The Sale of WPLJ
On February 13th of this year, Cumulus Media announced that it was selling a number of radio stations to the Educational Media Foundation for $103.5 Million. Included in the deal was WPLJ Radio in New York City.
While it’s true that once I became a NABET Group 7 in 1983, my job at ABC had almost entirely to do with WABC, I was originally hired as a member of the WABC/WPLJ Engineering Department in 1976, and was member of that department for as long as it existed. In fact, for the first 6 years of my life at ABC, my on-the-air assignments included as much time at WPLJ as it did at WABC.
The station that was WPLJ when I got there, went on the air on May 4, 1948 with the call letters WJZ-FM. In March 1953, following the merger of the American Broadcasting Company with United Paramount Theaters, WJZ-AM and WJZ-TV became WABC and WABC-TV, and the former WJZ-FM became WABC-FM. In the beginning, it was just a simulcast of the programing on WABC, but in the early 60s, WABC-FM began to program itself separately, and over the next several years, tried various formats. During the 1962–63 New York City newspaper strike, the station carried a news format for 17 hours daily, but there were also stints with Broadway show tunes and general freeform programming, including broadcasts of New York Mets baseball games. At one point, WABC-AM personalities, Dan Ingram, Chuck Leonard, and Bob Lewis, hosted programs on the FM side which were very different from the shows they did on Musicradio 77 WABC.
Then in 1968, ABC split its radio network into four distinct Networks, one of which was dedicated to FM radio, and the following year, WABC-FM began carrying an automated, youth-oriented, progressive rock format known as the Love Format, but that was destined to last only a couple of years. Late in 1970, Allen Shaw, the then-president of ABC’s FM station group, announced that the ABC FM stations would drop the Love Format and instead would go to a completely live-and-local, rock format. At the same time, ABC would apply to the FCC for new station call letters to further separate themselves from their AM sister stations, and on February 14, 1971, WABC-FM officially became WPLJ.
In September of 1971, one of the first AOR formats was instituted on WPLJ. The slogan of the station was “Rock ‘N Stereo”. Artists would include Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Elton John, Deep Purple, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, David Bowie and The Allman Brothers, but they would also play pop songs from artists such as James Taylor, Stevie Wonder and Carly Simon. The station was different from WABC in that they played more album tracks, and the audience reacted by making WPLJ one of New York’s most listened-to FM rock stations for most of the 1970s.
When I first got to WPLJ in 1976, Jim Kerr was the morning man, John Zacherle handled middays, Pat St. John afternoon drive, followed by Tony Pigg, and Carol Miller, with Viv Roundtree doing overnights and Jimmy Fink, Dave Charity, and Bob Marone working weekends. The night I started at ABC, was the night that WABC’s main air studio was being taken apart. It was the beginning of the process of building new studios for WABC and WPLJ, with with custom designed Rupert Neve boards. The WPLJ’s FM-1 Studio was old and it showed it! There was a huge Gates board with big round pots and lots of channel assignment switches above each pot. It was so long that you almost needed a chair on rails to get quickly from one end of the board to the other! They tried to keep the studio as up to date as possible, but after years of use, it was in need of rehab, but that was not to come for several months. Running the board required you to remember where everything was located, to not hit one of the turntable or cart remotes that were located in the table in front of you, and to do a smooth mix of records, commercials, and the DJ. We had one Engineer (the late, great Jerry Zeller) who would often times do what was called “normalize the studio” when you relieved him. What these words meant was that Jerry would flip all those channel assignment switches to a neutral position…just the thing for a new guy to try and figure out, before he had to play the next record or open the DJ’s mic! Luckily, a brand new FM-1 studio was just months away, and the very clever design of it made it very easy to run!
Soon after starting at ABC, I worked a schedule that included 3 nights during the week, and two weekend overnights. As I said before, we went back and forth between WABC and WPLJ, and on my schedule I was mostly working with Pat St. John, Tony Pigg, or Carol Miller. The difference between AM and FM was huge, and way beyond just the music we played. While WABC’s studio was large and always bright, WPLJ’s was small and always dark. While it was not uncommon to have Dan Ingram or Chuck Leonard sitting on the air smoking a cigarette, the things that were smoked in the WPLJ studio were very different. While all we played at WABC was carts, at PLJ there were lots and lots of albums that we played on turntables. You might say the differences were like night and day!
