadcast radio, of course, is mostly dead now, full of stations that play mindless teen-hop and talk radio stations that mostly let idiots air their grievances in front of a bunch of other idiots. I don't actually own a radio tuner now other than the one in my car. In my younger days, I listened to the radio in the evenings, sometimes (and this is a big thing for me to say) as a substitute for watching TV. Not anymore. Satellite radio has never appealed to me--I have an iPod, thanks. Internet radio is better, but I almost never listen to it, honestly. In the car, it's NPR or the iPod for the most part.

But radio used to be a huge part of my life--I still remember my friend, Paul, calling me one Saturday in our high school years to tell me that the Eagle had played six cool songs in a row--and I don't know whether I grew out of that or whether radio just lost me. I suppose it's a little of both. I wouldn't want a fellow 35-year-old frantically ringing me to tell me that (whatever rock station is left in Boston, if there is one) just played six cool songs in a row...but I also wouldn't mind having a radio station around here that played good (non-corporate) new music, pushed local bands and offered some decent personalities.

WFNX is OK for that, I guess, and the college radio stations here (WERS from Emerson in particular) probably do more for broadcast radio than almost any other station in the country does these days. But they don't really matter--'FNX is a major station (if there is still such a thing in radio), but 'ERS and the other college outlets are also-rans down at the far ends of the FM dial. (WBUR, from BU, is actually the local NPR affiliate.) Nobody comes into work talking about the great new band that 'ERS (or even 'FNX) is playing or the funny bit or good non-NPR interview that was on the radio the other day. I do miss that, but that's probably because I'm just nostalgic...kind of like those people who are missing 'BCN today.

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