In this week’s issue… WPLJ winds down with a love letter to radio – WXTL shifts to the stream – WEEU bid date set – Station sale in Maine – Bell consolidates country formats
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*NEW YORK – Can you hold two conflicting truths in your mind at once?
One: When Cumulus handed off WPLJ (95.5 New York) to new owner EMF at 7 o’clock Friday night, the station it was selling was, in its current form, an afterthought in the nation’s biggest market. Down in the ratings cellar, WPLJ in 2019 was the third-rated of three stations competing for hot AC listeners – and unlike competitors WLTW (iHeart) and WNEW (Entercom), it lacked the support and sales heft of a large cluster of music stations flanking it. If it hadn’t borne the callsign and frequency that still linked it back to the glory days of New York FM radio in the 1970s and 1980s, its demise might have been unmourned beyond the message boards and a NERW story.
Two: But because WPLJ did still have that callsign and frequency, its final days did end up mattering. And because PD Dave Labrozzi and his team were given the chance to go out in style, they tapped into the 48-year history of WPLJ, inconsistent though it might have been, to tell a moving, passionate story about what radio once was and can still be.
If you care about radio and its history, it’s not hard to see why this particular ending was an important one. Rewind to 1977, when an FM station first topped WPLJ’s sister WABC in the ratings, or to 1982, the “day the music died” when WABC went talk, or to 1983, when WPLJ dropped rock for top-40. Look at the radio listings (when there were such things) in the newspapers (when there were such things), and almost every other touchstone of the FM music dial is long gone.
WKTU, WYNY, WRKS, WPIX-FM, WNEW? WPAT-FM, WTFM, WRFM? All of them had their endings, even if a few of the calls or formats returned later. Only WCBS-FM and WBLS would still be at least vaguely recognizable to a 1970s listener. And WPLJ – well, that was the interesting one, because even if it changed completely over the years, it did so gradually. That 1983 format change? PD Larry Berger, who executed it, stayed on, and so did much of the airstaff. The brief exile of the WPLJ calls later in the decade? It didn’t come with a complete upheaval of the staff, either, and neither did the return of the calls a year later.
In the years that followed, the station’s other shifts were also gradual ones, which explains why WPLJ on its penultimate day in 2019 was one of the few stations anywhere in the country that could play Taylor Swift, segue into a vintage Bruce Springsteen live cut, and somehow plausibly have it all feel like it was part of the same thing over the decades. (And then sell its listeners a $20 t-shirt featuring five decades of station logos…)
Berger, sadly, left us last year and so wasn’t around to be part of the giant radio group hug that was WPLJ’s remarkable Thursday on the air. Everyone else, however, all seemed to make it up to the 17th floor at 2 Penn Plaza (or at least to the phone lines) to share in a succession of memories and moments. Competitors? Not on Thursday, when Scott Shannon and Dave Stewart and Broadway Bill Lee came over from Entercom, and Jim Kerr and Shelli Sonstein and Carol Miller came over from iHeart, and Pat St. John from SiriusXM, and… well, it seemed like everyone who’d ever cracked a mic at 95.5 on the dial was there to share a memory or play a favorite song or enjoy a vintage aircheck. Joey Kramer shared his evening shift with yet more PLJ alumni, wrapping up a day of radio about radio that will long be remembered.
On Friday, it was all about the current airstaff and the listeners. Todd Pettengill and Jayde Donovan and their cast said their tearful farewells in morning drive, Melony Torres opened the phones wide for listeners in the midday, and in WPLJ’s final hours, it was veteran afternoon voice Race Taylor who had the honor of bringing it all home. His last show included tributes to WPLJ’s engineers over the years, to Labrozzi and his predecessors in the PD chair, and a montage of so many of the on-air voices from over the years.
It ended the way it had to end: just as WABC ended its music era to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” so too did WPLJ. It wasn’t quite the last song; with a few minutes remaining, Taylor closed it out with the song that gave WPLJ its name, “White Port and Lemon Juice,” a few more staff goodbyes, followed by the coda to the Beatles’ “The End,” and his own final toast:
“May the 48 year run of this radio station prove to be a testament to the power and the love of terrestrial radio and may the mere thought of the letters PLJ bring a smile to your face, a warmth to your heart and a tingle to your ears. Heres to those who have walked these halls and breathed life into these microphones. It is with peace, love and joy that we toast the white port and lemon juice… and for one final time, from high above Madison Square Garden, this is the world-famous WPLJ, New York.”
No, there won’t be any local voices on 95.5 under EMF. As we’ve covered repeatedly over the years here in this space, the EMF model is very different from commercial radio – and, like it or not, very, very successful at what it does. It’s inoffensive, it can verge on the bland and repetitive, and from coast to coast it attracts a flood of listener dollars that keep paying for the acquisition of more and more signals, including the half-dozen former Cumulus stations that came on board Friday in Washington, Atlanta, San Jose and elsewhere in addition to New York.
What happens next? Read on…
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