BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES Bob Bittner's 240-watt AM station is a revenant of simpler, happier times, and has earned him a die-hard following.
Bob Bittner, the last auteur of terrestrial radio, presides over an 11-by-11-foot room in a Cambridge storage facility near Fresh Pond Mall. His U-shaped desk is cluttered with hundreds of hand-addressed envelopes — the fruits of his annual summer fund drive — bundled into thick, uneven parcels held together with rubber bands. Underneath the office's lone window blinks a computer that appears to predate the Clinton administration.
"Where do you think the music's coming from?" Bittner asked me when I visited last week. He looked healthy, though in recent months, Bittner, 63, has been having heart troubles. He was sitting in front of a large microphone, wearing a blue WJIB T-shirt and matching shorts, a half-eaten steak sub spread out in front of him.
"I don't know," I said.
"You'd think maybe the computer, but right now it's coming from these videotapes," he said. "Remember VCRs?" He gestured to a black machine four times the size of a VCR. "I record myself announcing the songs onto these sound-only, eight-hour videotapes. The quality is excellent."
I asked Bittner how many other radio stations are using VHS tapes for broadcasting purposes.
"Nobody," he said. "Most stations are contemporary and things change over time; their hourly mix of music will change. But our hourly music mix doesn't necessarily have to change — the songs are 50 years old."
Bittner's singularity doesn't stop with his fondness for VHS. His station, WJIB-AM 740, the Memories Station, has a power output of 250 watts, the lowest allowed by the FCC. It doesn't stream online and won't anytime soon.
Bittner is WJIB's owner and sole employee. Though a for-profit entity, the station has no commercials and stays afloat through listener donations. WJIB is the only station in the area that plays eclectic easy listening. The play list is drawn from Bittner's own collection of 5400 records, what he calls "adult standards" from the '30s through '60s and "softer" pop hits from the '50s through '80s — although the catalog is shared with Bittner's other, "repeater," station, WJTO in Maine. It's the only station whose outspokenly progressive DJ would speak out in favor of the Occupy movement or rant against the evils of the credit card industry to an audience largely comprising aging Republicans, then follow it up with an Andy Williams cover of "Impossible Dream."
"I'm not preaching to the choir," Bittner said of his strong politics. "I play 'God Bless America,' and I know people will turn on the radio just for that. But older people — especially war veterans — are very sensitive to criticism of America. They think everything's going to be OK no matter what. I don't. . . . But you know what, this is the only radio station I have."
While the rest of what's left of Boston radio is dominated by commercials, commercial interests, and corporate synergy, the entirety of WJIB's output comes directly from the heart, brain, and record collection of just one man. The station — originally patterned after the long-abandoned "beautiful music" station WJIB-FM 96.9 — is a revenant of simpler, happier times, and has earned Bittner a die-hard following among old folks who lived through that era and younger people who wish they had.