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WBZ: A "Contemporary" Music Station

By Linda J. Greenhouse

The lobby of WBZ's studio on Soldiers Field Road looks like a doctor's waiting room. The recessed lighting shines dimly on glass-framed award certificates, hung on the walls like diplomas. The silence is emphasized by the drone of voices from the massive color TV set, always on and tuned to WBZ-TV, and is broken occasionally by a buzz from the switchboard behind a high counter, followed by the receptionist's greeting, "WBZ, Group W." Instead of patients, middle-aged promotion men holding bundles of paper-jacketed 15's sit talking of the publicity job for an Al Hirt concert and about bringing the Four Seasons to Boston for the March of Dimes.

It wasn't what I had come to see, his antiseptic room furnished in vintage 1955 motel vinyl, when I decided to try and psyche out the private life of Boston's number one rock 'n' roll radio station. After a year and a half of fairly constant listening to "the place to be, radio 103," I had concluded that WBZ must be one of two things: either a bunch of aging teenrockers who gyrated in their chairs to the rhythm of the Supremes blaring through the studio, or a group of hard-headed businessmen cleverly exploiting the loves and loyalties of their beatlemaniac audience. I found it to be neither. I found instead a thriving one out of every four Bostonians listens to WBZ) radio station that has already shown that rock 'n' roll is good business; it is now self-consciously trying to prove that it is respectable business as well.

All the stereotypes crumbled as I followed a wordless technician down the hall to the Studio where the Bruce Bradley Show (8 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.) was in progress. "Juicy Brucey" is a pleasant, articulate, ascetic-looking man of 31, thin, blond and balding. He has the disconcerting ability to talk in a completely calm and normal voice for the duration of a record, then hold up a hand in warning, switch on his mike, talk with raised pitch and volume for half a minute in perfect disc jockey jargon, put a new record on, turn off the mike, and ask, "Now what were we talking about?" When I marveled at his completely transformed on-the-air personality, he said a little defensively, "It beats working."

Got To Get Away

There is much that is defensive and self-conscious about this man, who on "What's My Line?" could probably never convince the panel that he has been a disc jockey since he was 17 and yet who broadcasts WBZ's most upbeat and teenage-oriented program. He rarely uses a word of slang off the air, never calls his music "rock 'n' roll" (it is always "pop music"), and emphasizes that "99 per cent of my friends have nothing to do with the business. You have to get away. You can't be on the air 24 hours a day or else you become someone with shades and cuban heels -- and that's bad." He takes his business and his style seriously -- WBZ disc jockeys on the whole avoid excessive noise, screaming, and talking down to their audience. Bradley described a famous disc jockey at another station noted for its noise level as "a loud, undisciplined slob."

He rarely talks in superlatives about songs or performers, but his conversation is full of obscure rock 'n' roll lore and comments on the state of the art. A disc jockey has a strange leader-follower relationship with his audience, since he feels an obligation to play the music that his listeners tuned in to hear (WBZ disc jockeys choose songs from two lists, the "A" list of hits and near-hits, and the "B" list of new songs that the stations music committee, composed of management and the disc jockeys on a rotating basis, has selected from the more than 300 new songs the station receives each week) and is also in the position to mold tastes by his comments and choice of songs.

The leadership side of a disc jockey's role, to be successful, requires intuition sharpened by practice. Bradley recalls with a slightly pained laugh that the music committee "threw 'She Loves You' in the waste basket" in June, 1963—missing the chance to get on the Beatles' bandwagon five months before they revolutionized rock 'n' roll in America. On the credit side, he remembers that the station kept playing "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" for over a month before it started to sell, an unprecedented show of confidence for a song in the Boston area, "one of the fastest paced musical areas in the country, where a song has to be a giant to last eight weeks."

Bradley prefers to be a follower. He is not widely enthusiastic about rock 'n' roll ("It's just like women; I like most of it but not all of it.") and rarely feels strongly enough about a song to try and change people's minds one way or another. He liked protest songs "before they got commercialized" and he thinks that the current mixture of politics and music is "OK, as long as people don't get their entire education from pop music stations." He thought that the songs about Vietnam which were released at the end of last year were in poor taste, but continued to play them because "the world is full of poor taste. People are so accustomed to flagrant bad taste that they don't even know what it is any more."

Flip Side

If Bruce Bradley, the unlikely disc jockey, the polished performer, is one side of WBZ, then Dick Summer is certainly the other. Bradley, for all his sensitivity about being a disc jockey, comes out sounding like the closest thing WBZ has to a big beat New York City deejay. Dick Summer, who loves rock 'n' roll unabashedly and for the same reasons his listeners do, is probably one of the most low-key people in the business. Summer looks the part more than Bradley does. He came into the studio after 10, dressed in a sweater and sport shirt, carrying 'a stack of 45's from his own collection. He is 30, dark and stocky, with a low, Brooklyn-accented voice in marked contrast to the General American diction of most people in broadcasting.

