“As soon as he said that, I thought, ‘Here you are,'” says Lichtenstein, who began answering phones on the station’s listener line as a precocious ninth-grader.
After working in the station’s news division, he moved on to an award-winning career in investigative journalism, producing reports for ABC News and public television, among others. His film “WBCN and the American Revolution”, which debuted at festivals in 2019, continues a strong run. It is currently streaming on PBS.
Liechtenstein has now produced a companion book, on November 30, with the same title. It’s filled with rock star portraits of certain vintage BCN figures and Boston activists, from photographers including Jeff Albertson, Cliff Garboden and Peter Simon.
While WBCN is best known for its pioneering role in shaping the “free” radio of the classic rock era, Liechtenstein’s work focuses on the station’s political and cultural activism, from protesting the Vietnam War to opposing the Nixon administration.
“I wanted to do it in a way that even the people who were there would be surprised,” he says. He is constantly amazed at the enthusiastic reaction to the mere mention of the station’s call letters.
Looking at any mid-20th century American establishment, he says, “What generates this kind of other reaction, where people drop everything and put their hands on their hearts? The only person I can think of is the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
While working on the film, he wrote a book proposal for MIT Press. Lichtenstein says the proposal helped him organize the film, with parts of the station’s public affairs work and progressive programming — “The Lavender Hour,” for example, the LGBTQ show that debuted in 1973.
The book also provides space for some star-studded encounters that didn’t fit into the documentary. There is a day in 1969 when The Who released their double album “Tommy”. The band was in Boston for a tea party. On air, Pete Townsend explained his concept for the rock opera L’Aquidara.
Or in 1973 when Yoko Ono was in Boston for a women’s conference at what was then Leslie College. She had her husband, John Lennon, in tow. Late BCN journalist Danny Schechter got into a conversation about men and cooking.
“She made headlines all over the world,” Lichtenstein recalls: “John Lennon is a feminist.” “
Beginning with Albertson’s photographic archive, discovered by Liechtenstein in Florida, he helped establish a research group at UMass Amherst. The whole time, he says, he thought of WBCN’s sprawling project as a “real archival” work: In pursuit of archival material at the station, he allowed photos, recordings, and press extracts to tell the story.
Al Perry, general manager of WBCN in its heyday, liked to say that the station embodies the spirit of the Communications Act of 1934, which effectively designated broadcasting licensees as keepers of public confidence. Perry, a beloved member of the BCN community, died in early November in Cambridge.
“This radio was more of a relationship with the listeners than a performance,” Lichtenstein says. “Anyone who’s approached a public interest issue has always known that it was just a push of a button away from the live broadcast.”
Bill Lichtenstein will participate in a virtual discussion on “WBCN and the American Revolution” with the Belmont Public Library, December 1 at 7:30 PM for free. to sign up: https://belmontpubliclibrary.net/
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.