Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Dare to Be Different -- WLIR: The Voice of a Generation

A few months ago, Denise asked me if I had any interest in seeing a new documentary film that had been made about the former Long Island radio station WLIR. I'm normally not a big documentary guy -- I'd rather watch a comic book superhero extravaganza, a bloody horror flick or even a musical. But in this case, I thought, "Why not?"

As I think this blog has made clear, I've been around for a few years, and been through several generations worth of music. When I got my first transistor radio when I was nine years old, I immediately hooked into 770 WABC (AM) radio. It had brash, loud DJ's like Dan Ingram, Cousin Brucie (Bruce Morrow), Ron Lundy and Harry Harrison. The #1 song when I got this treasure was The Monkees' "I'm a Believer"; #2 was "Georgy Girl" by The Seekers, and #3 was "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" by The Royal Guardsmen.

Then I got older, my tastes matured, and I got my first FM radio. And like many music lovers from the New York metro area, I was drawn to 102.7 WNEW-FM. The vibe was mellow, the DJ's were allowed to program their own music, and my favorite, Alison Steele, aka "The Night Bird" even read poetry at the opening of each show. Scott Muni gave me "Things From England" every Friday. Jonathan Schwartz snuck Frank Sinatra into the rock and folk rotation. And weekend host Vin Scelsa played his own eclectic mix on his "Idiot's Delight" show.

But somewhere along the way, the station began to decline. Schwartz was gone by 1976. Steele left in 1979. When new wave hit, it tried to keep up, but honestly, I think they were baffled by many of these strange new synth-pop-heavy artists. Slowly, they started to suck. So I was adrift. I tried WPLJ for awhile, but their format felt too limited. I even tried K-ROQ (WXRK), but again, compared to what WNEW used to be, the station felt stale and limited. They were all playing the same old artists and the same narrow range of songs by those artists. Radio was boring.

Then, sometime in about 1986, I found WLIR. I was late to this particular party -- the station had changed to their New Music in 1982 -- but better late than never. I was living in Flushing at the time, going back to school during the day and working overnights in Manhattan. And here was a station that was playing cutting edge music compared to the stale "classic rock" stations. I started listening to DJ's like Larry "The Duck", Malibu Sue, Donna Donna and Denis McNamara. And it was good.

WLIR lost their license in a battle with the FCC in 1987, but when the station was bought out by Jarad Broadcasting and changed to WDRE, they kept a similar format and most of the WLIR DJ's, so I stayed. And in fact, in 1993, I answered a personals ad in the Village Voice by a woman that referenced her love for cats (I loved my dog, so close enough), WDRE (my station!) and long walks on the beach (well two out of three isn't bad). And that's how I met my wife Denise.

But while I may have been late to the WLIR party, Denise was there from the beginning. She's a veteran of '80s dance clubs like Malibu, Spit and 007, and WLIR was her station from the get-go.
And Ellen Goldfarb the director of Dare to Be Different - WLIR: The Voice of a Generation is a like-minded soul.

The film was playing this past weekend at Soundview Cinemas in Port Washington as part of the Gold Coast Film Festival, and clearly, for this director, it was a labor of love. It tells the story of how program director Denis McNamara talked WLIR owner Elton Spitzer into a change in format in 1982, moving from classic rock to New Music, and how the tiny station, operating on a minuscule budget and practically broadcasting with two bottles and a string, became the most influential station in the country for breaking bands like U2, The Police, The Cure and The Clash. In fact, at one point, the film even features sound footage of a post-Joshoa-Tree Bonno thanking WLIR in front of a huge, screaming crowd at The Nassau Coliseum for its part in helping U2 gain their first foothold in the States.

The film features footage of McNamara, Larry the Duck, Malibu Sue, Donna Donna and the gang, as well as various artists such as Billy Idol, extolling the virtues of the beloved station. It even features cameos by unexpected people, such as Mickey Marchello of The Good Rats (who along with one of the members of Blue Oyster Cult, lamented the format change that shut local rockers like The Rats and BOC out), Gary Dell'Abate of The Howard Stern Show (who apparently was a WLIR intern in his pre-Stern days), and Carol Silva of News 12 Long Island, who was a former WLIR news person.

In spite of its 2-hour length, the film moved along quickly, and was never boring. And throughout, as various new wave artists were featured or on-air personalities were interviewed, little hoots of pleasure erupted out of the crowd of the sold-out afternoon show, which was obviously filled with former WLIR listeners who remembered the station fondly. Denise acknowledged afterwards that she almost teared up a few times. It was a chance to remember some of the happiest times of her youth.

Afterwards, there a question-and-answer session that included Goldfarb, McNamara, Larry The Duck, Donna Donna and The Mighty Maximizer, among others.

I recommend the film highly for all former fans of WLIR/WDRE, for students of radio history, or just for music fans in general who would enjoy a story of how a small-but-dedicated group of people were able to make a real impact on the US music scene for the better part of a decade. Dare to Be Different will be making the rounds at various film festivals over the months to come, and according to the director, there's a good chance it will be available on DVD in the early part of 2018. I'd suggest you give it a watch if you get the chance.