Authors: Richard Neer
An odd quirk in those early days was that while WNEW-FM simulcast hourly news from their AM sister station, there was guitar music playing gently underneath it. Most listeners thought that this was some sort of hippie affectation to soften the authoritative tone of the WNEW-AM newsmen, but in reality, it was a technical matter. An FM transmitter triggers a red beacon on most receivers indicating that the signal broadcast is stereo. This was considered a competitive edge in 1968 when some stations were still monaural. But FCC policy stated that the beacon could only remain on for four minutes when the actual broadcast material was not in stereo. Since the mono newscasts were five minutes in length, to avoid shutting down the beacon, they had to find an unobtrusive way to keep it fired up. After scouring the music library, Asch and Duncan found a guitar work by German composer Georg Philipp Telemann that would fit behind every conceivable news story—from the most dire tragedy to the lightest kicker.
General manager George Duncan had a healthy respect for the power of the FCC and an appreciation for the value of John Kluge’s broadcasting licenses. Kluge himself saw his stewardship of radio and television stations as a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Whereas others would later challenge the FCC’s authority when it came to censoring obscene content, Kluge and Duncan initially believed they had a moral responsibility to provide programming that reinforced positive societal values. They resisted hiring “shock” jocks, and heeded listener complaints when members of their own flock went too far. They were not about to risk their licenses in cavalier fashion, and quickly laid down clear guidelines. “Eskimo Blue Day” by Jefferson Airplane was outlawed for obscenity, as was “Volunteers” for seditious content. “Working Class Hero” came a bit later, and you know that story.
WNEW-FM underwent an early management shake-up, as John Kluge realized what a gem he had in George Duncan, who he now elevated to lead the company’s entire radio division. A no-nonsense businessman named Varner Paulsen was named to succeed him as general manager, and Paulsen soon came to the conclusion that Nat Asch was out of his element as program director. He approached Scott Muni for the position, the only staffer who could unite the disparate jocks by virtue of the respect he was accorded for his legendary market status.
Muni had never managed before and was reluctant, but Paulsen convinced him that he would handle the administrative work and leave Scott to his strength—music. And since the music was programmed by the jocks, Scott’s main task would be to ride herd gently, to prevent egregious abuses.
Muni did not take to certain aspects of the job readily. His first big test came early, when Varner Paulsen told him that his music director had physically assaulted a saleswoman. Scott told Paulsen that he had been fired many times, but had never fired anyone and dreaded the assignment. He asked his boss to give him some time to think about how he was going to execute the unpleasant task. Varner told him to call the recalcitrant music director to a 9 a.m. meeting in Paulsen’s office and that he would ease Muni through the process.
Although not overly lavish, the general manager’s office did have a window facing the Pan Am Building and a heavy oak door that shielded any commotion from the outside rooms. When Muni haltingly began the meeting saying that the man’s actions had left him no choice but termination, the man leaped from his chair and made a threatening move toward Muni, screaming, “You’re not going to fire me, goddamn it. Nobody’s going to fire me.”
Paulsen quickly moved from behind his desk to back up Muni, but the ex-Marine needed no such assistance. He shoved the man back into his chair and got in his face.
“Listen, you skinny son of a bitch,” he yelled. “You’d better get used to getting fired because as long as you can’t keep away from those drugs you’re using, you’re going to get fired over and over. You’re gonna be fired so many times the word will be emblazoned on your forehead. And you’re lucky I wasn’t around when you hit that woman. Because if I was there, I would have coldcocked you into the middle of next week. Now get your ass out of here before I throw you through that wooden door or out that window and they have to scrape you off Forty-fifth Street. I’m firing you and what are you gonna do about it?”
The young music director slinked out of the room, and Paulsen beamed toward Muni. “Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Muni’s words proved prophetic as years later, the former music director was working for a small station in Westchester and was fired for punching a politician he shared the dais with during a fund-raising rally.
Young Man’s Blues
I was lucky. In 1967, at eighteen years old, I was in the best aerobic shape of my life, having played freshman soccer for Adelphi the previous fall. I’m sure that was the only thing that prevented a fatal heart attack.
Here I was, alone in a dimly lit studio on a cold Saturday morning in late autumn. The hotline telephone was blinking, its red beacon signaling that owner John Reiger was about to fire me. I ignored it and tried to figure out why there had been no audio on WLIR for the last thirty seconds. My hands were shaking as I flipped switches and twisted buttons to no avail. Finally, I goosed one of the turntable knobs and felt a mushy click, and heard the surging strings of Mantovani. Success!
I gingerly picked up the phone, steeling myself for the barrage I knew was coming. It was Reiger, all right.
“What the hell is going on there? Why is there so much dead air? What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you ever been on the radio before? You’re finished. I’m calling your replacement right now. Dore, I can’t believe thi—” He slammed down the receiver before hearing my stammering apologies.
