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Boston’s WFNX: One of the first and last alt rock independents

107.1 WFNX Alternative BostonBoston’s WFNX (101.7 FM) is somewhat of an oddity in the world of commercial alternative radio. Most heritage modern rock stations were either owned by a large conglomerate, positioning themselves to the listener as independent (Los Angeles’ iconic KROQ, for example, was owned by Infinity Broadcasting starting in 1986, and has been in the hands of CBS Radio since Infinity and CBS merged ten years later) or were independents that went off the air completely, such as Long Island’s WLIR or the great WOXY, both of which ceased alternative programming on their original signals in 2004.

But WFNX is still standing nearly 30 years later, remaining the only radio holding of Phoenix Media, publishers of the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix newspaper. Signing on with a new wave format in 1982, WFNX, then known as Y102, was purchased by Phoenix a year later. But nearly 30 years later, does the fact that WFNX remain “independently owned” mean anything? It’s a phrase that’s tossed around a fair amount on radio station liners and slogans, especially in the alternative genre, but I have a hard time believing the majority of modern rock listeners really care who owns the station. Take, for example, the outpouring of support and publicity for Chicago’s Q101, which was purchased by Merlin Media and has since flipped to an all-news format: Q101 was formally owned by Emmis Communications, which reportedly had a year-end revenue of $240 million in 2010. Emmis isn’t as large as a Clear Channel or Cumulus, to be sure, but it’s not exactly a mom and pop operation, either.

WFNX rarely relies on the “independent” moniker in their positioning; you’re much more likely to hear (and see, on “Alternative Boston” as their go-to slogan. Although it’s easy to make the argument that “alternative” radio is no longer “alternative,” I believe listeners, both those that point to the modern rock top 10 when asked to identify their favorite songs, and those that are willing to dig a little deeper for the “next new thing” still identify with the alternative moniker. It’s much like the phrase “country/western;” while the industry shied away from the term decades ago, you still hear listeners classifying country music and radio with “western” tacked on at the end.

San Diego’s 91x (XTRA / 91.1 FM) shares a close link to WFNX; both stations embraced the burgeoning alternative format in the early 80’s, and although 91x was under Clear Channel for six years (1999-2005), today it’s one of three San Diego signals owned by Local Media of America. Commercially, 91x commands higher ratings than WFNX, although 91x’s playlist skews much closer to the modern rock charts than WFNX’s. (I’ll take a closer look at 91x in a future installment, as its history of broadcasting from Tijuana is worth a column and in of itself).

So what makes WFNX stand out from the rest of the indie commercial alternative stations out there? It’s the music, stupid. I’m in the camp that programming, especially to a modern rock audience, should be done at a market level. A VP in Atlanta might tell a Program Director in Detroit to shy away from lower-charting White Stripes cuts. I couldn’t disagree more. A station needs to sound like its hometown. Credit Music Director Paul Driscoll with including a steady amount of local artists like Dropkick Murphys and Passion Pit onto the station; indeed, a track from recent Dropkick Murphys album currently remains a Top 20 track on WFNX, while the band doesn’t appear at all on a playlist search on Greater Media-owned competitor Radio 92.9 (WBOS / 92.9 FM). A scan of WFNX’s Top 40 most played songs shows a strong emphasis on up-and-coming artists like Grouplove, Frank Turner (a UK artist still fairly unknown in the US), and Sleeper Agent. You won’t find the comeback single from Bush, currently in the Top 5 on the modern rock charts, in hot rotation.

Most commercial stations are forced to base their playlists on the most popular songs nationwide, which recently has seen a resurgence in heritage artists like the aforementioned Bush, Jane’s Addiction, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. What makes WFNX unique is the lack of corporate control over the playlists; the station has the luxury of creating an accessible mix of familiar tracks (U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”) blended with newer songs. It’s the closest commercial terrestrial example to Sirius/XM’s Alt Nation, a station that routinely takes chances on songs terrestrial outlets are slower to add. And like Alt Nation, WFNX never strays too far into straight up rock (Five Finger Death Punch, Avenged Sevenfold, and Papa Roach, for example).

A rumor last November had Entercom buying the 101.7 frequency from Phoenix Media as a way to simulcast AM sports-talk WEEI on the FM dial. While Entercom eventually bumped their adult hits “Mike-FM” format off the dial in favor of the WEEI simulcast, effectively negating any need to purchase the 101.7 frequency, one has to wonder what’s next for WFNX. If, in fact, Phoenix was shopping around the frequency, it’d be a huge loss for the Boston radio market, and commercial modern rock radio overall. From 1999 until August 2011, WFNX was simulcast on Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s WPHX (92.1 FM), a frequency Phoenix sold in May of this year. Could the WFNX brand continue on the web or as an HD format, like Washington DC’s WHFS has been trying with varied success since their demise in 2005? Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, as WFNX continues to take chances on artists, songs, and new ideas – something increasingly rare on commercial alternative stations.

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