WFNX has always been a maverick radio station, but its reputation was branded into its new-music-loving hide on September 9, 1994 — the night of the so-called Green Day "riot."
It was really more of a traffic jam, after up to 100,000 fans — easily more than double the amount expected — stopped by the Hatch Shell for a free WFNX-sponsored concert with the band, which was hot off its breakthrough album, Dookie (Reprise/WEA), and a legendary show at Woodstock. Pandemonium broke out as the crowd surged toward the stage. But when the police arrived to clear the grounds, it really erupted.
Many factors led to the chaotic show, which stopped just minutes after it began, including Green Day's explosion of popularity after the concert was booked and WFNX's ability to connect with music savvy listeners — a lot of music savvy listeners. But the real bottom line was WFNX's ongoing reign as Boston's new-music authority. WFNX was one of the first major radio stations in the nation to embrace Green Day, and the concert was the band's payback— albeit a little more than expected.
"The mission of 'FNX has always been to break new music," says Mike Boyle, alternative and active rock editor of the trade publication Radio and Records (R&R).
Twenty-five years ago, when the station first began broadcasting under its current call-letters, WFNX played new imports the Smiths and the Housemartins; emerging American artists Soul Asylum, They Might Be Giants, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers; and Boston bands the Pixies, Throwing Muses, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. WFNX helped nurture all of them to international stardom.
Today, WFNX's tradition of finding and playing the best local and national music continues. Think of where you first heard Boston's own Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls, the Dropkick Murphys, and Guster — and, as often as you do, the new Kings of Leon single.
By phone from New York, R&R's Boyle ticked off the groups the station discovered and played before any other US radio outlets in recent years: the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Keane, Arctic Monkeys, and the Bravery. WFNX music director Paul Driscoll started airing the Bravery when he got excited by an mp3 he heard on the band's Web site.
Add to that list Vampire Weekend, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Bloc Party, and Louis the XIV. The station was also among the first to play the White Stripes, Interpol, Dashboard Confessional, M.I.A., and many, many more.
Wind the clock back further and the list becomes a who's who of bands that defined the alternative-rock era — a period in music history that was also defined by the tastemakers who discovered the music of those bands and played it on WFNX.
Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Belly, R.E.M., Beck, and Nirvana, the Breeders, the Cranberries, Midnight Oil, Catherine Wheel, Offspring, Oasis, No Doubt, the Pogues, Porno for Pyros, Social Distortion, the Smithereens, the Violent Femmes, Soundgarden, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Verve, 10,000 Maniacs, Björk, Bad Religion, Bush, the Church, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Sugarcubes, the Cure, and Hüsker Dü were all important in the nascent alternative-rock movement, and all were part of WFNX's great musical banquet. Many of these performers played the WFNX Birthday Party or the WFNX/Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll concerts long before they became superstars.
By spinning discs by those bands and dozens more early and often, WFNX established its reputation as a leader — the place where record labels large and small seek airplay for inventive new bands, and the place that could make those bands stars.
"When I was in college in Philadelphia, I knew about WFNX," says Driscoll, who joined the station six years ago. "This was before the Internet, so the station's legend for playing all kinds of great music traveled by word of mouth. I had a friend who would come up to Boston in the summer, and I had him make me tapes of WFNX."
An important part of those tapes was local music. The early recordings from the likes of the Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, and Tracy Bonham — as well as now-gone outfits such as Tribe, the Zulus, and Fuzzy — were in regular rotation, playing many times a day. WFNX's airplay provided those bands and artists the break they needed to etch their place in music history.
Today, WFNX continues its commitment to local music with the New England Product show, airing at 10 pm on Sundays. The program focuses on New England artists, with an accent, in the grand WFNX tradition, on breaking new music that has the potential to become important. And diversity's important too. A recent playlist showed both "This Lonely Love" from comeback kid Juliana Hatfield's new disc and two tunes from the Major Labels, a new buzz-band power-pop trio featuring Mike Viola of Candy Butchers, Bleu, and longtime Boston drummer Ducky Carlisle.