Legendary FM Radio Programmer Larry Berger Talks About His 14 Years At WPLJ, NY.
“Those years were a time when radio programmers were given wide autonomy to create and manage the on-air product”
Back in 1974, AM radio still dominated music listening ratings. In New York and vicinity – there was WLIX, WICC, WVNJ, WNBC, WGSM, WABC, WPAT, WHN, WHLI, WNEW, WLIB, WFAS, WGBB, WMTR, WGLI, WALL, WSTC, WNJR, WBAB, WCTC, WVOX, WGCH, WKER, WRAN, WJDM, WERA & WWRL.
On the FM dial – WLIR, WPAT, WVOX, WCTO, WINE, WPLJ, WNLK-FM, WSTC-FM, WALK, WKJY, WXLO (99X), WPLR, WCBS-FM, WPDH, WPIX-FM, WBAB-FM, WNEW-FM, WTFM, WWYD, WSPK-FM, WRFM, WDHA, WBLI, WRVR, WRNW , WBLS & WDJF.
In September 1974, Larry Berger came to WPLJ and made it a dominate music station, keeping ‘PLJ competitive, despite market changes.
Mr. Pop - Larry – you’ve had a very distinguished career in radio. Interestingly, you graduated from Rutgers with a degree in journalism.
LB – That’s correct. My first major station was working as music director for WWRL, New York.
LB – Most of the jocks were black – except the afternoon man. The manager, Frank Ward was white as were (most) of the news people. I enjoyed working with Frank Ward and enjoyed my time at WWRL.
LB – I started there in 1966 – and you couldn’t go wrong with all the Motown, Stax and Atlantic soul music – much of which made it over to pop stations WMCA and WABC.
Mr. Pop – The ratings at WWRL were pretty decent. Considering that ‘RL was at 1600, 5,000 watts and very directional. A 1967 March-April (city) Pulse report has them actually beating WABC. And ‘RL had a star in DJ Frankie Crocker.
LB – ‘RL was very popular. One special “Negro” survey from Pulse said that 65% listened to WWRL. The second station in that survey – was all-news WINS.
Mr. Pop – That’s amazing. Now – In late 1968, you move north to Middletown and programmed WALL (1340). It was owned by the same folks who owned WMCA – The Straus family.
LB – I had actually interviewed at (top-40) WMCA after leaving ‘RL. I also interviewed at WABC. At the time, there was nothing available. Then, the job at WALL opened up. I was program director and also did an air shift.
Mr. Pop – WALL was an interesting station: very contemporary and very local.
LB – Exactly. We had a good team and I thought the station sounded pretty good. I learned a lot at WALL and cherish those memories.
LB – I think I’m the only person that ever turned down a job offer by Rick Sklar. The reason – I bought my first home just a few weeks before the offer came through.
Mr. Pop – You were actually competing with WABC in Orange County.
LB – Yes, and we always beat them in the local ratings.
Mr. Pop – What’s fascinating is – Glenn Morgan got the job as WABC APD. He was with a station in Atlantic City – also at 1340 on the AM dial – WMID.
LB – A little history: because of an FCC mix-up, the calls were switched: WALL (Middletown) was supposed to have the call letters WMID. And the WALL calls were supposed to go to Atlantic City. They got flipped.
Mr. Pop – What an amazing radio story. Now, around 1973, you get a nice job offer.
LB – Yes – My name had gotten around ABC radio and so, the general manager from WRIF (Detroit) heard about me, came out – sat in his car and monitored WALL. He said the station sounded great and offered me the job at WRIF – an ABC FM station. I began at WRIF in March of 1973.
Mr. Pop – So you go to Detroit where they were doing their version of “Rock ‘n Stereo” and you also got to meet some folks along the way.
Mr. Pop – You didn’t stay at WRIF that long – because – the general manager had transferred to New York and WPLJ, and then, asked you to join the staff. When did you join PLJ?
LB – September of 1974.
Mr. Pop – FM radio was just starting to get ratings in general. And, WPLJ wasn’t doing that well in the ratings. Who were your competitors?
LB – Most of our listeners were on the young end and I believed our growth could come from that segment. So, stations such as 99X and our own WABC were WPLJ competition. 99X at the time – was hot. I heard it in a lot of places.
LB – In a sense – yes, we were both playing album rock – but WNEW-FM skewed older. The opportunity for WPLJ was with the younger audience.
Mr. Pop – What was the sound of WPLJ when you got there?
LB – It was sort of a pop-rock station. It had a mix of pop hits and rock tracks.
Mr. Pop – And, what was the lineup when you arrived?
Mr. Pop – How long did it take to make a ratings impact?
LB – The station made a big jump in the ratings in my third quarter – April/May – of 1975. And our audience was male and female. Women, 18-24 were a big component of the ‘PLJ audience.
Mr. Pop – Around this time, WPLJ had a unique, “compressed” sound, like no other.
LB – Most listeners back then used mono FM radios and I felt we’d be at a better advantage if our sound jumped out. WPLJ did exactly that – as you tuned across the FM dial in New York.
Mr. Pop – Was WPLJ a station that relied on call-out research during the 1975-1979 era? How did you pick your music?
LB – Call outs were not up and running at that time. Music was done by consensus at weekly music meetings with me, the music director, DJ’s other staff members. Usually – we would consider 10 to 12 songs and rotations/exposure would be readjusted. WPLJ was a song-by-song format. We considered each song as an individual unit. A popular album such as the Eagles, “Hotel California” – we may be playing four cuts off it – but each song would be in a different rotation.
Mr. Pop – What was your hottest rotation?
LB – About once every five hours. And, there were songs we would play once a week – like secondary tracks off of old albums. We had almost 2,000 songs.
Mr. Pop – What was the job of the music director at that time?
