New Yorks Daily News 1/16/07
By DAVID HINCKLEY
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Fresh-FM (102.7 FM) officially became WWFS last Tuesday, meaning that for the first time since Feb. 13, 1934, New York doesn’t have a WNEW. But while this closes the book on a major chapter in city radio history, it’s been years since WNEW really meant much.
At one time, though, it stood for marvelous and timeless music – the Great American Songbook on 1130 AM and rock, broad and ragged, on FM. So important was WNEW that it helped shape some of the music it played, simply by giving it such a welcoming and open platform. Just as Frank Sinatra felt at home with William B. Williams on WNEW-AM, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia would drop in on Scott Muni and his merry band at WNEW-FM.
“Those call letters represented specific times in the history of New York City,” says Jonathan Schwartz of WNYC and XM Satellite Radio, who was a host on both stations. “WNEW-AM was as much a part of the city as Jimmy Cannon or Brooks Atkinson. The FM represents the ’60s and early ’70s for a lot of people.”
Those days, however, are as gone as subway tokens and Ebbets Field.
WNEW-AM gradually lost its prominence after it got belted by rock music and by FM. It was a shadow, though still often charming, when it was sold to Bloomberg and became WBBR on Dec. 15, 1992. In the 1980s, meanwhile, WNEW-FM became more tightly formatted, and by the 1990s it had launched a dizzying series of format changes that moved through alternate rock, classic rock, album rock, hot talk, pop, adult contemporary and dance. Finally, with the arrival of adult contemporary “Fresh,” CBS Radio sent the call letters to West Palm Beach – a fittingly symbolic retirement for a New Yorker.
Pete Fornatale, a former WNEW-FM jock now on WFUV (90.7 FM), said recently the letters should have been retired years ago, and many of his colleagues agree their real legacy is what WNEW used to mean. “They were synonymous with fun, spontaneous radio that had real integrity,” says Meg Griffin of Sirius Satellite Radio, a WNEW-FM alumna. “It was an independent-thinking station built by a brave programmer, Scott Muni, who was acutely tuned to the fact something was happening.”
“This is another part of New York’s history slipping away,” says Carol Miller of WAXQ, another WNEW-FM vet. She notes that Fresh and other recent 102.7 FM formats “weren’t even using the call letters. … Listeners of Mix may not have even been aware of what was on the frequency before. So what was the point?”
In one sense, the departure of WNEW simply completes a pop music circle.
When WNEW-AM launched in February 1934, as a merger of WAAM and WODA, the “WNEW” call letters were chosen to tell listeners this was a “new” sound. Within a year WNEW began revolutionizing radio by building shows on 78 rpm records rather than relying on live bands with only the occasional recorded disk. For decades, WNEW and its music flourished. But by the time it signed off in 1992, pop standards and its audience were widely regarded in radio as too old. Today, on New York radio, you can’t find them. More striking is how the same thing has happened with the music of WNEW-FM, which started playing rock in 1967. New York today has no full-time current rock station. So in some ways, the end of WNEW is a thanks-for-the-memories moment.
“Those of us who were in the tribe as listeners or lucky DJs will always have what it was,” says Griffin. “WNEW was part of this city,” says Schwartz. “It was in the skin of this city.”
Originally published on January 16, 2007