Surfing the New Wave
Documentary on influential Long Island radio station WLIR-FM 92.7 arrives on DVD
On August 2, 1982, WLIR, a small radio station in Hempstead, Long Island, changed its format. They jettisoned the Southern boogie and AOR artists they’d been featuring, and began playing the punk and new wave bands that were beginning to change the face of music. Their new slogan, “Dare to Be Different,” resonated with their listeners and, within a year, they became one of the most influential outlets in the States. They were the first commercial station to play U2, Duran Duran, Prince, The Police and the alternative rock and British synth-pop bands that were beginning to explode in Europe.
WLIR only had a tiny 3,000-watt transmitter and the studio was put together with a patchwork of antique equipment, but they made up for their technical shortcomings with the music they played and the personalities of the DJs that played it. Program Director Denis McNamara and the station’s other announcers including Larry the Duck and Malibu Sue McCann, to name just two, sparked the interest of listeners with the music and the patter they created off the top of their heads. For nine years (1982 – 1991) WLIR was the hottest, hippest radio station in America. Although not widely known in the rest of the country, their loyal fans worshiped the station, the music it played and the men and women who played it. One of those fans, director Ellen Goldfarb, made a film about the station and its place in music history.
New Wave: Dare To Be Different uses archival footage, testimonials from the station’s DJs and interviews with industry talents like Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, Billy Idol and other A-list personalities, to tell the story of the station and its short, brilliant history. Goldfarb spoke to The Globe about the film’s genesis and the effect WLIR had on her creative and personal life.
Why did you feel the need to document the history of WLIR?
I grew up listening to the station and wondered what happened to it and why it went off the air. I found a bunch of Facebook pages dedicated to the station, where people were talking about how they missed the station. I did some research and realized that there was a good story behind the station and that inspired me to document it.
It took us seven years to complete the film, from the original idea to post production. The first person I contacted was Denis (McNamara, WLIR program director). I found him through a website put together by a historian of the station, Bob Wilson. Denis connected me to some people, others I met on my own and, slowly, I gathered all the people I needed to interview. It was a domino effect. Someone would speak to us and refer us to someone else and so on.
How important was WLIR to your artistic and personal development?
It was very important. They were playing groundbreaking music you couldn’t hear anywhere else. The fans created their own social media network. We didn’t have the Internet, but we had WLIR and listened to find out what clubs to go to, what new songs were coming out, where to get our hair cut and buy our clothes and records. We could call the station and talk to the DJs on the air. It was a more innocent time.
WLIR had a symbiotic relationship to the clubs on Long Island like The Spit, Malibu, Thrush, Spize and 007. I went to those clubs and they looked like they did in the archival footage. They were places to meet like-minded people. We’d all dress up and the clubs would stay open to three in the morning. It was a lot of fun. I want it to bring people back to those days and stir up the emotions we had back then. Dark things were going on, but pre-Internet and social media, you didn’t know about it instantly, they way you do today. I think the music, and the station, changed people’s lives. We were devastated when it went off the air. We never knew why. I wanted to find out, and I did. (Litigation with the FCC about the station’s license to operate.)
Do you listen to radio today? Can you explain to our readers how important radio was in the 70s/80s, before the Internet explosion?
Today, I listen all over – SiriusXM, talk radio, all the music channels and alternative rock stations, but there’s not the same connection. It’s all nationalized. Only one or two companies own all the radio stations, so you don’t get the DJ/fan connection with people on the radio. As far as bands getting exposure, it’s not that easy. Everybody can make a video and put it up on YouTube, but the whole music industry has changed. I don’t know if you’ll ever get that experience back.
Radio was a creative, artistic space that was supposed to be for all the people. Since it’s been taken over by the big companies, its got a completely different vibe to it. WLIR broke a lot of women artists and gay artists, a big risk in the 70s/80s. They had a show called “Punky Reggae Party.” It might have been first world music program on US radio. Maybe you could hear some of that stuff on college radio, but commercially, WLIR was the only station dedicated to that kind of music.
They also streamed the entire LIVE AID concert live, with no commercials. That was a phenomenal feat.
They had a contest. The listeners that won were flown to England with Denis to see it live, at Wembley Stadium. Some of the WLIR DJs were there too. It’s something you’d never hear on the radio today. It was great that (station owner) Elton Spitzer gave everyone the freedom to do what they wanted to do. WLIR had a supportive owner, an intelligent, creative program director (Denis McNamara) and DJs that were artists themselves. They did all their own programming, created the segues between songs, all the station promos. They were way ahead of their time.
What’s next for you?
We’re still working on getting international distribution for the film and we’re putting together a soundtrack album. Since you can find almost everything on the Internet, we’re looking for tracks that will surprise people. I’d like to take the transcripts of the interviews that weren’t used in the movie and put them in a book. I also have some ideas for some other films I want to do too, so we’ll see how it goes.
(New Wave: Dare to Be Different can be seen on Showtime’s On Demand channel. It will be released on DVD on December 7th.)
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