Mark Parenteau on the rise and fall of 'BCN
As I reported on WBCN's ignominious end yesterday, I spoke with a couple of the station's better-known alums. Since I couldn't give their musings all the space they deserve in this week's Phoenix, I figured I'd post them here.
Without further ado, then, here are former 'BCN DJ Mark Parenteau's thoughts--very lightly edited--about how his former station became legendary and what prompted its decline and fall.
It's unbelievable. It's like the death of a friend. My Facebook is full; my email is full; everyone that I've ever know has been calling me. It's sort of reminiscent of what happened two weeks ago with Michael Jackson. Everyone sort of forgot about him for a while, and everyone's forgotten about 'BCN, because they've been in such a suspended state of mediocrity. Nobody really cared. But people felt that as long as the station was still there, maybe it could come back to its former glory. Now it's not ever going to be able to happen.
I attribute ['BCN's demise] to the telecommunications bill in the 80s that let corporations own multiple radio stations. For a long time in America, no one person or corporation could own more than three stations. And then when Reagan-era deregulation changed all that,suddenly you had groups buying up clusters of stations.
'BCN had been independently owned. It was originally a classical station--the "Boston Concert Network." And it was the first stereo FM station in America. These guys at MIT developed the aural exciter, which is an electronic process that splits the signal into two channels, and now is legendary.
T. Mitchell Hastings, who owned 'BCN, needed to go into the hospital in the late 60s to have a brain operation--to get a frontal lobotomy. And he left control of the station with all these engineers and stuff who worked at MIT. That was like 1967. [NB: Parenteau worked at 'BCN from 1979-99.] There was all this new music--Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, all that was happening. And at the time, BCN was making zero money. The original studios were in Newbury Street, in a brownstone; you had to walk up five flights. So those guys took the signal, and on nights and weekends, they would play rock stuff. They called it the "American Revolution," and during that period, they became hugely successful. There was a whole generation of kids who ended up listening to FM who'd been listening to AM up until then. This new music needed to be heard in stereo, and here was a station with disc jockeys presenting new music in a new way.
So T. Mitchell Hastings got a plate in his head, and when he emerged a couple years later, the station had totally gone to FM rock.The guys he'd delegated control to said, We've got good news and bad news. The good news is that we're showing millions in profit. The bad news is, you don't own a classical station anymore; you own a rock station. When I started working there, Hastings was still the owner, but his brain was muddied; he was a doddering old guy, and I don't think he had the power to argue with the format change.
As FM stations poppped up and became successful all across the country, 'BCN was one of the original hippie FM rock stations. There were just a handful of them. I remember going to an alt-media conference at Goddard College in the summer of '69. Rolling Stone was there, I think the Phoenix was there, and all the key newspapers and all the radio stations got together while college was out for this psychadelic love-in -slash- conference. It was like, How are we going to handle this new power? All of a sudden the record companies were making millions of dollars; they were changing from 45s to 33s; the concert business was about to take off in a huge way. It all turned into the power base that's now known as FM.
It was great to be part of that ride. There's nothing like that nowadays. We could be political if we wanted; certainly Charles Laquidara was. In my case, I leaned toward making things funny. I championed all the comedy stuff. I had a comedy segment on my show that became the biggest ratings draw BCN had ever had. Everyone would get in their car at 5 pm and listen, because everyone--old or young, black or white, gay or straight--loves to laugh.
That freedom went away slowly. Corporate radio took over, and stations started getting bought in clusters, and then every decision had to be researched; the boards of directors wanted to know what the stock market was going to do. And DJs were given aliases, so that the stations effectively owned them; when DJs left their station, they lost their identity. A name like Parenteau would never fly these days. They'd make me "Booger" or "Phlegm" or something like that.
I don't think listeners realized the old freedom was ebbing away. At first we were making no money, and we had total freedom. When I left, I was making half a million bucks, and I had no freedom whatsoever.