Looking Back on My Time at WERS, Playing Reggae Music

Joshua B WERS Record Library
(Me in the WERS record library)

In light of WERS 88.9 FM Boston canceling their long time reggae & urban shows “Rockers” and “88.9 at Night”, I want to look back at my time at the radio station.

I joined WERS just over twenty years ago (1992), during my second semester at Emerson College. Prior to that, I had started listening to the station during my senior year in high school (1989). Reggae music was played in a block format, every weeknight from 5-8 pm. As the Boston.com article (linked above) states, the show was created “in 1978 by Doug Herzog, who is now the president of MTV Networks.”

Louie Rankin WERS
(Louie Rankin’ being interviewed)

Dancehall Reggae Crossing Over
The late 80s was an exciting time to be a new reggae music fan because all the attention was being given to the “dancehall” style, a more urban reggae sound that was crossing over to urban radio formats. Even American rappers were incorporating Jamaican music into their songs and were collaborating with Jamaican artists.

Not only was reggae music being played every weeknight from 5-8pm on the Rockers program, but certain songs like Foxy Brown’s “Sorry” (her cover of the Tracy Chapman song, “Baby Can I Hold You”), Junior Reid’s “One Blood,” and others were played on 88.9 at Night that followed Rockers (8-11pm). During this time, hip-hop, reggae, r&b, and even house music would share and borrow from each other, and Rockers and 88.9 at Night bonded.

Black Uhuru Joshua B WERS
(Me with Duckie Simpson, Garth Dennis, Don Carlos of Black Uhuru at WERS)

R-O-C-K-E-R-S
Rockers, possibly a confusing name for some, was a style of Jamaican music popular in the late 1970s, and was even the title of a 1978 film about the Jamaican music business. Even though names for the different incarnations of reggae music changed, the name Rockers stuck.

Terror Fabulous Kays Oasis
(Terror Fabulous inside Kay’s Hair Salon in Dorchester before a show at Kay’s Oasis)

Landing a Producer Spot
During my second semester at Emerson College (after having transferred from Bridgewater State College), I finally tried out for the Rockers show and submitted an audition tape and application about how much I knew about reggae. I was a sophomore and the year was 1992. I was one of 10 people chosen to work on Rockers. There were 5 hosts and 5 producers (a different one for every night of the week). The host was the on-air talent who spun the records and CDs and whose voice you heard on the air. The producers would answer listener phone calls and pull records from the library. The idea was for the producer to learn from the host, and for the host to groom the producer.

I was assigned to work with Justin Barr, who was very fair with me and gave me measured exposure to the microphone, starting with allowing me to read the concert calendar (“Rockers Report”). I also remember learning from Shari, who was an excellent dancehall selector, but I don’t think I was ever her producer.

General TK Joshua B Kay's Oasis
(Mr. Tough, General TK, me before an appearance at Kay’s Oasis)

Not Connecting with Local Listeners – Frustrating
Through answering the phones and taking requests, largely from people with Caribbean accents, I quickly learned that we didn’t have songs in our library that people were requesting, which were the latest hits from Jamaica. I specially remember, for example, young ladies requesting songs like Half Pint’s “Substitute Lover” and Mad Cobra’s “Flex.” The more people would ask for certain songs that we didn’t have, the more I realized we were missing the boat. We were not catering to the island immigrants from Jamaica and otherwise that were thirsty for “real reggae,” a term I remember “Rudy Boy” Lincoln (see next section) using on the air.

Miss Marliene Joshua B WERS
(Miss Marliene & me)

Rude Boy Lincoln
Back to WERS: Rude Boy Lincoln was the #1 host on Rockers for a number of reasons.

1. Finger on the pulse of the dancehall music scene
2. Originally from Jamaica
3. Held the Friday show and had the opportunity to interview countless artists who were in Boston for the weekend
4. Obtained and brought his own music every week
5. Had support from the community and would play his trademark “Super-mix” (usually supplied by one of his a selector friends)

Unfortunately I didn’t really get to know Lincoln, as he was finishing up his time at Emerson while I was just getting started. Also, I think I had the impression that he was a bit of a rebel at the station, someone who was connected closer to the Jamaican community but not to the WERS staff and management per say. But on one occasion, I felt somewhat of an endorsement when he burst into the studio while I was playing a Beats International song that sampled Cutty Ranks and demanded to know what it was. Years later, we reconnected over the phone when I worked at Heartbeat Records.

Singing Melody Boston reggae WERS
(Singing Melody, Robin & Lisa, DJ Quinton, Ande C, me, and others at WERS)

The Radio Landscape
Other inspirational figures on the airwaves came from Boston College’s WZBC 90.3 FM (Robin & Lisa, Michael L, Papa Gillie), WMBR 88.1 FM, and WMLN 91.5 FM (DJ Quinton). They were no longer students, but were able to host reggae music programs at these stations. Hence, they were more seasoned, veteran hosts. They knew what their audience wanted and were able to provide it for them. Most of them are still involved with reggae radio! That’s passion and dedication.

