In this week’s issue… WPLJ’s architect dies – Toronto legend sets retirement date – Remembering Barry Lunderville, Hank Greenwald
By SCOTT FYBUSH
Larry Berger, who became program director of WPLJ (95.5) in 1974 and stayed in that post through the station’s transition a decade later from album rock to top-40, died September 25, though the news of his death only became public last week.
Before hitting the big time in New York, Berger started in radio in NEW JERSEY as a student at Rutgers University, working down the street at WCTC (1450 New Brunswick). After graduating in 1966, he went to WWRL (1600) in Queens as music director, then got his first PD gig in 1968 at WALL (1340) in Middletown, one of the many huge talents who passed through that small station.
In 1973, ABC hired Berger to program WRIF (101.1) in Detroit, one of its chain of FM rock stations – and that led him back to New York and sister station WPLJ in 1974, just in time to create some radio magic. In a tight battle against RKO’s 99X (WXLO 98.7) and Metromedia’s WNEW-FM (102.7), Berger’s version of WPLJ distinguished itself through its personalities, its live performances, Berger’s own call-in show – and through the very distinctive audio processing that Berger helped to craft.
WPLJ outlived 99X, survived the disco revolution of the late 1970s, and kept playing music after its huge AM sister, WABC (770), flipped to talk in 1982. A year later, in June 1983, Berger observed the rise of MTV, the decline of the album rock format and the new competition from upstart rocker WAPP (103.5), making the difficult decision to transition WPLJ away from rock to top-40 in the space of just a week.
Berger’s new top-40 WPLJ quickly found itself in the heat of a format war when WHTZ (Z100) made its splashy debut two months later. And while it’s WHTZ that’s probably better remembered now, having stayed in the format for 35 years, “Power 95” was a fierce competitor, eventually even dropping the WPLJ calls for WWPR.
Berger left New York and ABC in 1988, settling in San Francisco, where he programmed KIOI and KSOL/KSRY before starting a consulting business in his retirement years. He remained a frequent contributor to radio message boards, sharing stories of his long career and his many triumphs.
Details of his death and memorial plans remain incomplete; we’ll let you know as we hear more.
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