Losing WFNX and a bit more

by david

A little more than a month ago, we learned that Boston’s best music station, WFNX, was being sold to Clear Channel. For those not in Boston, the screaming you heard on social media might have sounded louder than the typical response to further media consolidation. WFNX held a special place in Boston. Even in the past few years, as the annihilation of the music industry, record stores, and traditional music magazines completely knocked music fans’ habits on their ass, we could still be reasonably sure that tuning to FNX would pay off.

FNX occasionally played certain songs a bit too heavily, but you weren’t likely to hear what was in heavy rotation anywhere else on the dial. Check out this list of local stations. Other than generally low-broadcast-radius college stations, I see “Classic” and “Adult” on there a lot. “Hot Adult Contemporary” just means “treating adults like tweens.” Plenty of talk stations. Talk’s great, but there’s a limit: we need some music stations. I just have this terrible fear that WFNX is going talk. WBCN, on-and-off-again a great station, was put down to make room on the dial for sports talk, something Boston was apparently lacking.

As the month has passed, I’ve been listening to the zombie signal emitting from WFNX, and I’ve realized why I took the news personally: WFNX is one of the only things that reminded me of home. As a teenager in the suburbs of Kansas City, I got a loud and clear signal from Lawrence, Kansas’s KLZR, an awesome independently owned commercial station with a college town audience. It’s no exaggeration to say that my music collection is largely the result of listening to KLZR (and watching MTV’s 120 Minutes) as a teenager. Just casting a quick glance at my CD collection, I see Bettie Serveert, The Catherine Wheel, Morphine, The Pixies, Morrissey, Possum Dixon, Depeche Mode, Rocket From the Crypt, Blonde Redhead, Elastica, American Music Club, Dinosaur, Jr., Rancid, Pulp… so many. Elvis Costello, jesus, I think I started listening to Elvis Costello because of LZR.

When I moved to Boston in 1996, WFNX was the station that sounded like KLZR. And all of my friends who grew up here confirmed that. The WFNX people were the people who had my record collection. KLZR shifted to Hot Adult Contemporary while I was in college, but my musical trajectory remained the same, in part because of FNX and FNX people. Modest Mouse. The Strokes. Cake. Built to Spill. Massive Attack. Liz Phair. I’ll stop with the listing. Not all of these bands are equally a part of my current listening habits, which include plenty that never would have broadcast on either station (WZLX, the local classic rock station, gets a nod here).

I shouldn’t overstate WFNX’s influence on me, personally. The web was a few years old when I got to town, and even when connection speeds were too terrible to stream or download much music, it still brought entirely new channels for discovering music (and also entirely new channels for hearing utter shit). But the real world culture in which I immersed myself, the bands I saw, the clubs I went to, the friends I traveled with, they were shaped by WFNX. People I know were significantly saddened by the loss. I hadn’t realized until it was shutting down how much I’d been listening to it, and it turns out that if I wasn’t listening to WBUR (NPR), I was listening to WFNX. Listening to it now, without a staff, as they transition to whatever awfulness Clear Channel has in store, is eery. The voices and personalities have been more in my brain than I thought. Now it’s just a stream of music, good music mostly, and that stream even is about to dry up.

People in Boston assume a lot about the Midwest, and sadly, one false assumption is becoming true: that the airwaves are all Country and Top 40. But that’s becoming true everywhere. I always joke that Republicans must have more fun, and I have to assume that’s also true of hip hop fans and country fans, because while their stations are largely corporate, they’re at least being catered to.