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.
“95.5 WPLJ – New York’s Best Rock”
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.
Mr. Pop – WWRL was a “soul” station with a black and white staff.
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.
Mr. Pop – WWRL was an incredible station. All soul – but with a top-40 sound.
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.
Mr. Pop – While you were at WALL, you were offered the assistant program director job at WABC – by Rick Sklar.
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.
LB – I did. Detroit it seemed, was a gateway to New York as talent such as Jim Kerr and Pat St. John will tell you. Pat was at WRIF and his brother was on the air there, as well.
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.
Mr. Pop – And WNEW-FM?
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?
LB – Jim Kerr mornings, middays was Paul Krimsier (who left to go into the ministry), Pat St. John afternoons; Tony Pigg 6-10 and John Zacherly at night. Alex Bennett was doing overnights.
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.
Mr. Pop – With the narrower playlist – came faster rotations.
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?
LB – We were able to determine which songs to play in stronger rotations – to a more accurate degree. And, define songs that were not necessarily from hit albums.
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.
Mr. Pop – It’s 1982 and you have another competitor – WAPP – which lasted basically that summer.
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.
Mr. Pop – Also in 1982, it’s a new era for top-40 – and you really got a sense of this with a visit to Philadelphia.
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!