Death of WNEW-FM a Cautionary Tale
Monday, March 3, 2003 Posted: 1:45 PM EST (1845 GMT)
WNEW-FM once ruled as the nation’s premier rock station, boasting an influence that extended far beyond its Manhattan-based signal.
‘NEW was rock ‘n’ roll: John Lennon stopped by to spin records, the Grateful Dead played cards in the studio, and new music from the Rolling Stones to the Ramones to the Replacements was championed.
“Like MTV is now?” says Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. “WNEW was that.”
The venerable station has gone from free-form to free fall, barely registering an Arbitron rating and dumping its most recent format — talk — last month. That decision followed a scandal that threatened the station’s license: two shock jocks broadcast a pair of listeners allegedly having sex inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The station plans to reincarnate itself, with a new format debuting this spring, said Dana McClintock, spokesman for station owner Infinity Broadcasting Corp. (a part of the media conglomerate Viacom, which also owns CBS, MTV, VH1, UPN, Paramount, Simon & Schuster and other properties).
Shock jocks airing lurid stunts? When WNEW switched to album-oriented rock in 1967, such things didn’t exist.
“It’s a different station now,” says Richard Neer, a disc jockey who spent 28 years at WNEW. “The only unfortunate thing is that it still bears the same call letters. It’s like a disreputable pretender using your identity.”
‘Our audience literally grew up with us’
At the old ‘NEW, Arbitron numbers were winked at, and the music meant everything. There was no playlist, and it quickly became THE rock station in the nation’s No. 1 market, even as the new format took off at KSAN-FM in San Francisco and WBCN-FM in Boston.
“WNEW was the hip place, where the hip people who were into music went,” says Pat St. John, a DJ at rival WPLJ — until he joined ‘NEW in 1987. “The best thing that ever happened to me,” he still maintains.
Lennon dropped by one Saturday to chat with DJ Dennis Elsas, play some favorite records and debut his “Walls and Bridges” album. When a still obscure Bruce Springsteen played locally in 1975, WNEW aired one of the breakout shows live (and bootlegs of the concert remain collector’s items).
“The new artists and the new music that came through the door daily were unbelievable,” recalls Elsas. Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend and George Harrison were among the rock royalty who sat for WNEW interviews.
When Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan on December 8, 1980, many New Yorkers heard the news from DJ Vin Scelsa. The station became the center of the rock community’s mourning, playing nothing but Lennon music for the next 24 hours, interspersed with calls from grieving listeners.
Neer remembers it as the most important day in station history. WNEW thrived through most of the ’80s, its family of loyal listeners tuning in even as free-form faded away and playlists began. The station and the listeners shared a bond forged over two decades. “Our audience literally grew up with us,” says Elsas, who joined the station right out of college in 1971. “The music and the air personalities really did reflect a whole spirit of that generation.” But near the end of the decade, the first discordant notes sounded. Station ownership turned over three times in little more than a year. Formats were tried, tweaked, fine-tuned and forgotten.
Worst of all, the station’s storied past was ignored.
“There were consultants, people from outside your own market, hired as ‘experts’ to tell you what sounded good,” says Elsas. “By the mid-’90s, we really started to veer off course.”
The problems reached a crescendo on August 9, 1995: the day Jerry Garcia died. “Everybody turned to ‘NEW,” St. John recalls. “They came to share the pain of losing Jerry, as they did when John Lennon died.”
But instead of a Garcia tribute, WNEW stayed in its format-of-the-moment: a mix of classic and alternative rock. Instead of “Casey Jones” or “Touch of Grey,” listeners heard the Smashing Pumpkins.
Neer, who chronicled the station’s long run in his book “FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio,” cites a parade of misguided program directors.
Many, Neer says, “were clueless as to the station’s heritage and obviously were headed in the wrong On September 13, 1999, WNEW — under the ownership of Infinity — dumped music for a so-called hot talk format. Neer, St. John and Elsas were all gone.
Their replacements included shock jocks Opie and Anthony, who were fired after instigating the St. Patrick’s stunt. “The place where rock lives” — the station’s longtime motto — became the place where anything goes, as WNEW alumni cringed.
“We really wished they would have changed the call letters,” St. John said. “People grew up with and loved that station. It was never a station of smut … It treated listeners with respect.”
Since Opie and Anthony were cashiered, the station had no star personalities, and Infinity pulled the plug on January 26. The last Arbitron rating for the station was 0.7 — a blip on the New York radio radar screen.
While in format limbo, the station plays Top 40 music by Nelly and Mariah Carey. One hour is devoted to playing the audio of David Letterman’s “Late Show.”
The station’s vets all landed new gigs: Neer on sports radio, St. John on an oldies station, Elsas at a public radio station. All wonder about the future of their old home, but none dwell too long.
“Let’s celebrate WNEW for what it was,” says Elsas. “I love my past, I’m proud of what I did on the radio, but that was then. I live in a new world.”