Radio, that strange, dusty object in the corner with the little dials, used to be the place to discover music. Many a night was spent huddled under the covers with a clandestine radio, listening for a local DJ to spin the latest tunes. But more and more, this role has been ceded to YouTube and streaming services. At this point, most people are guided by algorithms.
It’s tough to bond with an algorithm, so I’m here to remind that the radio dial in Boston still offers a cornucopia of sounds known and unknown, music that is often deftly curated by musically obsessed volunteer disc jockeys at college stations. With the possible exception of the Bay Area, we have the best and most unique radio dial in the country.
Of course, we have the “normal” radio. Like everywhere else in the US, there are mega commercial rock, country, sports talk, oldies and “urban” format stations with big signals—and lots of ads. You see their billboards on the highway and vans with their logos splashed on them at concert and sporting events. These are, each and every one, part of enormous corporations, which own thousands of stations across the country.
But there’s a whole lot to explore between the commercial behemoths.
We also have three National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates. These stations—WBUR, WGBH, and WUMB—generate local programming and play some of the same national programming. WBUR has been all-news for many years; when the station went professional in the 1970s, Boston University students who wanted to make radio went to WTBU. This is a “carrier current” station, which means it can be received in BU buildings that are equipped to get the signal via phone or power lines. Many college stations started as unlicensed carrier current stations. WBUR, at 12,000w, has a strong Boston signal and uses several satellite stations to reach much of eastern Mass.
WGBH, which is also a major player in television, used to have a lot more music—jazz and classical—which it reduced or eliminated in the past few years. Local jazz fans launched several protests outside the station but failed to influence the programming, which is now largely news and public affairs. WGBH has a 100,000w broadcast signal and a huge coverage area.
WUMB, on the campus of UMass Boston, is also an NPR affiliate and plays largely acoustic blues, folk, roots, and some ’60s music, including national programs from NPR. As with WBUR, WUMB was initially a college station that was “professionalized” (that word again), but unlike Boston University, UMass does not provide an on-campus radio alternative for students. WUMB has a small signal, but uses “repeaters”—relay stations, essentially—to carry its signal to other areas.
HOW COLLEGE RADIO WORKS
Now for the tasty stuff—the college stations. Here’s how they work: the studios are located on the campus of a college, which holds the license and pays most of the freight. Stations have a faculty advisor and a board of directors. With one exception, WERS at Emerson, the stations are actually run by students, who fill the administrative positions. Minimally, there is a station manager, program director, and music director, and possibly operations and publicity directors.
Each station makes a policy about how it will choose people to be on the air—what percentage will be students and what percentage will be community members. These stations know that without at least some community people to carry on during semester breaks and in the summer, the station won’t be able to go on the air. The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t like it when licensed stations aren’t on the air.
Unlike the big “single format” commercial stations, all of these stations are “multiformat.” Programs can switch dramatically from one hour to the next. Having run several stations like that, I can tell you that the challenge is getting listeners to tune in at the right time. Few people’s ears can make the adjustment from Metallica to Mel Torme.
I’ll start at the lowest-numbered station, which sometimes calls itself the “leftmost station on the dial”— WMBR, the MIT station. Interestingly, the call letters used to be WTBS (“Technology Broadcasting System”). Sound familiar? Yes, you may know it better as Turner Broadcasting. Turner wanted the call letters and got them for a $50,000 “donation” to the station in 1979.
I’d say that WMBR has the most substantial and consistent community component at a college station in the city. There are a number of nonstudents who have been at WMBR for decades, some doing radical political programming, others rockabilly, African, new classical, rock, and soul. Its roster of jazz programmers is unmatched. If these musical areas are to your taste, you won’t find any group of DJs who know more about the music. Sporadically, MIT types come up with interesting science programming.
Next up the dial is WERS. This station, attached to Emerson College, is the most “professionalized” non-NPR college station. My own taste runs to less mainstream music and, in general, to a bit more chaos than WERS, which, a few years ago, instituted the kind of structure you see at pro commercial stations. It says it is “student-run and professionally managed.” So, you are unlikely to hear the gaffes and meanderings of hosts on other college stations, which may be to the good or charmless, depending on your perspective. In any case, WERS receives an enormous amount of music and staff members work a lot of contemporary/alternative/rock into the schedule. It actually shows up on the Arbitron radio ratings, which is pretty unheard-of for a college station.
Next on the dial comes WZBC. People who listen to ZBC say it does have a character of its own. The station’s reputation rests on the pillars of electronica, rock, and music that has no commercial potential. Apart from rock, you are likely to hear psychedelia, noise, sound collages, trance, and other off musical brands. The station also runs Democracy Now! and has a very long-running lefty political show called Sounds of Dissent. (Full disclosure: I’ve had a jazz show on this station for the last 7 years.)
