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The Little Radio Station that Could    

The NY Times recently ran an obit for Elton Spitzer, a NY-area entrepreneur and former food stand operator whose love for music helped transform a dinky little suburban radio station into a national tastemaker. Though the station has been off the air for years, and the world it inhabited is also no more, its story still has a lot to teach us.

Let’s start with the basics. After serving in Korea, Mr. Spitzer returned to the States and made a living running food carts. But the music bug bit hard. He segued into the radio biz, selling airtime for stations in Chicago and New York. He did well enough that by 1973 he could buy an interest in WLIR, a sleepy Long Island station which for years had subsisted on a mix of Broadway show tunes and classical music – but eventually discovered rock n roll.

Then he made his genius move.

He hired a smart, scrappy Program Director, Denis McNamara, and a bunch of fanatical DJ’s – and he turned them loose to follow their muse. For example, one of the jocks, Larry the Duck, met a plane from London every Thursday at JFK to pick up the records that were popping there.

The station began breaking artists, from new American bands like Replacements and the B-52s to imports like Tears for Fears, U2, the Smiths and Duran Duran. (WLIR also claimed it was the first to play Madonna, but we digress.)

The artists noticed, and loved WLIR for it. The tiny station became a bonafide tastemaker. The audience noticed, too, becoming fanatically devoted. They took the station’s tagline – Dare To Be Different – very much to heart, supporting the bands, the events and the personalities ‘LIR so fervently cultivated.

“Elton totally gave me creative freedom,”  McNamara said. “He wanted to make the station more cosmopolitan and wanted it event-oriented. Because of music we played, we had a tremendously loyal audience, and he was very proud that we made a big noise in the biggest media market in the world.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Midtown Tunnel, the newly-minted MTV was also changing the game. But where MTV was national and backed by a major corporation, WLIR, at a mere 3,000 watts, could barely be heard beyond the edge of Queens.

The station had a pretty good run, before being undone by a byzantine FCC process, and, yes, losing its license.

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One of its superfans, filmmaker Ellen Goldfarb, is developing a documentary on the station. The teaser captures the vibe perfectly.

 

So, what is the moral of the story?

You could go with “Nothing Lasts Forever,” but we prefer something more romantic. Something along the lines that a small, passionate, committed group – joined in a noble cause – can have an outsized impact. (Kinda like what we’re trying to do with CultureSonar, but we digress again.)

Yes, that’s the story we’re gonna stick with. How can you go wrong with that?

Al Cattabiani

PS. You might enjoy similar posts on Tower Records, The Other Live Aid Guy and The Greatest Song The Cars Never Made.

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