A Living, Breathing Thing…

Early into my time in New York, I met someone who would become one of my closest friends. Mike Erickson was the Chief Engineer of WCBS-FM, and quickly impressed me because he’s one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in radio.

We both share a passion for great audio processing, and one night over a slice of New York pizza, we talked about something that we both recognized about the GREAT radio stations… they become a “person writ large,” or a “living, breathing thing” as I always like to say. Great radio stations have a ‘station-ality’ that cuts through so strongly that a listener immediately knows what station they’re listening to without a jock or a piece of imaging even saying the station’s name. These are the stations with personality oozing out of the speakers – great jocks, well written imaging, a unique format, and a strong brand that stands the test of time. These aren’t just ‘radio stations,’ they are true companions with a genuine relationship to a community of listeners. These are a rare breed these days, but some still exist.

A few weeks after this conversation, Mike invited me to join him on a short road trip out to eastern Long Island to see a radio station that was a great example of the traits we had talked about a few weeks earlier. We arrived at our destination in Sag Harbor, NY… and that was the day that I first encountered the legendary WLNG.

At first blush, WLNG sounded like a parody of a 1960’s style small market top 40 – complete with a “Swap n’ Shop” show, PAMS jingles, personality jocks, and a long playlist of mostly classic hits. But this was no parody. WLNG just never stopped doing this kind of radio. Not only was it still doing it, it was thriving at it. Many competitors have tried to de-throne WLNG through the years and wrongfully assumed that the audience felt WLNG was “hokey” and old. But WLNG’s loyal listeners and advertisers kept it on top year after year. As the old saying goes, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Touring through the building, I couldn’t help but to notice the storied history of WLNG posted all over the wall in the form of newspaper clippings, community awards, and pictures galore. WLNG’s founder, a legendary Long Island broadcaster by the name of Paul Sidney, was featured in many of the clippings going back to the late 1960’s / early 1970’s. One photo showed Sidney doing a remote from the storefront window of a local furniture store. The story goes that the furniture store owner didn’t believe that radio worked, so Sidney lived in the storefront window to prove him wrong. Sure enough, it worked.

The place sounded and felt like the “living, breathing thing” that I spoke of earlier. It didn’t take long to figure out why WLNG had become such an institution in the Hamptons.

In the years since I’ve left New York, I continued to watch this station because it was such a great example of true community radio. And, as I later learned, I’m not alone – many of the most respected people in our industry are fans of WLNG for the same reason.

But sadly, it seems like the legendary WLNG is on the verge of being dismantled. In spite of the fact that Paul Sidney passed away in 2009, the station has continued to operate with the same general philosophy that he developed – until this month – when WLNG was sold.

What has happened since is the perfect example of my previous article from May, 2015 entitled “Destruction of a Brand.” In that article, I outlined 8 major reasons why long running successful brands die. WLNG is a great example of reason #5 from the article: “CHANGE FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE. Usually some corporate pencil-pusher comes into town and becomes a self-appointed “expert” on the market within a matter of hours. With total disregard to the nuances of the market, they make arbitrary changes to the successful brand with the thought that they are “improving” it, when in reality they kill it.”

I’m sure the new owners have the best of intentions, but they are eliminating many of the things that made WLNG the unique brand that it was. The jingles are now gone. The talent is only allowed to talk 4x per hour. The playlist has been cut. Many of the community service elements have been eliminated, including far fewer newscasts. It’s starting to sound like just another classic hits station. But WHY?

In their defense, WLNG probably could have used some subtle updating – perhaps tightening up the music, and moving it forward a few years to keep up with changing audience demographics. And some of the PAMS jingles were sounding a bit worn. But simple updating could have been done without extinguishing the soul of WLNG like they have. Unfortunately, it seems like the new owners are being reckless with a beloved brand, and I can almost predict where this going.

I’m only guessing, but I bet the new owners are getting advice from outsiders who, although well-intended, do not know the nuances, history, and unique qualities of WLNG. It’s my hope that they would instead talk to the people who know the brand first hand – the people that currently work there. Find out what works and WHY it works. Certainly the current staff is more than capable of developing an updated WLNG while still preserving those elements that made this unique station so successful all these years. And who better to know what has made that station special than those who have been there all along?

