A Review of theWBCN and the Meaning of the Settlement
by Martin Kessel
On the surface, the strike by WBCN employees was just another labor-management dispute over benefits and job security, but in reality what was at stake was much, much more - the preservation of WBCN's unique and exciting concept of radio for Boston listeners. Since its switch to a progressive format on March 15, 1968, WBCN has been a pioneer Tn innovative programming. WBCN has brought new, local music to prominence, and its news department has provided access for groups not given access elsewhere. Danny Schechter, for seven years WBCN's "News Dissector," developed a style and rapport that made his name synonymous with community-involved news. Though WBCN declined in the mid70s, in quality and in audience size, beginning in 1977 the station experienced an incredible renaissance. Charles Laquidara, by far WBCN's most popular announcer, was brought back. Charlie Kendall was brought in as operations director and Tony Berardini as music director. Oedipus was hired as the first New Wave programmer on a major Boston station. Mark Parenteau came over from WCOZ, and Randi Kirshbaum, who has become one of the station's most popular and enjoyable announcers, was hired for weekends. Most significantly, WBCN's public affairs was strengthened with creation of the fourhour Boston Sunday Review, a show that proved public affairs can be both exciting and attract listeners. In the Arbitron ratings, WBCN's Metro Share rose from its low of 1.7 in July/
August 1977 to an all-time high of 4.7 in January/February 1979, beating WCOZ for the first time. Last May, when the sale to Hemisphere Broadcasting Corporation was announced, the staff was optimistic that new management would continue these improvements. Hopes were furthered when the Committee for Community Access, a Boston-based public interest group, met with Michael Wiener, Hemisphere's president, in September. Wiener said that his approach to radio was progressive "in every sense of the word" and that the thing he valued most about WBCN was "its heritage." He promised that the station would be open to community involvement and that there would be renewed commitment to public affairs. But in spite of his idealistic statements, Wiener did not truly understand WBCN and its relationship with the community. It took him three painful weeks to learn. When Hemisphere took control of WBCN on February 16 (which became known as "Black Friday"), Wiener immediately fired 19 of the 37 employees and refused to recognize or bargain with the union. Wiener said that it was necessary to remove the "excess fat" so that the station would be viable, while at the same time keeping the "essential people" - the "core of the station." This "core" happened to include the most visible "stars" Charles Laquidara, Matt Siegel, Mark Parenteau, Tracy Roach, and Tony Berardini. What Wiener did not understand was
that WBCN's strength came not just from these stars, but from the support people, the part-timers, the interns, and the volunteers .. Perhaps the best example was the Boston Sunday Review, which was successful not just because of producer and cohost Susan Sprecher, but because of the contributions of Danny Schechter and Mackie McLeod and the creative engineering of Marc Gordon. Schechter and Gordon were among those fired. Certainly, Wiener did not anticipate the unity and resolve of the union membership, which the next day voted 18-1 to go on strike. And, most significantly, he grossly underestimated $e total support the strike would have in the community. At a press conference on Monday, two days into the strike, Sprecher an-
nounced that they were going to have "one of the most creative strikes that Boston has ever seen." On Saturday, February 24, over 150 cars roamed through the city in the first "Duane Glasscock Victory Motorcade." A week later, 500 people showed up at the Prudential Center to see Charles Laquidara, Matt Siegel, Jim Parry, and Randi Kirshbaum do regular airshows, broadcast live over Boston College's WZBC. The broadcast included the everpopular game of "Mishigas," the perennial "Lunchtime Whistle," special "WBCN in Exile" newscasts, and several new Steve Lushbaugh productions (including "Lunchtime on the Picketline"). The next night, 220 fans attended a benefit at the orpheum featuring James Montgomery, the Fools, Sass, the
EVERYONE'S A WINNER. WBCN staff cheer their victory at press conference, Saturday, March 10, 1979. Left to right: Tom Couch, Julie Natichioni (hidden), Virgil Sciglia, Jim Parry (in back), Tracy Roach, Tony Berardini, Oedipus, Mark Parenteau, Susan Sprecher, and Steve Lushbaugh.
Stompers, and a special surprise appearance by the J. Geils Band. Several of Boston's most famous bands (which, to some degree, owe their success to WBCN) - J. Geils, Aerosmith, Boston, and the Cars - each bought a full page ad in The. Boston Phoenix stating support for the strike. Advertisers, too, honored the strike, and WBCN's commerciai minutes fell from the normal of eight minutes per hour to less than two. Many advertisers went even further and sponosred strike benefit ads on other stations or mentioned the strike in their print ads. The volunteers, who formerly staffed the WBCN Listener Line, formed the "WBCN Listener Strike Alliance," with a 24-hour information line. The Alliance received nearly a thousand calls in the first four days alone. Finally, both the union and the Alliance filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission saying that the labor problems precipitated by Hemisphere had caused "substantial adverse effects upon the service being supplied the public" and that, therefore, the assignment was not in the public interest and should be denied. On Friday, March 9, three weeks after "Black Friday," Hemisphere agreed to the last of the union's terms, and the union voted to return to work on Monday, March 12. The benefit concert scheduled for Sunday night, featuring the PousetteDart Band, Private Lightning, and Robin Lane and the Chartbusters, was renamed the "Victory Benefit." Wiener even agreed to set forth a public "statement of intent," promising to retain WBCN's format and to strengthen and enhance WBCN's role as a broadcast innovator. Primarily, it was the pressures brought by the advertising boycott and by the threat of FCC action which forced Hemisphere to capitulate. But the FCC suit could only be as strong as the public outcry, and the advertisers were only reacting to what they knew was the mood
ot the community. So, in the end, it was clearly the listeners who won the victory - and the listeners who will benefit. The public often feels powerless in controlling broadcasters who may choose not to act responsibly. After all, the broadcaster owns the facilities, pays the staff, and has use of the license. But when listeners speak loudly and with a united voice, clearly the broadcaster must listen.
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