How one station staffed by Hub mainstream radio expats is slowly reaching the world
It wasn’t long ago that whenever you mentioned listening to a radio station, some typical responses you might have gotten were, “No one listens to radio anymore” or, “Why listen to radio when you can load your mobile device with thousands of songs?” or, “I stream my favorite music from various platforms, so there’s no longer any need for radio.” While all of this continues to be true to some extent, radio has not gone the way of the stagecoach and is actually doing quite well for the most part, with traditional commercial stations, satellite radio, college/indie radio, public radio, and online-only stations all being options for listeners. This last category includes some very quirky, eclectic, and interesting local options such as BumbleBee Radio, a streaming station headed up by Kristen Eck, who is also known locally for her helicopter/traffic reporting and Uncertain.FM, which is run by TJ Connelly, who also works as the DJ for the Patriots and the Boston Bruins and whose station has 15 DJs and includes his daily live show Uncertain Times. And then there is Mark Skin Radio (also known as MSR), a Massachusetts-based online station that offers a wide variety of music, which I’m a part of as one of its DJs. The slogan for the station is “What the hell is Mark Skin Radio anyway?” which is a very good question and one that we will get into a bit here.
The roots of Mark Skin Radio can actually be traced back to a legendary Boston radio station that is no longer with us. Back in 2009, WBCN was pulled from its well-known 104.1 FM frequency, but around the end of 2011, it was learned that former WBCN program director Sam Kopper was bringing back the station in an online/HD form that would be known as Free Form WBCN. The community of listeners that interacted with Kopper on Facebook included Christopher Johnson, a rabid WBCN fan who began to think about the possibility of creating an online station of his own as Kopper built up a schedule that included such radio veterans as Carolyn Fox and Albert O along with newcomers such as Destiny Curtis and Billy Finnegan. Johnson says, “In those early months, I spent a lot of time trying to help out with promoting Free Form BCN online in social media, and becoming a fan of a style of radio I really hadn’t witnessed. … The story of early nonformat format of WBCN from 1968 until the late ’70s was something that really resonated with me.” A plan began to form based on bringing both familiar music from the past and new music from a variety of artists that would be geared toward those frustrated by increasingly stifling corporate playlists. “I was a part of that disenfranchised rock radio audience, and other than a few small college stations, and some radio stations with genre-based success in hip-hop and country, I became convinced that a new paradigm without creative limits and an effort to build a new shared experience might just provide fertile ground for all the great new music and musicians I was finding and hearing,” Johnson adds.
By 2012, Mark Skin Radio had become reality, with Johnson initially bringing in DJs who were also personal friends, including those he had met in the WBCN online community. Some of the names involved were Johnson’s childhood friend Jim Farrar as well as Johnson’s brother, while new friends included WBCN fans Doug Folos, Tim Clancy, Barry Hudson, and Mark Schultz, the last of whom was an absolutely brilliant on-air personality who sadly passed away in August. None of them—including Johnson—were professionals, and the focus was on content that was chosen solely by the DJs and based in part on new music while production included inexpensive (but high-quality) technology. Johnson mentions, “Many of those initial shows were prerecorded and sent to me for live production and broadcast. We also avoided live radio shows when the limited schedule of WBCN was on, and continued to support that effort.”
The overall feel of Mark Skin Radio brings listeners back to both the classic years of WBCN in the 1970s and the more recent online version, with Johnson’s love of WBCN being the connection between the two. Johnson states, “The first WBCN DJ I heard was Steven Segal (aka Steven Clean) in 1975, and I was a major fan of their ‘big’ stars in the ’80s—Charles Laquidara, [Mark] Parenteau, [Ken] Shelton, Billy West, and in recent years a huge fan of Sam Kopper and Destiny, and honestly I’m a fan of everyone involved in MSR.” More recent additions to the MSR team include people with little radio experience along with those who come from college, indie, and commercial stations. “I’m proud that we’ve attracted DJs like you, Marian Ferro, Mike Newman, Barry Hudson, Kirsten Chervinsky, and Michael Galper, who all have some radio experience before MSR,” says Johnson. “We also have managed to have a few shows from Sam Kopper, and Destiny (now Costa) has been a regular on MSR since 2016 and the final end of Free Form WBCN. Destiny is a personal favorite of mine, and it’s indicative of our journey as a station to see this talented woman, who Sam recruited for WBCN, still able to fully express herself as a regular air personality.”
The DJs on Mark Skin Radio come from varying backgrounds and have connections to so many different types of music that it truly helps to make the station free-form. Chris Chin, who can be heard on Friday nights, is a local musician (aka Ian James) who first connected to the station by sending one of his songs to Tim Clancy to play, and today, his show has the feel of one you might have heard on WBCN or perhaps the old WFNX, partly because of his being part of the local music scene. “As someone who is a musician and had been running an indie record label for years … I understood immediately what a station like MSR would mean for our local music community,” says Chin.