LB – They would listen to music, keep track of the music library; meet with record promoters – and basically worked hand-in-hand with me.
Mr. Pop – Your sister station – WABC was the biggest music station in the country. Rick Sklar was the program director. Any interesting stories?
LB – Rick was an amazing programmer – and, he was a good corporate person. And, he loved being around TV, movie and music celebrities. Sometimes we butted heads – but not often. When “Saturday Night” began on NBC-TV – we had the cast up at WPLJ to do a live interview. We could have recorded it – but these were people who did it “live” every week. Jim Kerr – a very good interviewer – was moving it along. Then one of the female cast members let the F-bomb out. Unbeknownst to me, Rick Sklar was in his office, listening to WPLJ and wasn’t too happy. He came over and started letting me have it. I started arguing back. Here I was – having it out with the biggest program director in the country. It was just one of those times. But – we really got along great. I’d always admired him and learned so much from watching how he ran WABC’s programming.
Mr. Pop – Great story. So, WPLJ is cooking after this point, 1975 into 1978, then WKTU-FM decides to go disco and the whole music radio landscape in New York seemed to shake.
LB – WKTU/Disco was a boon to FM in New York – as it drove a lot of audience to the FM dial, but it also fractionalized that audience and forced us to narrow. Remember, we were playing everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Simon & Garfunkel with “The Who” in the middle. Disco forced us to narrow the mix pretty significantly – eliminating any R&B and the softer side of the station. This was the time that WPLJ became much more rock oriented.
Mr. Pop – And this was around 1979 when the WKTU ratings impact was really felt.
LB – That’s correct.
LB – Yes and that’s when we began to rely on call-out research.
Mr. Pop – And, this was a time when sister WABC was being slaughtered.
LB – WABC’s initial reaction to WKTU was to play longer disco cuts and that was a mistake. There was a lot of dissention at WABC at the time. Sadly, it seemed they really didn’t know how to react when they were dethroned. They had been #1 for so many years. But, I had my own challenges at WPLJ.
Mr. Pop – What difference did music call-outs make for you?
Mr. Pop – And, this was a time that WPLJ got more into concert promotions, a province that belonged WNEW-FM – but in 1980, 1981, 1982 – you guys seemed to be everywhere. It was the time of those WPLJ concert buttons – now a collector’s item.
LB – We began working more closely with some of the promoters and looking back, we got quite busy.
LB – We did take a ratings hit the summer of 1982 because of WAPP – a new rock station – which had gone the entire summer without commercials. When September came, we were ready though and our ratings came up. WAPP didn’t last that long.
LB – I made a trip to Philadelphia to monitor WMMR and WYSP – two album rock stations – but ended up listening to Mike Josephs’ “Hot Hits” station down there – WCAU-FM. There was so much great music we were not playing. I realized there was a re-birth of top-40 radio – something that New York had not realized. In New York – there was no top-40 station. We played some of it – Men at Work – that kind of thing. And MTV was starting to become an influence as well.
Mr. Pop – You’re still a rock station into the Spring of 1983 – and doing OK in the ratings.
LB – Yes, but my feeling was – the music that was coming out didn’t hold, what I called – “the rock coalition.” Folks who liked, “The Who” didn’t like “Men at Work.” And people who liked hard rock – didn’t like anything else.
Mr. Pop – You finally decide to make WPLJ into a hit station.
LB – My pitch was to change the station into an adult-oriented top-40 station. We’d play all the top-40 hits – but the sound, presentation and priorities were with women 25-44 and play all that great music at the time. There was a huge opening. With our existing rock format – only 30% was current. Back in the 1970’s – we had been playing 70% currents. So, there just wasn’t a lot of new, solid rock-oriented music.
Mr. Pop – So, you convince management.
LB – I pitched it on a Thursday. And by the following Thursday at 4am – it was on the air.
Mr. Pop – And – this was June of 1983?
LB – That’s right.
Mr. Pop – What were some of your positioners?
LB – We became “Hit Radio 95” and used liners such as, “Home of the Hits,” “All Your Favorite Music On One Station.”
Mr. Pop – All this before the debut of Z-100.
LB – Yes. Many people thought we tried to pre-empt them. That’s a logical conclusion – but not true. Malrite had several stations including country in San Francisco and had a legendary rock station in Cleveland – so, we didn’t really know what they were going to do with their newly acquired Newark FM station. Our objective was rather self-centered – what was good for us. There’s nothing you’re going to do about the competition anyway.
Mr. Pop – And, you’re battling it out with Z-100. And, you became WPLJ (Power 95) in 1985 and then, the call letter change to WWPR in 1987.**
LB – The plan all along was to become “Power 95” – because – we realized the call letters became kind of a double-edged sword. WPLJ to some – meant we were still a rock station ready to play, “Stairway to Heaven.”
Mr. Pop – How did you do against Z-100?
LB – We beat them 12+ in one book and tied them 12+ in another and consistently beat them in big margins 18+. They leaned more younger, more teen oriented and that gave our sales department a nice pitch. (Audio: Ellis Foster)
Mr. Pop – In 1985 – New York had four top-40 stations as WKTU-FM and WAPP joined the battle. KTU hired Dan Ingram for afternoons.
LB – It was an interesting time – but the battle really was between us and Z-100. The other two didn’t last long in the format.
Mr. Pop – You eventually left WPLJ/WWPR in October of 1988 with a great run!
LB – It was. An amazing time with a great staff both on and off the air. Those years were a time when radio programmers were given wide autonomy to create and manage the on-air product. And I was fortunate to have the support of management. All in all, the radio audience was the big winner!
** The WPLJ call-letters were “parked” at a station in Scranton, PA – just in case. And, they quickly returned to 95.5 in New York City.
Interview conducted by Gary West