While it was great to work with someone as knowledgeable about the music and radio as Pat St. John, I really developed a bond with Tony Pigg. We had a great time when we worked together, and always found something to talk about, and Tony had some great stories to share! There was very little we couldn’t talk about, and I remember a lot of laughter during the times we were in FM-1 together. We even had a “Wine Club”, where on a rotating basis on Saturday night’s, one of us would bring in a bottle of wine. Our two rules was it had to have a cork, and cost under $5! Tony was at our wedding when Susie and I got married in 1979, and a couple of years later, when #1 son Billy showed up, Tony gave us the smallest WPLJ T-Shirt I have ever seen.
The announced sale of WPLJ last month (announced just one day before the 48th anniversary of the birth of the call letters) triggered these memories of my association with the station, that started over 40 years ago. Unfortunately, everything that has happened since, was triggered by the Disney decision that radio was not part of their core businesses back in 2007. Subsequent to that decision, the ABC O&O Radio Stations, and the ABC Radio Network were first sold to Citadel, which went into bankruptcy, which was then bought by Cumulus, which also went into bankruptcy, and it was that which ultimately led to the decision to split the NY AM/FM Radio siblings forever. From WJZ-FM, to WABC-FM, to WPLJ, the FM station had always been a partner to WABC. From the minute I walked through the door of the ABC Building all those years ago, WPLJ was always a part of my radio family. From running the WPLJ Board in my early days, to working on WPLJ Dr. Pepper Concerts in Central Park, to helping out at the WPLJ Transmitter in the Empire State Building (still as high as I’ve ever been at Empire), to attending parties, to moving the two radio stations from the ABC Building to 2 Penn Plaza in the late 80s, to the friendships that exist there to this day, 3 years after I retired, I have always thought of these two radio stations as one.
In the near future, probably in the summer of 2019, when the sale closes, these two stations that have been siblings since WJZ-FM first went on the air in 1948, will no longer be in the same family. From the time I got there in 1976, when both of the stations were highly successful, through changes in formats, through WPLJ going Combo, through the sale of ABC, first to Capital Cities and then Disney, to moving out of the ABC Building, and to the real hell that it created for the stations and their staffs when Disney/ABC sold them in 2007, the one constant was the WABC/WPLJ partnership. Sadly, that is over, and now friends and colleagues, some I’ve known forever and some for just a short time, will be looking for work and a new radio home.
I loved the radio business, and it was was my home for over 44 years, but today, radio sucks!
Thank You Frank for this historical perspective of WABC/WPLJ. By the way, what were the call letters WPLJ selected to represent?
Thanks Dick. The PLJ call letters were an interesting story. Here’s what Wikapedia has to say about that!
“In late 1970, Allen Shaw, the then-president of ABC’s FM station group, announced two big changes that would place in early 1971: ABC dropped Love and installed completely live-and-local, freeform rock formats. The network also applied for call letter changes for the seven stations. The New York outlet was slated to be renamed WRIF, but a clerical error on the part of the Federal Communications Commission resulted in those calls being awarded to the former WXYZ-FM) in Detroit — whose own request for WDAI (“Detroit Auto Industry”) was itself given mistakenly to WLS-FM in Chicago — leaving WABC-FM to start from scratch for its own rebranding. On February 14, 1971, the station’s call letters were changed to WPLJ, chosen after Allen Shaw noticed the letter combination as the name of a song on the 1970 Mothers of Invention record, Burnt Weeny Sandwich. The song, “W-P-L-J”, was originally performed by the Four Deuces in 1955 and stood for “White Port and Lemon Juice”. ”
Dave Herman was responsible for the WPLJ discovery and final name decision…..
Thanks Russ…ask the man who knows!
Thank You Frank & Russ. Very interesting story.
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