If you are near a radio right now, turn it on. Switch it over to AM, and set the dial to 740. Now close your eyes and try to tell me what year it is.
Answer: Hard to say, but definitely not 2014. The station’s eclectic mix of vocal and instrumental easy-listening classics, played in the lo-fi mono of the AM band, transports the listener to another time. Familiar tracks from the likes of Perry Como, Tom Jones and the Everly Brothers appear alongside more obscure selections, as well as the occasional instrumental track – a bit of Baroque here, a lushly-orchestrated piano rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner there – for a cocktail of beautiful and timeless pop that brings old folks back to their youth, and young people (among whom the station has a passionate cult following) to a dreamlike time they never knew.
WJIB, a.k.a. “The Memories Station,” is the love-labor of independent broadcaster Bob Bittner, who has operated the station – as well as its sister station, Bath, Maine’s WJTO – almost single-handedly since the morning of April 4, 1992. In a time when more and more radio stations are being swallowed by media conglomerates, it is a true anomaly.
Although technically a for-profit business, it is commercial-free, supported by donations mailed to Bittner’s home base in Maine by his loyal listeners. In fact, the only thing that interrupts the music are brief snippets of Bittner’s own deep and mellifluous voice, offering station identification along with the occasional left-leaning PSA soundbite or gentle fundraising entreaty.
The AM 740 frequency broadcasts from 443 Concord Ave., near Fresh Pond, and has since 1948. Today, though, the Cambridge studio is usually unoccupied – Bittner operates both WJIB and WJTO from Maine, which he prefers to the bustle of the city. The playlists are drawn from his massive record collection – which is always growing, as listeners often stop by his house to donate their old vinyls. “It makes sense,” he says. “A lot of seniors are downsizing these days.” Although he now loads his playlists onto a computer, he originally played them via 8-hour, audio-only VHS tapes, and still uses them on occasion if something goes wrong.
Although it makes for a more pleasant listening experience, the lack of commercials on WJIB is not only a matter of principle: As Bittner pointed out in a conversation about independent radio on WGBH, the 55-and-over demographic that makes his station such an enduring cult favorite are not very attractive to advertisers. Only fly-by-night ads for the likes of get-rich-quick scams and quack remedies, of which Bittner is justifiably not so fond, seek out the older listeners. So he funds his station, which he refers to unapologetically as his “hobby,” with generous donations from his listeners, and has done so successfully for years – even in 2007, when his licensing fee was increased sixfold.
WJIB is also beloved among people (like the author) who are far too young to remember when music like this was on the playlists of normal radio stations. The Facebook group “Friends and Lovers of WJIB” has 723 members and is highly active. Members post YouTube links to tracks, and even announce when the station has gone on or off the air.
Bittner is not surprised at WJIB’s popularity among the youth. “Music is so bad today, and there still are people born with the desire for melody and rhythm,” he says. “Even younger people seek something else.”
It’s hard to put a finger on what makes WJIB such a compelling listening experience – why, despite the ostensible kitschiness of the music, it still manages to be one of the classiest radio stations in Boston. The lack of commercials certainly helps, as does the muted warmth of the AM signal, which is seldom used for music broadcasting anymore. But at the end of the day, it may be that, unlike almost every other radio station, WJIB is the singular vision of one man, Bob Bittner, “the last auteur of terrestrial radio,” as the Phoenix put it. Of course, in the Internet age, the floodgates are wide open for any would-be radio curator to try his or her hand. But it certainly is nice to know that, even in 2014, someone still cares enough to do it the old-fashioned way.