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The American Revolution: A conversation with filmmaker, Bill Lichtenstein

Bill Lichtenstein interviewing WBCN's Charles Laquidara for film,  Photo credit: Jay Rooney

WBCN brought humanity to the airwaves; a new rhythm to life; a cast of characters we loved and identified with (Charles, Sam, Tommy, Jim, Bill, JJ, Mississippi, Al...); music which evolved as the world changed; real news reflecting real happenings, without the taint of corporate America (thanks to Danny Schechter); and a sense of community that brought several generations together. We lived and loved well, and through it all was WBCN. I think we all need to reconnect with those values and realize how important WBCN was to us, and to the community.”

Dan Beach (kickstarter supporter and WBCN listener)


Here at the Center we are very familiar with the power that different forms of media can have to impact change. We strive to showcase new and innovative uses of digital technology and social media that inspire action. But as we continue to forge ahead in this quest, we must remind ourselves to pause every now and then to reflect on the sequence of events that lead us here. Much can be learned from our predecessors and perhaps now is a good time to revisit an age before Facebook and Twitter, where the World Wide Web was still a distant dream, and where even television was just starting to grow into its current form. But even without all of the fancy gadgetry that we take for granted today, the late 60s/early 70s was an age where media proved as powerful an agent of change as we have ever seen it.  In Boston, MA, between 1968 and 1974, a single radio station played a momentous role in mobilizing the public and inspiring the dramatic social, political and cultural shifts taking place across the nation.

Bill Lichtenstein, 1973, age 16 on air at WBCN.  Photo credit Don Sanford. I had the great fortune to chat with longtime friend and supporter of the Center, filmmaker Bill Lichtenstein, founder and president of Lichtenstein Creative Media. A pioneer in designing for impact, Lichtenstein is knee deep in his latest documentary, The American Revolution, which explores the formative years of the freeform Boston radio station WBCN. Sitting on top the tallest building in Boston, WBCN became a hub for pop culture as well as a facilitator of social and political interaction, promoting dialogue around some of the most pressing issues of the time. Rock stars, radicals, movers and shakers, movements and counter-movements embraced WBCN as an outlet for refreshing and honest social discourse. For many, this freeform radio station, with its revolutionary mix of rock music, politics and news, will forever remain a defining texture in the social fabric of the city.

But whereas the subject matter of American Revolution simply comments on the power of media to impact change, the film’s production strategy actually lives it. And it is this strategy that we at the Center find particularly note-worthy.  Lichtenstein and his colleagues have designed a production approach that leverages the public’s participation in the media-making process and serves as a wonderful demonstration of how fair use and crowdsourcing can successfully enhance a documentary production.  When initially asked to elaborate on his approach to the film, Lichtenstein references this unique production strategy: 

It was our intention (even before anybody used the word crowdsourced) back in 2005 when we first started thinking about doing the film, to do it in a way—and it seemed to call out to be done in a way—that turns out to be really consistent with all of the things that you at the Center are interested in. From fair use to crowdsourcing, to this kind of transformation of material…

The “transformation of material” that Lichtenstein refers to is their solution to a production challenge that emerged when, upon the station’s closing in 2009, they discovered an absence of any archival material:

There were no archives. There were no records. Basically nothing. So what this gets to is a central point and that is that the history of that period—a very important period where so much changed for everything, from feminism to the anti war movement to music, art, culture and politics—the story of that period as it evolved in Boston had really never been told. And if we didn’t tell it – we being the people who were in the middle of it – if we didn’t tell that story, it was not going to get told…or it would be told by Viacom in a half hour TV special or something…it wasn’t going to get told in a way that really captured what went on. And so from the very beginning we reached out to people who lived it, who were there, who were a part of it, and we started asking if they had any material that they could share….

So Lichtenstein and his colleagues began crowdsourcing archival material from WBCN listeners and supporters:

In 2006, when people were still literally saying, “you mean, you can like post photographs on the internet? How do you do that?.” This was before Facebook, and we had this vision that we could create a kind of interactive community for people who lived through the period, who had material, and we would share it! And we would use that material and these stories to help evolve the film both archival research-wise and editorially.