As Rockers Coordinator
Eventually, I applied for and was granted the Rockers “Coordinator” position, meaning I was in charge of the 9 staff members and the music. If I remember correctly, I held the position for 2 semesters. The hosts and producers that I remember at the time were Kevin “K-Don” Michael, “Craze,” Jason Steinberg, Corie Case, Nick, “Mista B,” Marliene, Magalie, Sherry, Lisa (Lee-Jay), and Rea. Please forgive me if I spelled anyone’s name incorrectly or forgot anyone.

Patra Joshua B WERS
(Patra & me in WERS studio after an interview)

One of my challenges with certain members of the staff was reigning them in when it came to playing songs with blatant curse words. I felt that certain songs were suited to the club (adult) environment and did not belong on evening drive radio. I had also been warned from management about FCC regulations, and I knew which words were not tolerated. In the end, I couldn’t stop certain hosts from playing Lady Saw’s “Stab Out the Meat” for example, even with lyrics like “You can grind good and you can fuck sweet.” If some of us would not play these songs, and others would, it gave the ones that would extra hype, at least to a segment of the Rockers listeners. For some hosts, that hype was hard to resist. In this respect, I must have come off as an oppressor.

Even I’d break the rules when it made sense to me. For example, artists were not allowed into building at 126 Beacon Street if they hadn’t already made arrangements with the host. The host was to submit any guests names to the public safety officers at the door of the building. Often, promoters would show up unannounced, artists in tow, with the intention of having them interviewed on the air to promote their show. Many a night I found myself in the position of finagling their entrance, and then conducting interviews, unprepared.

Cocoa Tea WERS
(Cocoa Tea in WERS voice studio)

126 Beacon Street
During my time at WERS, the station was located at Emerson’s former Back Bay campus, not where it is now at 180 Tremont Street in downtown Boston. In my day, we had to enter through 130 Beacon Street, and walk through a maze of rooms, passages, and stairs that eventually lead to the studio at 126 Beacon Street. If we had to run to 130 Beacon to open the door for an artist, we had better play a long song and be ready to run there and back before our song ran out! Back then, we didn’t have computers in the studio to use to program a playlist.

I focused on making sure the Rockers Report was updated and accurate, while trying to be fair about prioritizing. Local promoters could be a big factor at WERS, especially on Rockers. In an attempt to promote their concerts and dances, some of them could be aggressive with the staff. Trying to maintain fairness was a struggle. I came to appreciate many of them, and with many, I had a friendly relationship.

Local Selectors
The real heart and soul of the Boston reggae scene, as I see it now, were the sound system selectors and owners. The ones who spent money on their equipment and records, and exhausted themselves setting up and breaking down. I was mentored by Travel Fox, Karl Ranks, Junior Rodigan, and others. They’d come by the station and sit in on my show, offering facts, artist name pronunciations, and suggestions.

Joshua B George Wong WERS
(my friend George Wong & me in the broadcast studio)

New Music
As coordinator, I also made it my priority to get hot new music coming in to the station, as area I saw as lacking with the previous coordinator, Jason Steinberg. I reached out to music labels and partnered with local reggae shops in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain, and soon loads of new 12″ singles and CDs were coming in every week, all free of charge. The new music would be added to the library so that all the hosts had access. Although I admit to sometimes holding on to new records so that I could debut them on my show, then adding them to the library.

Fridays & Interviews
For at least one semester, I gave myself the Friday slot, later offering it to the up-and-coming host Craze (originally from the U.S. Virgin Islands). This put me in a position to interview Dennis Brown, Freddie McGregor, Sanchez, Buju Banton, Cobra, Capleton, Spragga Benz, Terror Fabulous, Patra, Thriller U, Sluggy Ranks, and many others.

I say if you can interview a Jamaican dancehall artists, you can interview anyone. This is where I learned to interview, and to this day I use this experience in various web projects and podcasts. This is also where I learned how to promote. This would involve playing the artists’ music and talking up the show before and during the artist’s visit to the station, and making sure that the show was being announced on the other nights of the week prior to the event.

Promoting the shows on the air meant free tickets. So I had the opportunity to see the hottest touring artists from Jamaica right here in Boston at venues like Caribbean Cultural Center, Skycap Plaza, Kay’s Oasis, Carver Auditorium (Dorchester), Bill’s Bar (Boston), etc. I never did make it to the Zodiac Domino Club!