Since his Night Light Show doesn't begin until 11:30 (it lasts until 6 a.m.), we talked over a plate of pancakes in the next-door Howard Johnson's. He is enthusiastic about everything—his work, rock 'n' roll, WBZ, his audience—and with absolute sincerity. I didn't see him broadcasting, but it is impossible to imagine him performing on the air. His style can be characterized only by a total lack of style. "There's a close personal relationship between my radio and myself. If a guy starts putting me on, he's finished. I just do what I like. Changing what I do would be fatal to me because there isn't much difference between what I am and what I am on the air."

Largely because of his time slot and also because he is not bound by a count-down survey as Bruce Bradley is, Summer can do almost anything during his six and a half hours. Every morning at 3 ("the most desperate hour") he plays an hour's worth of cuts from comedy albums. "I'm a very opinionated son of a gun—I don't play songs I don't like. Charts don't impress me -- and that's heresy." On the other hand, he says, "I hesitate to try to be arbiter of someone else's taste," and he doesn't object to the protest and Vietnam songs because they make people think. "They represent on a commercial level a feeling of thought, no matter how shallow. A lot of people thinking shallowly beats a few people thinking deep thoughts. A song may not be sophisticated, but educated people will take care of themselves anyway."

Part of Summer's appeal—he undoubtedly has more fans at Harvard than any other disc jockey—is his unashamed emotionalism, which he saves from being corny by a witty intelligence (he graduated pre-law from Fordham but could not afford to go to Law School). People write him letters about all kinds of personal problems—"the emotional range is fantastic"—and he thinks of his audience "in terms of emotional response or thought patterns."

"They're a group of people in the same boat as I am—anyone up at that hour is desperate and there's a certain bond of desperation that makes partners of us all."

Not Just Music

He reacts equally emotionally to music, which is another reason for his appeal, because those of us who love rock 'n' roll rejoice at hearing said so clearly what we have known for so long: "Rock 'n' roll isn't just music. There's a very complicated psychological response to music. Rock 'n' roll makes sense. There is an excitement and reality about it, and at the same

Bradley recalls with a slightly pained laugh that the WBZ music committee "threw 'She Loves You' in the waste basket" in June, 1963...

Summer doesn't object to the protest and Vietnam songs because they make people think, "A lot of people thinking shallowly beats a few people thinking deep thoughts." time it's a very subjective thing. I'm a very subjective disc jockey."

The contrast between Dick Summer and Bruce Bradley seem to make the two—who together make up almost half of WBZ's total programming—perfect complements. It is not an accident. Rock 'n' roll stations can choose a philosophy and maintain it just as consistently as can any other medium, an almost self-evident observation to anyone who has seriously compared, for example, WBZ and WMEX. "A station can't operate without objectives," Perry B. Bascom, WBZ's general manager, has said. Other rock 'n' roll stations have been known to choose a name for a disc jockey to keep the same name for years, no matter how many new disc jockeys occupy that time slot. Such a practice is unthinkable for WBZ—the idea of another disc jockey calling himself Dick Summer is appalling.

Tasteful Blend

Bascom, whose job it is to coordinate and supervise the entire radio operation, typifies WBZ's search for identity. When I referred to WBZ as a rock 'n' roll station, he told me, "You know, a lot of us hesitate to use the words rock 'n' roll. There's an image stigma attached to it. A lot of people prefer 'contemporary station'."

He described WBZ's approach to programming which is concerned both with broad cycles throughout the day—"we move out of housewives to the more teen-oriented in the afternoon, but we still try to hold onto housewives up until the 6 p.m. news"—and with the juxtaposition of individual songs—"a delicate flavoring, a tasteful blend." WBZ disc jockeys, Bascom said, are "mature and intelligent individuals who relate their activities to the entire community." His own role, he said, is to "guide the station toward its goal—becoming a vital and important member of the community we serve."

Bascom moved up through the sales department of the Westinghouse group of stations, with which WBZ and WOR in New York are affiliated, and came to WBZ seven months ago. He admitted freely that rock 'n' roll is his kind of music, and then, with the compulsion that seems to characterize a rock 'n' roll world in search of respectability, showed me a letter he had recently received from a woman who said she had just celebrated her silver wedding anniversary and listened to WBZ from 8:30 to 4:00 every day. "That's her twenty-fifth anniversary. That puts her in her middle forties," he said. "Or maybe even 50."

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