OK, here we go, more of my countdown of the top 20 most famous places that are no longer with us, this is number
WNEW FM , 1967 — 1998
At one time New York radio was arguably a greater extension of the local communities than it is today. It was less commercial, more independent, less corporate, more creative. It could help shape trends instead of being affected by them. AM was top 40, FM was the frontier. DJ’s experimented, talked to you for a few minutes, discussed the music and what it meant. DJ’s had personalities, but they also fit in with those of their stations formats.
Throughout its years from 1967 on, WNEW management steadily took control of the station away from the disc jockeys, but I personally think of 1984 as the high point for traditional rock music and for WNEW itself. We had among others Springsteeen, Van Halen, Tom Petty, Journey, The Cars, Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, the Pretenders, Van Halen, all great rock acts, at or near their peak of popularity. Stations like WNEW could play these right alongside classic rock bands like The Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, and it all seemed to fit together and make sense on one station with one audience. This would all change dramatically in a short time.
By the late 80′s Journey and The Cars seemed to be running out of gas, Springsteen had frozen out the E Street Band, and Pat Benatar and Joan Jett were no loner flying as high. Acts like Guns and Roses and Motely Crue brought headbanging to the scene, but theirs was a sound classic rock fans did not necessarily embrace. Newcomers like U2 and REM didn’t mix in as well either. By the time Nirvana and Pearl Jam came through in the early 90′s, the traditional rock music format, once thriving in unified form for years, had become completely fragmented. The rock station you could be in 1984 you could no longer be 1991. You could no longer cater to one part of the audience without alienating the other. Pearl Jammers didn’t want to hear the Who and vice versa, etc. etc. etc.
WNEW never seemed to realize what had happened and what it meant. If it was to survive it had to choose a direction to go in and fast. The logical step for them to go would be classic rock, they had been building an audience for years, they were the oldest name in rock on the air waves. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few good old on-air personalities who understood music enough to explain what their intentions were while sounding familiar to listeners. Instead, the station flipped back and forth between old and new; first they went modern, then they went back to classic, in turn alienating both audiences. When Opie and Anthony walked in to take the reins for the afternoon slot in 1998, there was nobody left listening to the station for its music anymore.
Looking back, to expect WNEW management at CBS to have the patience and vision to accept the fact that they would be running what was essentially an oldies station would have been a tough pill to swallow; and CBS is often impatient with struggling station formats to begin with. In 2005 they decided to kill perennial oldies favorite WCBS and make it JACK FM (JACK failed so miserably they soon brought CBS 101.1 back). So it’s hard to imagine they would have given WNEW much time. CBS has since brought back the WNEW call letters back on an internet station at wnew.radio.com, but the station seems to have a tenuous existence. I tried playing it today and got an error message saying that the station could not be found.
My Prior Entry of Top 20 Place was #’s 13, 14 and 15 Rockaway Playland, RKO Keith’s, and Forest Hills Stadium here.
For more on WNEW and FM radio, read Richard Neer’s The Rise and Fall or Rock Radio . He is now (an excellent) host on sports WFAN and his book chronicles his years at the station. You can also read a CNN interview with Neer here, and more WNEW memorabilia can be found here.