It’s not too late to save WLNG. But if history is any guide, my guess is that the new owners will forge ahead with their plans without regard to the rich heritage and uniqueness of WLNG, and the end will soon be near. And what a tragic end it will be – another one of America’s broadcast treasures unnecessarily transformed into just another radio station.

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5 thoughts on “A Living, Breathing Thing…

  1. kfodor

    Though I am generally in favor of gold based formats, the reality is: The “oldies” format now largely reaches people over the age of 60. Advertisers and agencies tend to stray away from those formats because it is assumed that once you have reached that age, your buying preferences are set and not influenced by radio ads. That may or may not be the case…but I programmed a similar station in a Big Ten College town where the only thing the advertisers kept asking us was, “When are you guys going to play some 80’s music?” We lost 50 cents on a dollar 20 years ago, because the advertisers thought we were “too old”.

    Reply
    1. Mike Erickson

      WLNG is a very different situation. Its not as much about demos as it as about local direct. There are no big box stores on Eastern LI. Everyone shops at the local hardware store and the stand alone department store. These are the businesses that have made WLNG top line for as far back as I can remember. Why screw with it?

      This is the one station where you actually have to throw away the playbook.

      Reply
  2. admin Post author

    I received the following response from the new owner of WLNG, and am posting this at her request:

    While this intro would be more entertaining if it had one of the famed WLNG jock jingles, it is fitting that plain printed words detail who I am and why I am responding to your blog posting. My name is Sandra Foschi and I am honored and privileged to have owned WLNG for the last 20 days.

    The only radio station experience I’ve had is when I was invited to try out as a health expert for a call in radio talk show. I was told by the producer that although my voice and recommendations to the callers were genuine and voted the best, I was not awarded the position because I had no product or book to sell. Nutritionist to the stars, Oz Garcia was eventually hired and the whole thing folded shortly thereafter. When the producer told me I wasn’t going to get the job, he did however ask if I wanted to go out to dinner. To have my personal radio story go from a proposition for a date to ownership says a lot about the sign of the times….and me.

    None of WLNG’s nuances or history are lost on me – I wholeheartedly knew exactly what I was undertaking. I am not being advised by “outsiders”. There is much more to celebrate in my purchase than there is to be upset about. To use your own words, I am no “corporate pencil-pusher”. I am a Sag Harbor resident who loves all the businesses that make my community a home. The jingles, the reverb, the music are identifiable with WLNG but what is legendary and most vibrant about WLNG is its dedication and involvement in local community. This is never going to change.

    You wrote, “The jingles are now gone. They are not. In fact, we will be featuring them at various points during the day.

    The talent is only allowed to talk 4x per hour. While you are allowed your opinion, you should not be spreading untruths – this is not true.

    The playlist has been cut. We are still playing all the same decades and the music is selected by the same great personality jocks that have been with the station doing “Live & Local” for years.

    Many of the community service elements have been eliminated, None of the community service elements have been eliminated.

    You seem to contradict yourself when you further admit that you would like to see the following changes: In their defense, WLNG probably could have used some subtle updating – perhaps tightening up the music, and moving it forward a few years to keep up with changing audience demographics Check . And some of the PAMS jingles were sounding a bit worn. Agree But simple updating could have been done without extinguishing the soul of WLNG like they have. The soul of WLNG lies in its dedication to the local community and in the hands of the on-air talent who have made the station the Legend that it is. Unfortunately, it seems like the new owners are being reckless with a beloved brand What is reckless is your overly dramatic, fatalistic language and prediction.

    In your May 2015 blog posting on “Destruction of a Brand”, point #8 details “Failure to Evolve with the Listener”. First and foremost, I am a listener. I have not only listened to WLNG but also to those that do and do not listen to the station. Encouraging more listeners without creating an unsettling experience to those that have been loyal followers – is no easy task but one I signed up for! I am not ashamed to say that I do not want to hear a jingle from the 1960s before and after every song and nor do I need to hear a back selling on songs that we all know.

