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The Little Radio Station That Could

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Elton Spitzer was 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.

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Then he made his genius move.

He hired a smart, scrappy Program Director, Denis McNamara, and a bunch of fanatical DJs – 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. This tiny Long Island 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 the 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.”

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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.

One of its superfans, filmmaker Ellen Goldfarb, bucked long odds to produce a documentary that captures the vibe perfectly.

So, what’s 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. Could this form of kismet happen in today’s media climate? Who knows. But the story of WLIR stands as a testament to what’s possible among passionate fans.

Photo credit:Blondie, courtesy of Getty Images

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11 comments on “The Little Radio Station That Could

  1. Avatar

    Don’t forget his partner, John Rieger. They ran the station together. http://www.peconic-arc.net/john-reiger-sk.html

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    Elliot Gorlin

    Probably the most influential radio station ever in breaking new music and affecting music sales, WLIR was way ahead of the pack.

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      Jerry Mallach

      I could not agree more. I still have the “imports” purchased from Zig Zag on Avenue U. I think the new records would come in on Wednesdays but I’m fuzzy on that. Whatever the day Zig Zag had that weeks, “Screamer of the week”. For the past 3 years two buddies and me go in my basement and play those records every few months. Still great music and holds up well today. I think it’s becoming more popular now too. I was in a supermarket today and they had 1st Wave ch 33 playing in the store. It’s usually tame 70’s on 7 but someone there has great taste in music!

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    Paul Cramer

    Elton & Denis were also responsible for WLIR’s sister station, WXXP which was based in Pittsburgh. An equal cultural impact resulted, Both WLIR.FM and WXXP.COM continue as internet stations today, both featuring original DJs from that era!

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      Paul Cross

      As soon as I saw ‘dare to be different’ I knew there had to be a connection somehow. What a great station that was.

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    Michelle Gunn

    And, WLIR continues at WLIR.fm. ❤️

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    Glenn Walton

    Remember always wanting to stay in on those live studio recording nights with the lights dimmed and the Marrantz Stereo tuned to WLIR Tuesdays I think. I would make an 8 track tape sometimes. The Best was Fleetwood Mac doing a 45 minute set on The Bermuda Triangle. What a story it was… Hope that tape surfaces one day again. Much gratitude for all the listening hours you provided WLIR.

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    And yes, I remember that they DID play Madonna (an earlier version of Burning Up) before the other local stations picked her up. Obviously LIR had a wide range.

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    Oh man! Great article Al! Thanks for reminding me of staying up all night with LIR on. In fact, in my room LIR was on all day too. To me, WLIR is what every station throughout time aspires to be. Regardless of genre- they sought what we rabid fans were hungry for. Loved the whole crew, too! Didn’t know about McNamara. Just thought he was a cool guy. Ya know what? Paula & I run into Andy Geller from time to time. Anyways, happy new year & much gratitude for you and your work. Peace
    And Michelle Gunn!!!! WOW I’ll def check out wlir.fm

  8. Avatar

    I used to listen to WLIR in my basement room in Upper Montclair, NJ as a young teen. They were calling the alternative format New Wave then and I discovered many unknown to me bands from their weekly Scream of the Week feature.

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    Robert Towler

    They had awesome live shows. RC allstars Butterfield Dr John and Levon Helm , and Sealevel -Chuck level still hear them in my mind. many shows from My Fathers Place as well

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