Change is Hard: WJIB edition

Several years ago, my younger daughter discovered a weird radio station by chance. It was WJIB, AM 740 and FM 101.3. And when I say it was weird, what I mean is that it was, in an age of corporate hegemony and its accompanying blandness, a station that reflected one guy’s eccentricities.

His name was Bob Bittner, and he ran the radio station and was its only DJ. The music was an extremely chaotic mix of songs from the 40’s through the 70’s. There were some hits in there, sure—Bob LOVED his Carpenters and John Denver—but there were also just a bunch of really weird songs you never heard anywhere else. I don’t mean like Captain Beefheart weird, but songs that were once popular but have faded from the popular imagination and are just a little strange. (Here’s a good example.)

There were a bunch of really terrible songs on Bob’s playlist. But when riding in the car, I’d usually stick with it just because it was quirky. It wasn’t some suit trying to sell me stuff (the stations are non-commercial and don’t even do bullshit “enhanced underwriting” commercials that the NPR stations do while claiming to be non-commercial.) It was just an interesting guy playing music he loved. Radio simply hadn’t ever been like this for me. (I guess it was a long time ago, but certainly that was before my youth.)

Another cool thing is that when Bob did the station IDs, he would usually add in some sort of populist quote. And then he’d say, “The memories stations. Always on the side of the people.”

But then, a little less than a year ago, Bob died. The station continued playing Bob’s tapes, which was nice at first and started to feel increasingly creepy to me. And then new management took over, promising to preserve Bob’s vision.

And they have! Kind of! The station still plays a lot of old music you just don’t hear anywhere else on the radio. But it plays a LOT more hits. Now, a lot of fans are bemoaning the loss of Bob’s quirky, idiosyncratic collection, and I am too, kind of, except…well, Bob had a bit of a blind spot in his selections. For one thing, he played some songs with pretty cringe-inducing racism (I dunno, like the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “Indian Giver” for example) and misogyny. And, yeah, those songs existed, but do we ever need to hear “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap again? I would argue we don’t. (Not linking because I’m not about those songs that frame the narrator’s hebephilia as somehow the problem of the children they’re singing about).

And then there was the glaring absence of Black artists on Bob’s stations. My daughter and I had a joke that seemed to come up on every car ride: “leave it to Bob to find the cheesiest, whitest cover of any song.”

The new owner, John Garabedian, has remedied this, and it’s good because we now get access to a fuller spectrum of old music. And who wouldn’t rather hear a Motown song than, I dunno, “James, Hold The Ladder Steady” or something?

I’m not saying that Bob was a terrible racist. He created something weird and wonderful that brought joy to a lot of people, and when I reached out to him once, he was just incredibly nice in his response. But I do think Bob, like anyone who grows up with any kind of privilege, had some blind spots. I never asked him why there weren’t more Black artists on his station, so I don’t know why. But my suspicion is that Bob just liked the weird white covers of songs better, either because they were more kitschy and weird, or because they were whiter and therefore more comfortable for him on an unexamined level. Like I said, I never asked, but I’m confident that this deeply kind man was not acting out of any conscious bias.

So we’ve lost something and gained something. We’ve lost something beautiful, which was a radio station that was unapologetically odd by design. And we’ve gained something beautiful, which is access to more great songs. My daughter tells me the WJIB Facebook groups are going absolutely apeshit over the changes at the station, which feels dumb to me. Unless you know how to bring Bob back to life, you can no longer have a station that reflects his unique sensibilities. (Unless you just want to hear his spectral voice forever, which, count me out.) So you’re going to get someone else’s take on the format. Okay! Let’s remember Bob fondly and also be happy that we can hear “Dancing in the Street”!

If you’re in Boston, you can still catch WJIB on 740 AM and 101.3 FM. You can also stream it (another innovation from the new owners!) anywhere in the world from here. It’s listener supported and commercial free. And you might hear “Superstar”!