The first impressive thing is the artists who step forward to testify. Brand names including Deborah Harry, Billy Idol, U2 (represented by manager Paul McGuinness), and Joan Jett. But also, Mike Score from A Flock of Seagulls, Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins, Book of Love leader Ted Ottavio, Vince Clarke of Erasure. And in the story of WLIR Long Island, N.Y., those acts were as much a part of the story as the superstars — on WLIR, they were superstars.
Then there are the music clearances — dozens and dozens of them. The documentary on the “Wrecking Crew” of L.A. studio musicians languished in limited release for years because of clearance issues. But WLIR, the New York area’s legendary Alternative outlet of the mid-‘80s, was clearly a station that artists wanted to pay back.
New Wave: Dare to Be Different premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. When it did, my neighbor, a Long Island native, got turned away — with a ticket — from the oversold screening. In late March, it premiered on Showtime. Shortly after that deal was announced, he saw me getting out of my car and rushed to my driveway to tell me about it. Such was the station’s impact.
WLIR finished its evolution to Alternative in 1982. It lost a protracted license battle with the FCC in 1987, with the frequency remaining Alternative as WDRE under the new licensee and a number of WLIR staffers (including PD Denis McNamara and Max Leinwand, who are executive producer and associate producer respectively here).
I worked briefly at WDRE in 1987-88, in between stints at R&R and Billboard. Moving to Long Island from Southern California, it was sometimes disconcerting to hear WLIR’s role in the format discussed as if there were no WPIX (New York’s short-lived new wave FM of 1978-79), KROQ Los Angeles (already an industry force when WLIR changed), or 91X San Diego (launched five months later). I crammed to learn the WLIR legacy retroactively, but it’s finally clear from seeing New Wave: Dare to Be Different (or just the excitement among station fans that preceded it) that it wasn’t the same as being there.
Director Ellen Goldfarb brings forth artist after artist, as well as label staffers and listeners, to recall the impact of hearing ‘80s new wave on the radio in this somewhat random locale — close enough to but not New York. If you were beyond the normal reach of its Class-A signal and going to great lengths to listen, 15 years before streaming — there was more cachet for students to be in the eastern dorms at New Jersey’s Montclair State University because they could hear the station — then WLIR definitely invented the format for you. And if you were on Long Island, where “dare to be different” —one of the station’s taglines — wasn’t always as easy as it sounded, the impact went well beyond the music.
For listeners, WLIR’s appeal was in its liberation from WPLJ and WNEW-FM (even though that station is itself remembered rapturously by a different set of listeners); the movie presents the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as the unavoidable tentpoles of ‘70s AOR, but when WLIR went Alternative in 1982, it was Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey from which WLIR was offering escape, not “Escape.” As telling, for the often UK-based artists, it was a welcome alternative to top 40 BBC Radio 1, hipper than its American commercial counterparts, but still a monolith.
Dare to Be Different was the documentary’s original title, modified when the Showtime deal was announced. Throughout the film, there’s a clear balancing act to be accessible to all viewers. But if you’re reading this review, the set pieces you’ll enjoy are the ones specifically related to the station — McNamara and the former engineer conducting a tour of the old studios; WLIR’s onstage shout-out from U2 as that band finally ascended to rock superstardom; a segment on the “Screamer of the Week” competition; a sequence on the reggae specialty show that helped Bob Marley finally find a radio home at Alternative, several years after his death. By contrast, a segment on CBGBs and the acts it made famous — Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie — seems shoehorned into the middle of the documentary, taking the narrative backwards chronologically to the WPIX era.
There’s no mention of WPIX or WDRE here. The documentary carefully ends with the sign-off of the original WLIR. Having seen the aftermath, the split between staffers who hoped to join owner Elton Spitzer at a new frequency and those who followed McNamara to WDRE was clearly bruising to my co-workers and undoubtedly to their former teammates as well. In time, things seemingly healed enough that the WLIR calls returned to the frequency for a while, and both sets of staffers are represented here. As for the music, Depeche Mode and the Cure remained prominent on Long Island radio for, well, as long as Depeche Mode and the Cure remained prominent.
In one of the documentary’s most galvanizing scenes, McNamara likens the FCC decision not to renew Spitzer’s license to the damage caused by deregulation a decade later. But in the mid-‘90s, even before deregulation, Depeche Mode, the Cure, and WLIR’s place in the firmament had been challenged when Nirvana and Pearl Jam became the new Beatles and Stones. Twenty-five years later, the Alternative format is more “true alt” again. Large group ownership and station clusters may even play into that — it is easier to downplay guitar rock if there’s an Active Rock station in the cluster — but there’s no claiming that the spirit hasn’t changed.
The segment in New Wave: Dare to Be Different that most brings that home is the one about the station’s relationship with the area record stores that stocked imports. Certainly, to a greater degree than its format counterparts, WLIR had no interest in whether a record was being “worked” to U.S. radio. Leinwand recalls how WLIR clashed with Island Records by adding Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” immediately — rather than letting the label marketing plan play out for the year that it took to become a full-fledged American hit. But WLIR also gave a career to APB, the Scottish band that didn’t even have hits at home, or anywhere else in the U.S. These days, the unwillingness of most stations to go “off the menu” to find even an individual song is well documented in these pages. So imagine the likelihood of any owner following the music to an entirely new format.