As I watched the Mantovani record spin on the aging Empire turn-table, I prayed that it would go on forever so that I didn’t have to change records again. I jiggled the switch on the opposite side, hoping that it caught in the right position. To hell with Reiger. I cued up the next album in the traditional manner, finding the beginning of the next track and backing it up a couple of turns. As Mantovani faded, I went through the multistep procedure necessary to change songs and miraculously, there was Percy Faith. I’d underestimated the time it would take to get up to speed however, and the record wowed in . . . unsonorously.
The hotline barked again. He’d already fired me once, so what else could he do? Besides, now I’d locked in the two turntables. I wasn’t going to get tricky and switch albums until each side ran out, and even then I contemplated just retreating back to the first cut on each and replaying them.
“Hey, how are you?” A deep voice, not Reiger’s, was on the other end. “It’s Mike Harrison. Reiger just called and said you’re having some trouble there.”
Harrison was the man I’d heard a few evenings before while checking out the station for the first time. He had to be a seasoned pro, probably having a good laugh at my amateur bumbling.
“Yeah, he just fired me, I think. Are you coming in now?”
“Forget about it. He must have fired me five times already. He thought your tape was the best he’s heard in a long time. Calm down. I’ll be there in a little while and help you out.”
“Thanks, Mr. Harrison. How far away are you? How long will it take you to get in?”
“Should be about fifteen or twenty minutes. How do you like your coffee?”
I told him, not realizing that caffeine was the last thing my jangled nerves needed now. But Harrison’s words were reassuring—maybe he could teach me how to overcome the quirks of WLIR’s ancient technical setup. Maybe I wasn’t really fired after all. Despite the low pay, the seven dollars I’d take home every week from a regular shift would put gas in the car and maybe allow me to hit the diner one night a week with my friends from the dorm.
My father had made it clear when he sent me away to school that his bank loan would cover tuition, the dorm room, and a meal ticket at Post Hall. Any discretionary spending money was up to me. And the car was due back so that my mother could use it. Living at home the previous summer, I’d managed to salt away almost my entire paycheck from the money I made as an assistant greenskeeper at a local country club. With a couple of Christmas checks from relatives, I should be able to make it through until summer. And if I could expand my role at WLIR . . . I was getting ahead of myself. I needed to keep what I had first.
The next hour went better as I began to get more comfortable with the equipment. There were still gaps of silence between elements, but since they were consistent, the effect was not jarring to the ear. When I signed on, I was so nervous that my voice was a couple octaves higher than its normal range and I must have sounded like the frightened kid I was. Normally, my radio voice was pitched much lower in an attempt to sound older. Gradually, the vocal cords loosened and I found my comfort zone.
Harrison arrived about an hour after he’d called. When he came through the studio door, I was unprepared for what I saw. I had pictured him in a corduroy jacket with patches, suede shoes, and an ascot, with silver hair and an elegant Don Ameche mustache.
But Mike Harrison was a
a few months older than me, and he was dressed in faded blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Slightly under six feet tall and lean, his black curly hair was long and shaggy. Twinkling brown eyes danced over a hawklike nose. He reminded me of John Kay, the lead singer of Steppenwolf. Did anybody on the radio look the way they sounded?
“Brought you coffee. You sound much better now. Haven’t heard from Reiger again, have you?”
As Bogey said to Claude Rains, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Harrison and I worked together at WLIR for the next four years. We romanced women together, ate together, even roomed together for a time. We were best men at each other’s weddings. We formed a bond that has lasted to this day. But in 1967, we were the punk kids on the WLIR staff of veterans. Some were destined to stay working on Long Island throughout their careers. Some were clearly on the downside of their radio lives, and had to find other ways to survive. But Harrison and I shared a dream: Someday we would work in New York together. And if we could, we wanted it to be at WNEW-FM.
At the time, it seemed a hopeless fantasy, or at least one that would be decades in the making. Radio had created a hierarchy over the years, much like baseball only less formally structured. You start at the bottom, college or noncommercial radio. Then, a small paid gig in a tiny market. Travel throughout the country, increasing market size with each stop until, if you were lucky and/or had enough talent, you’d arrive in New York—the big time. Only the best radio people were in New York. Not Chicago, L.A., or Boston. New York was A #1, king of the hill . . . top of the heap (sound familiar?).
We found out later that this was utter hogwash. Many smaller markets have people as good as New York has, but for whatever reason, they’ve opted to stay put rather than challenge the Big Apple. Some folks don’t care for the frenetic pace of Manhattan. Many realize that top dollar in a smaller market can afford a better way of living than similar money in New York. And there is the local nature of radio to contend with. A show that wows them in Cleveland might bomb on the East Coast, and vice versa. Humor that works in a big city might sound too elitist for the corn belt, and a midwestern monologue might fall flat in a city of skyscrapers.
At any rate, laboring at WLIR while honing our craft, Harrison and I were like the conspirators in
—plotting our eventual escape. We hoped that somehow we could advance ourselves. We hadn’t yet figured out how to make the jump from middle-of-the-road music to rock, but that would come later. Although we were less than thirty miles from the city, it might as well have been across the universe.
