Al Perry Was a Cool Head at WBCN
As Station Manager He Kept the Lid On
By: Charles Giuliano - Nov 23, 2021
While many during the Golden Age of WBCN had their heads in the clouds former station manager, Al Perry, had his feet on the ground. Somebody had to stay straight and pay the bills. He passed peacefully on November 6.
Boston archivist and raconteur David Bieber said of him "Al moved mountains and still found time to play in the sandboxes of so many people's lives, college kids who took a lifetime detour to radio stardom, record moguls, media tycoons, concert producers, the French fryer who flipped burgers at Flash's and performers who enchanted him, from Peter Wolf to Neil Young and, of course, Mr. Muddy Waters," with whom Al developed a particularly close friendship over the years. One of Al's favorite stories was about the night he was visiting with Muddy Waters in a dressing room before a performance, as Muddy was playing his guitar, Bob Dylan, who was there, was trying to sneak a look at Muddy's unique fingering on the instrument and the blues performer was having none of it.
In the volatile mix of on air personalities and management Perry was a fixer. He describes an era when the station was so poor that it recycled tapes of now rare and priceless on air interviews and live performances.
For the past couple of years during crunch time he worked closely with Bill Lictenstein bringing to fruition the documentary WBCN: The American Revolution.
What follows is an interview with all in March 2019. It was a chapter in my book Counterculture in Boston: 1968 to 1980s.
Charles Giuliano In terms of the counterculture in Boston from the late 1960s to 1980s why has it not gotten the recognition that it deserves?
Al Perry Rolling Stone was based in San Francisco and always writing about KSAN. Tom Donahue who ran the station was very progressive. He was a nice guy and I had the occasion to meet him in DC. In New York, there as WNEW with a transmitter on top of the Empire State Building.
Neither of these stations was along the lines of WBCN and what we got involved with. KSAN with Donahue was a little more political than WNEW.
Part of the problem was that we were in Boston and not in New York or LA. That had a lot to do with it.
The Who loved playing at The Boston Tea Party. They could be drafted if they overstayed their visas so they would play Boston on the way in and on the way out. There was a 30 day window before they could get drafted into the service.
They were working on Tommy and Townsend sent an acetate to MCA meant for WBCN. Somebody at MCA in New York took it to WNEW. When Townsend was in New York and heard it on the radio he asked “How did they get that?” The guy at MCA said “You sent it to us and we gave it to them.” Townsend said “I sent it to be given to WBCN in Boston. And that’s to be done immediately.”
We got it by Greyhound Bus that day as there was no FedEx at the time.
It was the mentality of MCA saying we have to take this to WNEW. The Who were on Decca/MCA at the time.
CG While doing research I came across a reference that Queen broke out on WBCN.
AP I would attribute that to Maxanne (Sartori). Queen was among her favorite, favorite bands. Aerosmith was another. Freddy Lewis (original manager of J. Geils and Cars) was working for Elektra Records. He was the promo guy behind Queen. He was close to Maxanne and likely came to the station and played it for her. That kind of thing happened a lot and she went with it.
(Former promo man Roger Lifeset has a different version. "Ric Aliberti was the Electra promo domo at New England’s WEA branch in Medford. Indeed he did break QUEEN with big help from Maxanne @ BCN."
CG When were you with WBCN?
AP I was there in 1967 during the change to rock in 1968 through the fall of 1976.
CG When were you program director?
AP I was never the program director. I was station manager, sales manager, and announcer.
CG You have seen WBCN and the American Revolution. To what extent does the film reflect your own views?
AP Very much so. I loved music and the arts. A lot of that came from my good friend Dennis Metrano (1942-2015). We were very close early on. When he moved to Newburyport we didn’t stay in touch as much. When we had a WBCN anniversary party at the Hard Rock Café I insisted that he come.
CG Actually, Dennis picked me up in a limo and we arrived in style for a memorable evening.
AP I was in the military and Dennis was in Boston. I would be home for a few days to see my parents. My mother would say “What’s up?” I told her “I’m going to see Dennis.” He played a lot of great music for me which had a real influence.
I was never in Vietnam but having been in the service I saw the stupidity of it all.
CG Former Boston promo guy Roger Lifeset has emphasized how much music was breaking with WBCN. He was with Warner Brothers while Paul Ahearn was promoting bands for Atlantic Records.
AP Maxanne broke Aerosmith. Carole King flew out of stores when we pushed Tapestry. (Released in 1971 it sold 25 million copies.) Emerson, Lake and Palmer is another band that broke on WBCN. Also we backed The Who and Rod Stewart. (In 1971 John Garabedian of Boston’s WMEX broke “Maggie May” on Mercury Records.) J.J. Jackson, an African American DJ for WBCN, went on to great success. He broke Jethro Tull.
There was always that spice of jazz which we were allowed to play. We even had some classical music which Charles Laquidara loved. We played Roland Kirk and people like that. He was being paired with rock bands at The Tea Party.
