“As soon as he said that, I thought, ‘Here you go,'” says Lichtenstein, who started answering the phone on the station’s hotline when he was an early ninth grader.
After working in the station’s news department, he pursued an award-winning career in investigative journalism, producing stories for ABC News and public television, among others. His film, “WBCN and the American Revolution,” which made its festival debut in 2019, continues to build momentum. It is currently airing on PBS.
Now, Lichtenstein has produced a companion book, released November 30, with the same title. It is full of photographs of rock stars of a certain vintage, BCN personalities and Boston activists, photographers such as Jeff Albertson, Clif Garboden and Peter Simon.
While WBCN was known for its leading role in shaping “free” radio of the classic rock era, Lichtenstein’s work focuses on the station’s political and cultural activism, from protest against the Vietnam War in opposition to 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 continually amazed by the rapturous reaction to the mere mention of the station’s call letters.
Consider any mid-twentieth-century American institution, he says: “What else engenders this kind of reaction, where people drop everything and put their hands on their hearts? The only one I can think of is the Brooklyn Dodgers.
While working on the film, he wrote a book proposal for MIT Press. The proposal, Lichtenstein says, helped him structure the film, with segments on the station’s public affairs work and progressive programming — “The Lavender Hour,” for example, an LGBTQ show that debuted in 1973.
The book also provides room for some of the superstar encounters that didn’t fit the documentary. There’s the day in 1969 when the Who released their double album “Tommy.” The band was in Boston to play the Tea Party; on air, Pete Townshend explained his rock opera concept to Laquidara.
Or the time in 1973 when Yoko Ono was in Boston to attend a feminist conference at what was then Lesley College. She was accompanied by her husband, John Lennon. The late ‘BCN reporter Danny Schechter engaged them in a conversation about men and cooking.
“He made headlines around the world,” Lichtenstein recalls: “’John Lennon is a feminist.’ ”
Beginning with Albertson’s photographic archives, which Lichtenstein discovered in Florida, he helped establish a research collection at UMass Amherst. From the start, he says, he thought of his sprawling WBCN project as a work of “archival truth”: Searching for archival documents about the station, he left behind the photos, recordings and clippings tell a story.
Al Perry, general manager of WBCN in its heyday, liked to say that the station embodied the spirit of the Communications Act of 1934, which effectively designated radio broadcast licensees as guardians of the public trust. Perry, a beloved member of the ‘BCN community, died in early November in Cambridge.
“It was radio more like a relationship with listeners than a performance,” says Lichtenstein. “Anyone who called on a matter of public interest always knew they were just a button away from being live.”
Bill Lichtenstein will participate in a virtual discussion on “WBCN and the American Revolution” with the Belmont Public Library, December 1 at 7:30 p.m. Free. Save: https://belmontpubliclibrary.net/
Email James Sullivan at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.