The air staff held WLIR in such low esteem that more than once it was deliberately knocked off the air. One such occurrence happened with a weekend morning host who was paid an unexpected visit from a friend and coworker at the station. The two were hungry and wanted to have breakfast together, but the 8 a.m. sign-on was approaching. So the jock, knowing that it would take at least twenty minutes for the plate current on the transmitter to recycle, flipped a switch and turned off the transmitter. He then threw it back to the warm-up stage, and left the building for breakfast with his friend at a nearby diner, noting on the station’s logs that the transmitter had overloaded and shut down.
One by one, regular hosts migrated from WLIR to greener pastures, and Harrison and I advanced until we were working full-time. We were both drama majors with education minors, and still entertained the notion that we might be great actors someday. I saw Harrison in a production of
and he stole the show, playing the evil count for laughs years before George Hamilton did. He did several shows at Nassau Community College with another young Long Islander who wanted to be a comedian and actor. He stuck with it longer than Michael and me, and now we’re forced to admit that he also had more talent. It’s still hard to believe that Harrison’s little friend turned out to be Billy Crystal.
College memories are supposed to be of idyllic times with frat parties, panty raids, football games, and similar shenanigans. But for Harrison and me, it was almost all work. We’d attend class in the morning, work at WLIR in the afternoon and early evening, and rehearse our plays at night. We didn’t mind because other than the lectures, we enjoyed what we were doing. I continued to play progressive rock at WALI until my junior year when my schedule didn’t allow it. WLIR became a small source of income and a training ground to hone our style. There was also the game of trying to outwit Reiger and get away with liberties, like playing too many vocal tracks in the afternoon instead of boring, sappy instrumentals. We’d try to sneak in someone like Ed Ames or Johnny Mathis covering a rock song. These were the minor victories that kept us sane.
Once, the boss called us in and criticized us for using our names too often. We always figured that if we’d identify ourselves every break, some big-time radio exec who lived on the Island might happen by our spot on the dial and be impressed. But Reiger thought this cult of personality was too much, so to spite him, we remained not only anonymous, but blatantly so. We’d sign off with, “We hope you enjoyed ‘Cocktails for Two.’ Stay tuned for ‘Dinner for Two,’ with your next WLIR announcer. I’m your current WLIR announcer . . . wishing you a pleasant evening.”
After a few days of this, Reiger caught on and rescinded the earlier edict. All the while, we listened to Rosko and Alison Steele at WNEW-FM and just knew that they didn’t have to put up with miserly owners telling them not to say their names. But WLIR wasn’t alone in indulging its owner’s quirkiness. One owner of a small suburban station called the hotline while Cher’s “You Better Sit Down Kids” was playing and harangued the disc jockey. “I’m a believer in family values,” he huffed, “and this song glorifies divorce.”
The jock explained to him that the song was on the playlist and that although it dealt with a divorced mother’s message to her children, it did not promote family breakups. The owner was having none of it, though, and demanded to be put on the air as the song ended. He proceeded to apologize to the audience for playing such a subversive tune and swore that it would never be aired again.
As WLIR grew more successful, benefiting from the FCC’s rulings on FM in general, our salaries slowly rose until they were brushing up against eighty dollars a week. And as plans were laid to demolish the old Garden City Hotel and replace it with a new building, WLIR was forced to relocate. Reiger chose a penthouse suite in the new Imperial Square Building, in the heart of Hempstead. New equipment was purchased, and finally we were working in a comfortable, modern environment. There were generously sized offices, storage libraries for the albums, a separate news booth and production space, and a spacious studio that could accommodate large roundtable discussions or even a small band. It was still the same old little station at 92.7, but it felt classier, leaving a subterranean dungeon for a deluxe apartment in the sky.
But the high-rent district had its price. Overhead soared and sales failed to keep pace and rumors flew that WLIR was either on the block or about to declare bankruptcy. Reiger was desperate to realize his vision as the center of Long Island culture for sophisticated adults, but WHLI AM-FM in Hempstead had an insurmountable edge. Just slightly hipper than WLIR, it was everything Reiger’s little shop aspired to be. Its ratings were always solid and they paid well by comparison.
There was no way that Harrison and I imagined that we could jump from the low minor leagues of WLIR directly to a dream job in New York. Progress had to be incremental, in baby steps. We were still in school, and dropping out to make a parallel move to a small-market progressive station in another part of the country was risky. The Vietnam War was still raging and we valued our student deferments. Boxed in by our own priorities and fears, we applied for jobs at WHLI. It wasn’t our ultimate goal: The music they favored was middle-of-the-road pap, but we saw it as a small step up.
It proved to be a humiliating experience. The haughty program director looked down his nose at our résumés, equating WLIR to some farm-belt AM daytimer. He gave us the bum’s rush and we vowed to get even someday.