If a promo guy walked in with a new Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker album it was on a turntable immediately.
CG You were in management for a station in which the DJs determine the suitability of what ads were aired. What kind of financial problems did that create?
AP We had to convince people to let us do their commercials our own way in a manner that appealed to our audience. In the movie someone comments “You had ads that people actually listened to.” The problem was what to do with Coca Cola, shampoos and creams that were being promoted at the time. We really didn’t want those ads.
CG Was WBCN profitable?
AP The station never lost money when I was there. We didn’t make a lot of money but it was profitable.
CG What was your role in the WBCN strike?
AP I wasn’t there at the time (three weeks in 1979). But I helped Kenny Greenblatt (sales department) who was trying to make calls. In the annals of radio strikes it was one of the few successful ones.
CG Why did you leave in 1976?
AP I was getting a lot of pressure from (owner) T. Mitchell Hastings. He was the primary stock holder at the time. Ray Riepen was gone and Mitch was basically in charge. He wanted out. Obviously we didn’t want to see it sold. He wanted to sell WBCN and we just weren’t getting along. It was time for me to get out of there. After that I worked for various record companies. Music was what I knew.
CG What are highlights of your time with the station?
AP I kept a lot of great people employed. Norm Winer was program director but I played a role in any live broadcast that we did. Previously, I had worked with Fred Taylor so it was intuitive to do live broadcasts from Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall.
When the staff formed a union I was involved with negotiations from a management standpoint. Having been an announcer, as well as in sales and management, I was sympathetic to what they needed in order to continue. I fought for them.
CG Were you involved in the live broadcasts from Intermedia?
AP One of the biggest ones was with J. Geils and Canned Heat. Norm was friendly with Marty Mull and we did a hilarious broadcast. What happened was the Youngbloods. They were playing for Freddy Taylor at Paul’s Mall. They wanted to do a live broadcast but we weren’t set up for that at the time. They came to the station and performed in the front office. They played for a couple of hours. The next day I got many calls from people I respected in the music industry.
A couple of days later Norm and I sat down and discussed it. Norm was friendly with Intermedia Studios so we put in a telephone line from Newbury Street to WBCN on Stuart Street. That’s how it started and then we moved to the Mall and Workshop.
CG Were you present during the live broadcast when Patti Smith unleashed a screed of obscenities?
AP (Laughing) Yes, I was. Norm and I were sitting there in the Jazz Workshop. She started in and I said “Norm, I’m going home.”
The movie talks about obscenities on the air. By then I had written enough letters explaining incidents to the FCC.
Andrew Kopkind and Little John did The Lavender Hour and were in the news department. When we were working on the contract Andy said “Al we need to talk about something.” There was a gay woman, Elaine Noble, representing the Back Bay. She wanted to introduce a bill about not being fired for sexual preference. He said if we can get some wording in our contract it would be very useful for her. So the language was put into our contract which was pretty early on in 1972 or 1973.
CG Did you have problems with Duane Glasscock?
AP I had left. Charles had left and they wanted him back. I said to him “Why don’t you go back under a different name?” He came up with Glasscock. That was a pretty big show let me tell you.
CG How were the ratings for the station?
AP They were never great. They were OK. They were pretty good. Then WCOZ came along and we took a bath. It took awhile to get our rating back.
CG In what way was WBCN different from other stations?
AP If you take the notion of free form, a DJ could pick fifteen or twenty albums to start a show. On a Top 40 station you couldn’t pick your own music. We didn’t have it laid out on paper to play this or that.
CG Were you around when Maxanne and women came abroad?
AP It came about because there was a backlash that there were no women on air. We were using terms like chicks and the local women’s movement protested. Debbie Ulman, a very talented person, had been on the air off and on. But we needed someone full time. A friend of Sam Kopper knew of Maxanne in Seattle. We were happy to have her.
CG Were you around during the time of Ray Riepen?
AP He was my mentor. He was always a good guy to me. He was an interesting guy always full of new ideas. He was very forward and liberal thinking.
CG It’s hard to imagine a liberal lawyer from Kansas.
AP He was well read and well educated.
CG What was the dynamic between Riepen and Hastings?
AP Before Ray even got the first rock record played at WBCN he had found the ability to buy stock. There were a lot of old Yankees and friends of Hasting on the board. They didn’t want to see him lose everything. They were encouraged by what Ray was proposing. I wasn’t in the room but I think they convinced Hastings to give it a chance. Even though he thought the on air talent looked like shit which it did.
CG You were there and how did Hastings deal with the changes?
AP He enjoyed the fact that money was coming in. New England Merchants Bank wasn’t beating him up every week. He owed money and there was a lot of pressure on him. Now and then he got foolish on me and wanted to spend money we didn’t have. He had a grand vision, for example, of putting a super stereo system in his car. It was thousands of dollars and the company would pay for it.
CG Eventually, the station went commercial broadcasting Patriots games, airing national ads, and hiring Howard Stern.