Singing Melody WERS
(Singing Melody in the WERS record library)

Live Music Week
Like many non-commercial radio stations, WERS does fund drives. They call their annual fund drives “Live Music Week” where bands are invited to perform live at WERS. Those live performances are used to make money for the station, and the hosts are in charge of “pitching” listeners on the idea that since WERS supports local music, listeners should support the station. For Rockers, that meant that most of the Boston-based bands would come to the station to perform and meet the hosts. There was sometimes understandable tension, as band leaders expressed frustration with the station only calling them when they needed support. Why wasn’t their music being played on Rockers during the rest of the year? Why only during live music week?

On to the Music Business
As graduation from Emerson was in sight, then station manager Fran Berger suggested I intern at Heartbeat Records in Cambridge. That is where I would work the next 14 years.

Even after graduation, I was still able to visit WERS in their new location at 180 Tremont Street and get to know the new crop of student disc jockeys. I had graduated to the promotions role, accompanying the artist as their label representative, facilitating the interview and making sure the host had the artists’ music to play.

Sweet D WERS
(88.9 at Night host Sweet D)

Conclusion
While attending school at Emerson, WERS gave me a place to hang out, get involved, build friendships, and gain experience. College can be lonely. WERS and especially Rockers enriched my experience at Emerson tenfold.

It’s sad to see two nightly shows canceled, especially Rockers. Rockers worked with the community to sustain the reggae music scene. Jamaicans and other Boston-based reggae fans are here in large numbers. It’s a shame they won’t have this daily radio show to help promote and organize the scene for hardcore and casual fans. But what about 105.3 VIBE FM and the other pirate stations? Maybe there’s room for a new group to take the Rockers concept to a current station, a new station, or an online-only outlet.

The station says they are moving their weekend show, The Secret Spot, to weeknights 10pm-2am. The Secret Spot is an urban/”grown folks music” format. It remains to be seen if reggae will be integrated.

I would love to hear from other Rockers DJs, especially those who remembered working with me around 1992-1995. It would be fun to reconnect and reminisce.

Special thanks to my good friend Chris Heroux who took many of the photos in this post.

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8 thoughts on “Looking Back on My Time at WERS, Playing Reggae Music

  1. Joshua B Post author

    Thanks for checking it out Doug. And a huge thank you for starting Rockers at WERS. Those years while I was engrossed in the station and the scene were an extended highlight in my life.

  2. Tony I-Vibes

    It was great reading your post. I played in a several reggae bands in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Boston (we did LIve Music week a couple of times) and your writing brings back many memories and recalls good time – no, great times. The scene has changed drastically since the 80’s, both radio and the live music scene. I so fondly remember Jennifer Spangler on WHRB (Dub Frequency?) and Michael Lewis and Robin and Lisa and so many of the WERS crew. What was great back then (and not true in the last decade or so) was that the deejays seemed to really know the music – the number of mispronounciations that have gone on in the last decade was criminal. I also remember in the 80’s the dj playing a riddim and then right into the version (dub), on a regular basis. It feels like the world is in too much of a rush these days to play the version after the tune on the radio – I almost can’t imagine it happening. Your interviews were great too – some real legends. Many of them played at the Channel back then. Culture played in Harvard Sq., Freddie McGregor played at the Middle East in Central Square…But the CCC and Station Cafe and so many others in the heart of Boston were regular venues for so much music and dancehall clash, too. I’ll miss Rockers, but it was a shell of what it used to be anyway, so maybe it’s better off to kill it before it dies a slow death. You can’t get back the 70’s and 80’s. The number of local bands back then was incredible, too: Healin of the Nations, Zion Initation, the ITones, Loose Caboose, the IVibes, Motion, Dub Station had a different name back then, too, so many others whose names are escaping me right now – who can add to the list….?

    1. Gary

      How did I stumble upon this blog? I remember great music in Central Square – Harvard Square in the late ’70s. I-Tones, Zion Initation … the Joy of Movement Center, a church in Harvard Square, … was it a school in Cambridgeport? I recall it as a moveable feast. It always seemed to be somewhere else. One of my fondest memories of those days. Music into the not-so-wee hours of the morning.

  3. George

    I worked the final year (+?) of WERS Metrowave on Sunday nights. It was Live Mhsic Week on that show every week. 100% Boston indie and pro rock and roll.

    The FCC pressure you reference got the best of the Metrowave DJ. After 10+ years on the air, The show got cancelled. (I recall articles written about the demise in the Phoenix, Globe and etc).

    I too enrolled at Emerson to work toward taking over a specific show. I was a motivated and dedicated assistant who did all I was asked to do by management and by my DJ. I was poised to take the show over senior year. Instead, I learned a lesson about life and about management. Both the DJ and our General Manager had serious shortcomings and let an amazing show die. I gotta go find those articles.

  4. Justin Barr

    That is fantastic Josh! It was a great read and brought back many fond memories. You were one of the special ones who had the great benefit of knowing the genre BEFORE becoming a part of the show, instead of some of us who learned it on the job. You’re a great DJ! Terrific post!
    -Justin Barr

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