On his show, you’ll hear reggae, alternative rock, electronic music, and hip-hop to name a few, which contrasts a bit to the music played by James Rhodes, who broadcasts his shows from Idaho on Tuesdays and Thursdays and whose start on MSR came about thanks in part to his meeting Chin at a music festival. Rhodes mentions that “I used to make cassettes, reels, and CDs for skiing, driving, parties. … And I consider myself a historian of sorts. … I watched the Monkees on TV and then discovered the Beatles … had an older Denver neighbor, in 1970-3, play me Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd.” Rhodes’s immersion in what is now known as classic rock can be felt on his shows, where you’ll hear everything from Joe Walsh to Tommy Bolin to the Rolling Stones, while he also plays newer music including some of the up-and-coming blues rock and hard rock bands that get little play on commercial radio today.
As Johnson indicates, James Rhodes isn’t the only on-air personality who broadcasts a good distance away from Boston. Lee Ashfield, for instance, does his shows from the east coast of Florida where he now resides after living in the Boston area for a good part of his life. As is the case with a number of MSR announcers, Ashfield was immersed in music from an early age, saying that “I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember. I picked up my first instrument at 8 years old, and the music end of it never really stopped. I was in bands at 19 for about a dozen years, playing in and around the Boston area. In 1979, after the bands broke apart due to the ‘disco era,’ I decided to become a mobile DJ. … My career spanned about 30 years, until I started listening to FF BCN, and becoming friends with [Destiny Costa].” Ashfield’s connection with Costa led him to Johnson and resulted in his joining the station, where today he has a show on Friday afternoons that focuses mostly around older and sometimes obscure music, though like all the DJs on the station, he plays other music as well, including new songs.
Ashfield’s connection to Free Form BCN is a bit similar to that of Frank Iafolla, with the difference being that Iafolla actually had a show on that station. “I began listening to (or at least found out about) MSR through listening to FF WBCN,” he says, “which is the only reason I even got on FB. Being Farmer Frank on BCN with Sam Kopper and Barry Hudson had us on his show and Mike Newman had us up to WMFO, I felt like I was auditioning.” Iafolla and Martha Moon (one of two couples on the station, along with Angela and Michael Galper) have a show on MSR around lunchtime on Fridays, and it is about as varied as they get; “I like most all. … R&B, country, folk, rock ’n’ roll, classical, showtunes. If it’s good, it’s good,” adds Iafolla. Martha and Frank’s interest in such varied genres helps give the station its unique identity, as does that of Adam Signore, whose shows can be heard several days a week and which reflects the free-form spirit of playing everything from Frankie Goes to Hollywood to Metallica to countless local acts.
Chris Johnson touches upon this, saying, “We are certainly rock ’n’roll based, and with some of those same sensibilities of early WBCN, we allow the range and creativity of our DJs [to] roam without limits. But I don’t believe in genres and categories. All they do is stifle the experience of art and music to the point that, like other parts of modern life, they end up homogenizing and limiting taste, becoming an unchanging echo chamber.”
Rock ’n’ roll is indeed front and center when it comes to a few of the DJs on MSR, including Marian Ferro, whose show begins around the dinner hour on Tuesdays. Ferro, as mentioned by Chris Johnson, is one of a handful of on-air personalities with a radio background; she notes, “I first started doing my show, Rock Under the Radar, on WCAC, the local cable access station in Watertown. … Then a few months before COVID I started doing my show at WMFO at Tufts, which was pretty cool since I used to listen to the station when I was in school there years ago! I’m a rocker, with a preference for hard rock, and I also love blues. Though I will play all kinds of music, that’s my main focus.” Ferro is known in part for letting loose during the last part of her show via a “Serious Guitar Time” segment where she focuses on some of the great guitarists both past and present, and as you may have guessed by the name of the show, there is a lot of music that you simply don’t hear anywhere else on the radio, which puts her right in the sweet spot of one of Mark Skin Radio’s goals—to bring a unique and varied brand of free form rock to its audience.
What does the future hold for Mark Skin Radio? Its audience, while small compared to music-based commercial stations on the FM dial and satellite radio channels, continues to increase, and its growth perhaps comes from its “family” feel, not just between the DJs themselves but also between the DJs, artists, and listeners. “I hope we can continue to grow and evolve, but I think we’ve found something,” Johnson notes. “Perhaps not a discovery, but something we believe in. Music with no agenda, and a specific purpose to close the distance between artists and their audience to blur the lines that separate us all. Then we can create an opportunity for a shared experience that goes beyond ‘presentation’ into ‘participation.’”
MSR’s reach has indeed extended beyond the Boston area thanks to shows from Rhodes, Ashfield, Doug Folos (who is based on Utah), Jon Sexauer (Minnesota), Angela and Michael Galper (Virginia), Steve Yourglivch (Norwich in the UK), and Enyinnaya Okezie (New York City), and live events have become part of the picture as well, including working with Sam Kopper and having a remote performance featuring local band the Cast Irons at the Zullo Art Gallery in Medfield.
As for the question, “What the hell is Mark Skin Radio anyway?” Johnson hasn’t given a specific answer as to the origins of the name, but 99% of what the station represents can certainly be learned by giving “the little radio station that could” a listen sometime.
Mark Skin Radio can be heard online at markskinradio.com and also via mobile devices with the free version of the TuneIn app on Apple and Android.
Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.