AP It was a tough decision. Very few of us working for the station at the time wanted to see the move to the Prudential Building. We knew that it would cost more money. That meant changing patterns of commercial acceptance.
CG Who was behind the move to the Prudential?
AP T. Mitchell. It was his dream to be on the 50th floor. I was happy with where we were.
CG Did you have a stronger signal from the top of the Pru?
AP The signal was on top of the original John Hancock building, the smaller 25 story Hancock. When they were building the new one it was going to block the signal in many ways so we had to make a choice. We had to think about moving the signal somewhere.
CG What was the listenership when you were there?
AP It was pretty large. There is no question that Arbitron, now Nielsen, didn’t do a very good job of rating 18 to 24-year-olds. They weren’t looking at college students unless they were living in an apartment. We did an off handed survey of college listeners, I should have kept that stuff, but it was pretty big. Among college students it was massive.
CG It seems that all the sales were local and that you weren’t getting national ads.
AP Clive Davis, the head of Columbia Records during the heyday of Bob Dylan, was one of the few record company executives who realized that they weren’t going to be selling 45s much longer. They were going to be selling LPs. We got a lot of buys from labels when we played their albums. That’s primarily what Kenny Greenblatt did. He was our liaison to various labels.
That was a sizeable income that came our way because of what we played. Now and then there was a buy for something a record company wanted us to play but we wouldn’t play it.
Allen Freed of Sack Theaters told (sales person) Jack Carney that “You know, WBCN is where I put all my money to promote youth movies.”
We were happy to have a radio station where we could do what we wanted to do.
You talked to (promo guy) Roger Lifeset. He moved to the other coast and from that vantage point can look back and appreciate what the station meant to people.
CG How radical were Danny Schechter and the news department compared to other stations?
AP Danny was a guy you could go to, say what you want to say, and he wouldn’t chop it up. People like Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis knew that they could do an interview and it would get on the air. They trusted him. He was a good voice for them.
CG What was the impact of his news coverage on local and national politics?
AP I was very much involved in the busing era. Many times I found myself and other media people sitting in (Mayor) Kevin White’s office. How could we explain this to people and keep the city calm? We had our moments.
We were in pretty tough shape when Nixon invaded Cambodia. The students erupted. Then we didn’t have a choice but to go along with them. The phones never stopped ringing and people were at the station all night long. It was intense and I don’t think that was happening at other radio stations.
CG What are you doing these days?
AP I’m retired living with my wife in Cambridge. For the past couple of years I have been spending a lot of time with Bill (Lichtenstein) working on the movie. It’s been crunch time for him. I helped him with fundraising ideas. I donated some of my memorabilia to be auctioned off. We would have dinner and talk through the process. It’s been difficult.
You know what he went through to get the Jeff Albertson and Peter Simon images. Back then nobody was walking around taking pictures with IPhones or putting things on tape. It’s been a long process.
There are some great story tellers in the film; Ray (Riepen), Tommy Hadges, Charles (Laquidara).
CG He says that when the project got started (2006) there was no WBCN archive to work with. What happened to all that material like tapes of live interviews and performances?
AP I had a little bit of stuff like bumper stickers. I might have an occasional tape of a live Muddy Waters broadcast or something. But I didn’t have a lot of that stuff. When Bill put the word out listeners came forward with things.
We used to do a show now and then on Sunday nights called The Underground Tapes. They were live tapes and various things people had given to us. Obviously there were the Dylan Basement Tapes. There was Buffalo Springfield stuff. We would do a four hour show.
I went into Cheap Thrills in Harvard Square on a Saturday. I said “I need to buy some blank tape.” The clerk said “We don’t have any. Since you guys announced the show we’ve been sold out.” So people were taping this stuff.
In the film you saw that part about Duane Allman and Jerry Garcia showing up and doing a live session. It was taped but we were so poor, that the next day, that tape must have been used for something else.
CG If you were doing live shows wouldn’t one expect that the station was archiving that unique material?
AP Not necessarily so. We were poor in some way.
CG What were salaries like?
AP Nobody was making lots of money. Back them maybe somebody like Charles made twenty grand. If they were frugal maybe they could buy a used VW.
CG Jim Parry was a neighbor of mine in the Murder Building (University Road) in Cambridge. It was cheap rent for his apartment filled with stacks of records. I know for a fact that we wasn’t into spending money. Jim was unique in that he listened to, rated, and logged every album he received. He had a recycled stack that now and then I bought from.
AP I’m glad we had this conversation because I read your stuff. I wanted to thank you for what you wrote about Dennis (Metrano) because we were close.
CG So you hung out at Daisy (Buchanan’s a bar on Newbury Street where Metrano was the bartender. It was a music business after work watering hole.)
AP Oh yeah. I lived on Gloucester Street which was just around the corner. Dennis was a very talented guy. When I was in the service he had a six foot standup promo cutout of Bob Dylan in his apartment. What would that be worth today?
Come to the premiere in Boston there will be a lot of people to talk to. Take care.