Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Day A New York Radio Era Died

(Revision of article first published on November 19, 1998)
It wasn’t the day the music died, yet a treasured era in New York radio ended last Friday. Veteran WNEW-FM personality Scott Muni was fired from the station where he hosted an afternoon program for more than 30 years and also served most of that time as its program director. Also dismissed was popular ‘NEW morning host, Dave Herman, another rock radio veteran.        
'New staff, circa 1980
Despite the mild aftershocks to loyal WNEW-FM fans, the dismissals came as no surprise at a radio station that has been searching for a new identity —  and a younger audience as its ratings had shrunk in recent years.
Labeling this the end of free form rock radio is reasonable since Muni was one of a handful of radio pioneers who transformed the rock and roll format in the late 60s. (Herman could be considered the equivalent in Philadelphia where he worked at the time.) They were an integral part of a revolution that no longer exists, except perhaps on select college radio stations and a patch of singular late-night programs. (‘NEW veteran Vin Scelsa’s six-hour Sunday night show, “Idiot’s Delight,” is the station’s last refuge of the vanishing format.)
The changes Muni implemented were increasingly eclipsed by the harsh economics of an industry that ultimately abandoned them to bolster the bottom line and fiscal stakes of corporate giants that assimilated dozens of radio stations in the last two decades.
As new station managers came on board, they altered content and quality merely to boost profits and ratings. As a result, while the station’s faithful baby boomer core audience matured and stopped tuning as the station’s new honchos tested assorted formats seeking to attract another generation. Nevertheless, ratings continued to slide. In the last ratings period, WNEW-FM ranked a lowly 23rd with a dismal 1.5% of the local market’s radio audience.
The departure of Muni and Herman illuminates the abyss created years earlier when the free-form radio format was casually replaced by dull, repetitive playlists. It also eliminates an outlet that former listeners fondly remember as “the place where rock lives.”
For nearly 20 years, ‘NEW-FM made its mark on local airwaves and attracted a solid following by not restricting playlists that allowed hosts the latitude to program anything their resourceful minds desired. The gamut covered a wide range from rock music genres, as well as the occasional pop or classical standards. More significantly, when new artists emerged, Muni encouraged hosts to follow their musical tastes, which opened windows of opportunity to introduce discerning listeners to bands lacking a hit single, and, thus, largely ignored by other stations.
One striking innovation Muni introduced was purging the standard three-minute record, a format that guaranteed air time on Top 40 stations. Muni credited his audience with a longer attention span, which gave on-air personalities the freedom to air longer tracks. Now and then, a host would program a 10-minute track. I even recall listening to Iron Butterfly’s nearly 20-minute opus, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”
In addition to the changes Muni introduced, I remember two current events linked to him. The first, and less distinctive, occurred when a man was holding hostages at a midtown bank and demanded to talk to Muni, who was in the midst of hosting his afternoon slot. Authorities allowed Muni to negotiate with the culprit, who requested he play Grateful Dead music. He subsequently obliged, likely resulting in the episode, no doubt due to Muni’s involvement, concluding without injury to the hostages or the criminal.
The more memorable event was the night of December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was killed by a crazed gunman outside his upper west side Manhattan apartment. Muni, who befriended Lennon over the years with The Beatles and as a solo artist, was at a holiday party, with hosts and other “NEW personnel, when they received the tragic news and rushed to the station. Then, all through the awful night, the personalities reminisced about the man and his music between playing intermittent Lennon tracks and old ’NEW interview segments.
Rock radio stations, like WNEW-FM, once commanded cadres of loyal listeners, but, every few years the winds of pop culture transform contemporary music that force station owners to follow suit, typically resulting in ratings’ fluctuations, along with audience turnover.
However, the firings of Scott Muni and Dave Herman signaled the end of a diverse, integral radio era when disc jockeys were as consequential as the music they programmed.
Unadulterated rock radio lived for more than 20 years on WNEW-FM. For all intents and purposes, it died when its innovator, Scott Muni, was fired in 1998.