If one station did it, listeners might be amused. If two, well, that would be odd. But, to paraphrase the lyrics of "Alice's Restaurant," if 50 radio stations started playing Arlo Guthrie's rambling antiwar ballad on Thanksgiving Day, friends, they may think it's a movement.
There may not be 50 stations playing "Alice's Restaurant" today. But the number is rising, and the annual airing - which may have Boston roots - is certainly a movement. At least six stations in Greater Boston will broadcast the 18-minute, 20-second song at noon today, including WUMB-FM (91.9), WXRV-FM (92.5), WMKK-FM (93.7), WZLX-FM (100.7), WBCN-FM (104.1), and WROR-FM (105.7). WODS-FM (103.3) will be streaming the song at 10 a.m. and noon at oldies1033.com.
Most will be breaking their own formats to do so - WROR will even interrupt its new Christmas programming - although arguably the song could fit into the regular playlist of folk station WUMB, which has aired it for more than 20 years. But these stations persist in the odd tradition because the song, a shaggy-dog tale of Vietnam War-era protest from 1967, centers around a Thanksgiving dinner. That dinner, and the illegal trash dumping that follows, takes place in the title restaurant in Stockbridge, making it, as WZLX program director Mike Thomas puts it, "a New England tale."
"People look forward to it," says WUMB program director Brian Quinn, whose station is the only one in Boston to play the 22-minute, 30th-anniversary version, which is a live recording reissued as "Alice's Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited." "I think more so here in Massachusetts because the song originates from the Berkshires."
But whether the tradition originated in New England is unclear, thanks in part to the desultory record-keeping of early FM rock radio. In New York City, for example, it has long aired on both public station WFUV and classic hits WAXQ. "We've been doing the noon playing for as long as I've been in radio," says WAXQ assistant program director Eric Wellman, who began his career at Long Island station WBAB in 1989. "And at WBAB, the tradition was there before me." Beyond that, he says, records don't exist.
"I've been here for 24 years," says Scott Arbough, program director of KBCO, in Boulder, Colo., which also airs the tune at noon today. "And when I got here it was an already established tradition. People make their plans around it. If we play it a few minutes late or start it early, we get complaints."
One outpost, WXRT in Chicago, may shed some light on how the tradition spread. "We have been featuring that song on Thanksgiving since probably 1973," says WXRT morning host Lin Brehmer. He, at least, gives an excuse for the lack of documentation. "We didn't take notes studiously back then," says Brehmer. "We thought we'd only be on air for another eight months."
But Brehmer, whose station airs the song at 11 a.m., believes the annual spin may have come to town with station program director Norm Winer, who had worked on air at WBCN (as "Old Joe Saxophone") in the '60s and later served as WBCN's program director.
Those memories are fuzzy, says Winer. And what he remembers actually bounces the ritual out of town again. "WBCN, shortly after it became one of America's premier 'underground' or 'progressive' FM stations, initiated its tradition of playing 'Alice' every Thanksgiving, starting 1969 or so," Winer says in an e-mail. (Dave Wellington, the WBCN program director, confirms that his station has been playing the song "at least 25 years.")
"Still," adds Winer, "I'm fairly certain we didn't originate this practice. It may well have started in New York City."
Spinning the dial
"The River" WXRV will host its annual Greater Boston Food Bank charity event next Thursday with a banquet, concert, and silent auction of rock 'n' roll memorabilia. Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries joins Matt Nathanson and James Hunter for the evening at the Sheraton Colonial Hotel in Wakefield. Tickets are $75. For more information, go to wxrv.com.