Then we have WMFO, broadcasting at Tufts University. Through the years, I’ve heard more stories about the goings-on here than any other station. It calls itself “freeform” radio and lives up to it. In 1970, the station was closed down by the FCC because some folks attached an antenna system to a T track, allowing the signal to travel many more miles than it was supposed to. In my listening, I’ve heard a quality of the Wild West in the programs that can be inspiring or infuriating. The schedule is really too eclectic to try and describe. I heartily recommend checking out its schedule to see what might work for you. The signal is just 125 watts and directional, so you may have to stream.
Next up the dial is WHRB, the Harvard station, one of the oldest college stations in the US. It too started as a carrier current station in 1940 and acquired a commercial radio license in 1957, which is the reason the station operates in this part of the dial, away from the noncommercial part of the FM band (88.1-91.9). You will hear some advertising, mostly for arts events, but the spots are produced at a level that would be laughed out of any commercial station. On the other hand, WHRB has possibly the longest and most consistent programming blocks of any college station. Jazz is on 5 am-1 pm on weekdays and is followed by classical music from 1-10 pm. Some of the hosts are very knowledgeable and some can’t pronounce names. Blues and “hillbilly” shows have aired on the weekend for decades. Be on the lookout for the “orgies,” which happen twice a year during exam periods. You might hear a week’s worth of Berlioz or John Coltrane.
The last college station I’ll cover is WBRS, Brandeis radio. Like WHRB, it was grandfathered into this part of the dial from 91.7, where it began. The signal is small (25w) and spotty in Boston, so this is another station to access by stream. It has an eclectic range of shows, covering any genre you’re likely to dream up. The community component is not that large at this station, and students do most of the DJing. However, some community shows featuring jazz, world, Jewish, and folk have been on for many years. WBRS is co-producer of Springfest, a large concert on the campus.
Boston has two low-power FM (LPFM) stations. The LPFM service was started in 2000, the result of a groundswell of grassroots support (galvanized by pirate radio activity) and an FCC chairman, Kevin Martin, who was sympathetic to the idea. Things got off to a rocky start when Congress—pushed by the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio—contravened FCC recommendations and greatly restricted the possible number of LPFM licenses. In 2010, Congress finally agreed to expand the number of LPFM stations.
WZMR is the low-power FM station run by Zumix Radio. Zumix is a center of youth activity in East Boston. It began as a place that taught music to kids and expanded to music technology, then to radio. Kids and adults are trained to get on the air and on how to do journalism. This represents genuine localism in radio, and you will hear interviews and stories by youth and eclectic music programs. There’s some great R&B, jazz, and blues. Another disclosure: I started Zumix radio as an unlicensed station in 2005 and left before it became licensed.
102.9 FM is an LPFM license held by the city of Boston. Air time is shared between Boston Neighborhood Network (WBCA from 6 pm to 2 am), Lasell College (WLAS from 10 am to 6 pm), and Global Ministries (WBPG from 2 to 10 am). The BNN programming is mostly the audio of video run on BNN, which has a number of local talk shows, Neighborhood Network News, music shows (hip hop, rock, electronica, folk, blues, Spanish), and Democracy Now! (also on WZBC during the day). WLAS is free-form, with mixed music that seems to lean toward the pop end and sports. WBPG is Boston Praise Radio, the home of Pastor Bruce Wall who hosts programs out of Codman Square.
Finally, on the unlicensed front, the Boston area has always been a center of so-called pirate radio activity. This movement had two heights of public notoriety: in the mid-’90s, when my station Radio Free Allston (as well as Radio Free Cambridge, which was associated with the Zeitgeist Gallery) was closed by the FCC, then a few years ago, when TOUCH FM in Roxbury was put out of the terrestrial radio business. (Big City, a longtime reggae and neighborhood staple in Dorchester, was shuttered by federal officials in March). One lesson learned through it all: FM will get you busted a lot faster than being on AM, which is kind of the dial that time forgot—hence, a good place for pirates to settle.
There is activity scattered around the AM dial, with the most intense activity on the part of the AM band that was opened up in 1990. The “expanded band” goes from 1605 to 1705 kHz. Pirates come and go on FM but usually don’t last very long. Range of the stations is generally pretty small and most are located in Dorchester and Mattapan in Boston proper, or north of the city in Lynn and Revere. Check it out and listen. You’re guaranteed to run across the bold kind of radio that Haitians and Latinos put out. For some communities, these frequencies serve as a primary source of news, and the only kind of local information people can get in their native languages.
You can get all these stations via streaming at their websites, but I suggest unearthing that old radio and giving it a try. For a simple piece of technology, it’s pretty amazing. You don’t need to pay for 5G or an internet connection; just plug it into the wall and settle in for some serious surprises.