Forgotten tales of Boston’s WBCN-FM

“The DBX Meter” (NSFW)

A humble piece of electronics, with an alter ego …

Back in the day, WBCN-FM“The Rock of Boston” — was arguably one of the most influential radio stations in the country.

Today, it’s the stuff of legend.

Plenty of stories have since been told about ‘BCN, its influence on broadcasting, and its colorful cast and crew … in a documentary film, a behind-the-scenes book, a multimedia memoir, and more.

To get a sense of the place, check out this 1980s TV segment from Boston’s Evening Magazine.

So the station’s studios near Fenway Park were a unique place, filled with some very colorful characters.

For a while in the early 1980s, I’m working in the station’s Engineering department … helping maintain studio gear, and doing other technical tasks.

While mild chaos rules much of the station — by contrast, the Engineering office is a safe haven, on the more subdued side of the hallway. (The office also has a unique feature: a door that locks … not a bad idea, considering all the valuable gear within.)

And among our various tools & test equipment is a sometimes-useful accessory — a DBX model 81W audio meter.

Credit: dbx, Inc. (via hifi-archiv.info)

It’s a small but unique piece of diagnostic gear: useful for measuring audio levels — of tape machines, transmission lines, and more.

But at ‘BCN, perhaps its most important application isn’t technical …

Every once in a while, when I’m working on some piece of electronic equipment … out of nowhere, a small handful of (non-engineering) folks suddenly piles into the engineering office — and locks the door behind them.

I look up to see some familiar faces, plus a stranger … some bills changing hands … and then in return, a small bag containing a granulated substance.

Next, commences a kind of ceremony:

“Where’s the DBX meter?”

Someone grabs the faithful piece of gear … turns it onto its left-hand side …

… and with a single-edged razor blade (always in plentiful supply — normally for splicing audio tape), eagerly doles out the coveted powder. For which the meter’s brushed-aluminum case is an ideal surface (and which no one else would suspect).

Then, like eager school kids, each takes turns, doing a celebratory snort.

Next, the revered DBX meter is carefully returned to the shelf — none the worse for wear … except, if you look closely, there’s a dull white sheen along one side.

Then, as quickly as they arrived, the small crowd disperses … the door is unlocked … and the engineering office goes back to its normal, more subdued routine.

And all is good in the world of rock & roll.

Postscript, 1990s and beyond:

  • WBCN-FM rules the airwaves of New England alternative radio for nearly three decades.
  • When the station’s iconic “Big Mattress” morning show is jettisoned (in favor of a satellite feed from Howard Stern), and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 enables massive corporate acquisitions across the industry, the station eventually becomes more predictable, and a lot less special.
  • Gradually, personnel move on to even less-colorful places.
  • And in 2009, an already much-changed WBCN goes off the air entirely.
Credit: Tom O’Keefe, by kind permission (BostonTweet.net)

But those who were there in its heyday have many fond memories of life at 1265 Boylston Street.

Personal blog (from a guy who’s made software, and video, and other stuff too). rondiamond.net

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