Column: Long Island radio the way it oughta sound

FLICKR PHOTO/cogdogblog
FLICKR PHOTO/cogdogblog

Personality. There used to be a lot of it in local radio. It wasn’t just about the music, but the jocks, the people between the tracks. They shopped at the same stores we did. Went to the same clubs. We drove by their offices. They were like pals. The “people” were what differentiated the stations from the mix tapes.

Michael White, editor
Michael White

There was plenty of news to be had as well. WGBB, for instance, was one of the biggest players in the Long Island news game, I’m told. Based in Merrick, the AM station had a packed newsroom in the 1970s, long before Channel 12 or the Internet.

“Election night was always a long haul,” recalled former WGBB newsman Gary Lewi. “We were logging 23-hour days but for us we were at the center of the action. The station only had 1,000 watts, but with the population density the way it was, you had an audience.”

Gary has fond memories of working with guys like Ed Grilli and Larry Barr. The three called their little news crew “Lewi’s Barr & Grilli.”

But something happened in the early 1980s that changed the landscape. Those in broadcasting know it as deregulation.

“It used to be that stations were mandated by the FCC to carry a certain amount of locally originated material.” Gary told me. “These were public airwaves and you had to demonstrate you were filling the mandate of a public good.”

Deregulation stripped away those rules, he said, with the idea that market forces would define what’s aired. Most stations stopped spending money on local content.

“You had collateral damage,” he said.

For Gary and many others, that meant their jobs.

But the changes also robbed whole communities of a voice. Sure, no one’s getting rich interviewing the head of the Lions Club, but it helped satisfy the FCC and contributed to the greater good. What’s that worth?

For Cindy Clifford of Riverhead, co-host of the WALK Breakfast Club morning show on 97.5 FM, the bigger blow to radio through deregulation came in the form of increasingly relaxed rules that allowed huge conglomerates to gobble up more and more stations.

“Rather than it being local radio, suddenly you’ve got a guy from California telling the stations what to do, and it changes things,” she said. “And a conglomerate can have one person doing the job at five or six stations. There’s a lot of stations in the country where you could tune in and hear the same guy. But you miss that local connection. It changes the relationship between the audience and the voice. Most of these stations don’t even have any people in on weekends.”

Yet two East End stations are exceptions to the rule: WLNG in Sag Harbor and WRIV in Riverhead. (And, unlike conglomerate-run stations, the locals produce local content on weekends.) At WRIV, Johnny Niecko, who announced recently that he’s retiring, has been hosting “Sunday Polka Time” for 31 years. Pat Kelly, who just completed his 26th season broadcasting Riverhead football games for WRIV and will now move on to basketball, has come to be known as the voice of the Blue Waves.

There’s also a connection between the stations. WRIV general manager Bruce Tria, who hosts the weekday morning “Dawn Patrol,” got his first radio job at WLNG, where he learned what “works” from local legend Paul Sidney.

Gary Sapiane started at WLNG in 1966, when he was still in high school. He never left, and he now runs the show as president and general manager. This year, WLNG celebrated 50 years on the air.

“We never deregulated during deregulation,” he said. “For us, being live and local works. That’s what Paul Sidney always believed in when he was alive. People want to tune in to hear that kind of stuff — birthdays, lost dogs. With the big conglomerates, what happens is that they move to voicetrack all day and there’s nobody in the building.”

Local content is also something satellite radio and streamers like Pandora can’t compete with, the experts point out.

As for news, Long Island radio could be coming full circle. The owners of rock station WRCN 103.9 FM announced last month a coming change in format to Long Island news and talk.

“Long Islanders are starving for local news and information,” John Caracciolo of JVC Media, which owns the station, wrote on his Facebook page. “Why should we have to wait 22 minutes to hear about the world when all we really want is Islip to Southampton?”

The experts tell me there’s a market for this, but to be successful, JVC Media will have to commit to the locally originated content and not rely on syndicated shows.

“If they do the right thing and work hard and diligently,” said Gary Sapiane, “why shouldn’t it work?”

“A lot of people still rely on radio,” assured Cindy Clifford. “We still have a lot of people tune in to school closings when they can easily get that information from five other sources. We still have people asking for happy birthdays.

“There’s just something about hearing it on the radio.”

Michael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or (631) 298-3200 . Follow him on Twitter at @mikewhite31.