Wednesday, June 24, 2015

WNEW-FM: A Rewarding Listening Experience

(This article was written in 1975 for a Hunter College newspaper)
The decline and potential extinction of radio, which seemed imminent with the growth of television, twenty years ago, was deferred with the emergence of rock and roll. AM stations started to program music that attracted millions of young listeners and coming-of-age baby boomers. Suddenly, this fresh audience appealed to some advertisers, even as the prediction that the rambunctious, restless genre was a passing fad.
WNEW-FM Program Director/host Scott Muni
In a few years that dire forecast was almost forgotten as rock and roll began to overwhelm the airwaves nationwide. That growth was spurred with the arrival of The Beatles and the wave of British bands that leaped across the Atlantic and gradually helped the medium become a multi-billion dollar business.
By the mid-60s, for young music fans, the availability of hand-held transistor devices made radio an economical and accessible source for these new sounds and revived its health.
In addition to the British Invasion, fresh sounds were emerging on the west coast from Los Angeles and San Francisco. Even so, a decade following rock and roll’s emergence, there was a momentary snag when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared that station owners could no longer broadcast duplicate schedules 24 hours a day on its AM and FM bands. The FCC ruled that no less than 60 percent of FM programming had to be independent of the AM schedule. As a result, this decision was significant for radio and a windfall for rock music fans.
In a recent interview with WNEW-FM program director Scott Muni, he noted, “This was a tremendous break” for the public because it allowed innovative station managers and program directors to explore different formats for the FM outlets. While AM music stations continued to offer redundant Top 40 hits, it stifled opportunities for fresh talent, which could now be offered with the broader FM format.
However, in its infancy, FM programs were mostly classical, semi-classical, easy listening or talk formats. But, with ability to transmit in stereo with a clearer sound, avenues began to open up for rock music.
By the late sixties, in New York City, several FM rock stations materialized and established modest followings. WNEW-FM soon became the most popular — and the most creative. According to Muni, who came to the station in 1967 and instituted a free-form progressive rock genre, WNEW boasts the largest 18-34 audience of any local rock station. Quite a feat considering a dozen or so local AM and FM stations broadcast rock and roll in the New York market.
WNEW has six talented hosts, who program a variety of music 24 hours a day at 102.7 on the FM dial. There are three additional on-air personalities (the term preferable to disc jockey), who work weekends and as substitutes. Each one has a characteristic voice, individuality and, of course, music preference. In addition to musical knowledge, a few are also adept raconteurs, who provide engaging stories between long sets of music and brief commercial breaks.
Listening to WNEW-FM, as I have since 1968, the listener readily understands the radio is more than just a “talking box” or FM tuner. It transforms into a satisfying source of entertainment with few dull moments. While a listener may not prefer every song, if you patiently hang around, you’re more than likely to appreciate the following song or host’s story.
Each segment and each personality offers an eclectic music mix and listeners rarely know what to expect. It’s possible to hear Beethoven and Bach in one segment, followed by The Beatles and Beach Boys in another. The music is chiefly progressive rock, but it’s not uncommon to hear the Stones followed by Sinatra. Knowing that sort of a genre deviation is possible, only adds a dimension to the listening experience.
When I asked Scott about the station’s format and who devised it, he said, “We don’t have a format. We have a concept and each person who goes on the air has an idea of what he or she will play, but nothing is programmed in the traditional sense.”
Scott told me that he works with each host individually to discuss ideas, preferences and, sometimes, problems. He insures that a personality does not get locked into a rut by repeatedly playing the same artist or music. With a “ready rack” of over 300 current albums, and a library of some 10,000 records, every host has a variety to choose from.
Scott noted that it is “the unpredictability of each program” that makes occasional and regular listening interesting. “If you don’t like a group when you tune in, you’ll stick around because you know the artist or sound will be different the next time.”
One distinctive factor that separates AM and FM hosts, is the speed at which they talk. I asked Scott about this, since he had previously worked on the AM side at WMCA and WABC in New York. In fact, Muni was my interview choice since I remembered him as one of WMCA’s “Good Guys,” years earlier.
 “I could never talk that fast. I sometimes got flak from station managers about that. On AM, you’ve got to get the time, temperature, weather and call letters in at the start of a record. It was mandatory to get in as many commercials possible every hour. On AM, I’d get in 22 commercials in sixty minutes, whereas on FM it’s nine or ten in the same period.”
The emphasis on FM, he stressed, “is the music. We play lengthy blocks of music and brief blocks of commercials. It’s our way of respecting the intelligence of our listeners.”
I was then prompted to ask him what hosts did during long sets of music.
“At night, Alison (Steele) answers calls and talks to listeners about their likes and gripes. During my afternoon show, I read mail, talk to salesmen or meet with the general manager. You really don’t have that much time because you’re thinking about the best song to play next. By the time you decide, the track is almost over and the next one must be cued on the turntable. Each one of us does our own engineering, so there’s really not any wasted time.”
When I asked Scott if taped music would ever replace vinyl records, he assured me that “vinyl is the preferred choice. It has a better sound quality than tape.”
Nonetheless, he did point out that when a record becomes old or scratched it is transferred to tape to eliminate surface noise, but the sound may become distorted when a tape gets warm.
Tuning in regularly to ‘NEW listeners are bound to appreciate a little about each host, which adds a sense of “family” atmosphere and spirit de corps among the on air personalities.
Scott said he tends to select his “family” for talent and creativity rather than ego. Therefore, instead of recognizing hosts for gimmicks, you appreciate the individual personalities and music knowledge.
“Their honesty and sensitivity are far more evident than radio disc jockeys, who tend to rely on attention-getting devices and gadgets,” he said.
The clear and unblemished FM sound is amplified through the imaginative and perceptive WNEW-FM on-air personalities. From the warmth of Scott Muni to the mellowness of Alison Steele; from the ingenuity of Jonathan Schwartz to the wisdom of Dave Herman; from the unequivocal Pete Fornatele to the tenderness of Richard Neer, WNEW-FM is a complete listening experience and a rewarding part on any day.