Photo of girl at demonstration Photo credit: Eric EngstromAccording to Lichtenstein, the response they received was immediately supportive as nostalgic WBCN listeners rallied around the making of this film, offering up their stories, photographs, recordings and footage to contribute to what Lichtenstein describes as the first “open source” documentary. Lichtenstein even comments that he feels more like a curator now-a-days and less like a filmmaker, as he compiles this crowdsourced material into a virtual archive that will not just be used in the documentary, but will also be made available to the public and to scholars interested in learning about that time period and contributing their own stories to that learning process. And taking a cue from the Center for Social Media’s Best Practices in Fair Use, Lichtenstein is not shying away from using copyrighted material that is critical to the messaging of the film nor is he hesitating to share his own material to the public before the film’s actual release. In his own words, he has “embraced” this new wave of collaborative, participant filmmaking:

A lot of filmmakers are just standing around this pool of new ways of doing things and they’re kind of dipping their toe in to kind of see if it’s okay…But what we’ve done is we’ve embraced all of it. And I think by just jumping in, head first, and swimming around in it, what we’ve found out is that it’s a much better way of making films. But you have to be willing to just immerse yourself in it…. So what you find for example is that for every precious thing we have for the film that we put up online and wonder if somebody is going to steal or see before the release of the film, that we get twenty things. People go, “Oh! That recording of the Grateful Dead at MIT the day after the Kent State Massacre where four students were shot…well I was there and I have photographs!” Or “I have a better version of that song taped.”…And so my advice would be to listen carefully to what your Center and others are saying about these things and really embrace them, because I think his film has benefited from becoming a true believer in all of it.

Film Logo Using the combined power of the media, crowdsourcing and a basic understanding of fair use, American Revolution is itself proving to be a revolution in documentary filmmaking and a model that the Center for Social Media is proud to support.

As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Lichtenstein what he hopes will be the take away from the WBCN story and how it might be applied to the more contemporary context of designing media for impact. In his response, he recognizes the enormous potential that social media and new media technology has for impacting change, but he also reminds us that the media is but a tool, and it is in fact the people who are the real agents of change…They must believe it’s possible:

I think it’s rarer and rarer that people listen to a discussion or are part of a discussion that helps them formulate a view of what’s going on. I think more and more people feel helpless...and I think if there’s anything that we’re hoping the film will do, regardless of their political viewpoint, we’re hoping that it makes people feel like they can create changes in their life and for society—cultural, political and social changes—by using media and by speaking up. And particularly, if they’re an artist or a musician, I think everyone has a real imperative to get involved and try to make some sort of change

So despite the limited technology of the time period, WBCN became an enabler for dialogue, collaboration and action. And as we continue our efforts in designing media for impact, Lichtenstein reminds us that before media can serve as an effective tool, the public needs to know how to use it to its full potential. And indeed, the outreach toolkit for American Revolution is designed for precisely this purpose: through a facilitation guide, it will deconstruct what media can do for social change and educate communities and activists on how to use media strategically during the organizing process:

We want to create a facilitation guide so that schools and community groups can show the film and then have a discussion about the use of media to create social change, which I think is really important. Because I don’t think people feel empowered or they understand how they go about making yourself heard and targeting a particular thing that you don’t like and trying to get change. For a lot of people it’s clicking. I’m going to click on this petition or I’m going to click “LIKE” on the website that stands up for the things I believe in. But real social change historically has taken much more commitment and dedication and I think this is a way of seeing how that can happen.

Media can empower people to take action, and American Revolution demonstrates this in both its subject matter and production strategy. Inspiring us all to become creative citizens who play an active role in shaping our own history and our own future, Lichtenstein and his colleagues continue to enlist the help of the public in this participatory and collaborative filmmaking experience. We look forward to seeing their progress.