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WBCN's glory days

WBCN’s heyday included playlists full of iconic rock bands in their prime like Led Zeppelin; it also helped discover local acts like Juliana Hatfield. WBCN’s heyday included playlists full of iconic rock bands in their prime like Led Zeppelin; it also helped discover local acts like Juliana Hatfield. (Rhino Records (Left); Yunghi Kim for The Boston Globe/File 1994)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / July 17, 2009
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Growing up in the Boston suburbs and listening to WBCN, I had no idea what Tami Heide looked like or where she was from. All I know is that some part of my tween brain - infected with rock music - found it encouraging to hear what sounded like a musically savvy woman holding court in the same club as the station’s venerated male jocks.

Charles Laquidara was funny and outspoken on his “Big Mattress’’ and therefore tantalizing. Oedipus hosted the bewitchingly trippy “Nocturnal Emissions’’ on Sunday nights. Ken Shelton and Mark Parenteau had those classic radio guy voices and got to interview all the bands I loved. Carter Alan was clearly a true music fan and his early championing of U2 is a big reason its members love this city so. And over the years I came to appreciate the charms of Bradley J, Albert O, and Juanita.

But, with apologies to the pioneering female ’BCN DJ Maxanne Sartori - I’m a little too young to remember her first stint - it was Heide, first in the late ’70s and later into the mid-’80s, who reassured me that there was nothing weird about being a girl obsessed with rock and that maybe a career obsessing about it could be a reality. (That the station later became the spewer of crappy, nu-metal, and he-man woman-hater jocks like Opie & Anthony is indeed an ironic disappointment.)

The station was a champion of local music and I remember getting turned on to bands like the Del Fuegos and the Heretix in the ’80s and Letters to Cleo and the Gravel Pit in the ’90s and more recent bands like the Dresden Dolls and the Luxury. The latter two were winners of ’BCN’s annual Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble, curated with a fine touch to give attendees a good sense of the local rock scene. I remember hearing many punk, new wave, and alt-rock acts for the first time on ’BCN - from the Clash to Bauhaus to Juliana Hatfield. Best of all were the great broadcasts of sold-out shows that I was too young or too poor to get into. (I recall being enraged when a 1988 Sinead O’Connor show at the Paradise was 21-plus and I wore out the cassette copy I made of the ’BCN simulcast.)

By the time I became a listener in the late ’70s, the station was past its politically agitating, free-form glory days. (“Prince followed by Led Zeppelin!’’) Yet it was head and shoulders above its competition and remained that way until the corporate gatekeepers in the late ’90s began draining the playlists and the personalities of spice, sending some listeners to the more indie-vibed WFNX.

But ’BCN was a survivor. It soldiered through the moment when Limp Bizkit replaced the Lemonheads as the dominant ideology and the David Lee Roth morning show debacle. While that detritus made it less musically appealing, most of its jocks ensured that 104.1 remained a friendly spot on the dial. Even its final identity crisis - the bizarre mash-up of classic rock, vintage alternative, and a smidge of new music - held intermittent nostalgia appeal.

WBCN has certainly boasted some good jocks and events in the past 10 years. The early “River Rave’’ shows were impressive, sometimes unwieldy, extravaganzas. Shred and, more recently, Anngelle Wood kept the “Boston Emissions’’/Rumble tradition alive. And Toucher and Rich - whose morning drive-time show will move to the new sports talk station - have elevated the standard funny frat boy shtick to a more humane level, offering more wit and less misogynistic vitriol than that slot usually inspires.

As the news broke that the mighty ’BCN was disappearing, I exchanged a flurry of e-mails with friends professing disbelief. I asked one, a former local musician, if he even listened to the station anymore. He admitted he didn’t. But he added, “If I wanted to hear hard crappy rock, that was the place.’’ Which is a sad epitaph for a station that once broke the mold. So not unlike I do Michael Jackson, I prefer to think of WBCN in its best days, when it served as a place of discovery and inspiration.

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