    I agree with you about the Station being a “Living Breathing Thing”…..and as such, my 30+ years experience working in healthcare with “Living Breathing Things” gives me some valuable insight. WLNG, like the human body is not so easily extinguished.

    I have read your other blog posts and you seem to be smart and passionate about great radio. I prefer you not “pounce” and predict doom/gloom because you are being a source of negativity that serves no purpose except to alarm. Allow me the space and time I need. I am no “damsel in distress” and neither is WLNG – we do not need “saving”. However, I see more synergies between us rather than differences and will be reaching out to you and your friend Mike Erickson privately.In an industry dominated by men and where individual stations are being scooped up by big corporations, the fact that a local woman owner has the courage to take care of WLNG is cause to play “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis.

    Now, let’s get back to the real business at heart…..On WLNG this morning, finding Jasmine a black lab mix who is missing………

    Reply
  3. admin Post author

    Here is my response to Sandra:
    Hello Sandra,

    Thank you for taking the time to reach out and share your thoughts, and congratulations on your recent purchase of WLNG. And while we may disagree on some of the new programming strategies being introduced to WLNG, I do agree with your statement below that there are “more synergies between us rather than differences.” You have a very interesting story, and I am impressed with the path that led you to station ownership.

    Plus, it really doesn’t matter what I think, it’s your investment and your money on the line, not mine.
    But I do stand by my comments in the editorial piece, and I want to add clarity to a few things based on your response.

    1) The comment “corporate pencil pusher” was not directed toward you, personally. My apologies if you thought that remark was directed to you. It was a quote from another piece in 2015 where I described what ‘usually’ happens when new owners change a big brand just for the sake of change. I do believe that second part applies here – the changes being made at WLNG do seem to be just for the “sake of change.” You are 20 days into this venture. Rather than launch with wholesale changes, why not take the time to discuss with the staff and ask them for ideas on how to “update” the station without losing the essence and iconic sound of WLNG?

    2) The service elements have been reduced, starting with hourly news updates. The number of jock breaks have been reduced… most hours I’ve heard only 4 breaks per hour. If this isn’t the case, why is it happening? The playlist has been cut. But as I said in the piece in your defense, that’s one change that I would have supported to a degree.

    3) It would appear that Scott Shannon is advising some of this, including proof-reading the response that you sent to me, because he responded to the BCC saying “I think it’s perfect”. So there is at least some outside counsel happening here. And I have tremendous respect for Scott, he’s one of my radio heroes. If you truly believe that there’s significant listener dissatisfaction with WLNG that warrants all of these changes, rather than seeking anecdotal opinions, why not conduct a formal perceptual study using an actual research company? At least you would be basing changes on facts instead of opinions. WLNG is so unique that making changes based solely on opinions is a very risky proposition.

    4) It’s not a contradiction to say that WLNG could use some updating in some areas while ensuring preservation of the iconic and unique sound of the station overall… I used the word “subtle” for a reason. I don’t believe the recent changes have been “subtle” at all. We do agree that there’s an opportunity to make WLNG more accessible to a larger audience – and I respect the need and desire to evolve with the listener. But the whole point of the editorial is that this can and should be done without losing the “soul” of WLNG… which is a function of the service, sound, and personality of this unique brand.

    5) Your point of being a female owner in an industry largely dominated by men is not lost on me. My wife owns and manages three FM stations in Michigan. And I celebrate the fact that you are not some corporate conglomerate who would have piped in a syndicated format from elsewhere without even giving it a thought.

    Sandra, you may be wondering why on earth I would even care about what’s happening at WLNG. After all, I have no horse in that race. I’m simply a fan of unique and unusual brands. WLNG is a diamond in the rough of small market radio. There are only a handful of stations left that are so uniquely local and stand out from the pack. I’m glad to hear that you recognize this, and I wish you the best of luck with this station. But please know you have more than just a radio station – it’s a unique piece of art in the gallery of radio that needs special care.

    All my best,
    Dom

    Reply

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