As WPLJ Signs Off Forever, New York Radio Legend Jim Kerr Looks Back

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for iHeartRadio
Jim Kerr hosts iHeartRadio ICONS with James Taylor presented by P.C. Richard & Son at iHeartRadio Theater on June 22, 2015 in New York City.  

On Friday, May 31, 95.5 WPLJ-FM -- one of the most transformative radio stations in the New York market over the last four decades -- will fade to black after 48 years on the air when it switches over to a contemporary Christian music station called KLOVE following the frequency's sale by Cumulus Media.

Launched initially as an AOR station after some formatting shifts to stations owned by WABC in 1971, WPLJ did not reach its distinctive stride toward FM dominance until the late '70s/early '80s when they began integrating the fresh sounds of such new wave acts as Blondie, Elvis Costello and Talking Heads into a playlist largely dominated by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. By 1983, the station began blending in the music of Michael Jackson, Prince, Donna Summer, Tina Turner and other pop/R&B icons of the day into the regular rotation, eventually settling into a hot adult contemporary format in the early '90s, which it maintains through present day – at least, until May 31.

"In the very early 1980s, when we were having huge hits in Europe by creating a music that was distinctive and unique we were sadly signed to a label in the U.S. who did no promotion for us," explains Andy McCluskey of OMD, whose 1986 single "If You Leave" was one of the biggest hits on the air during the station's peak era. "If it was not for radio stations like WPLJ who played and supported what they believed in, not what they were 'plugged' and paid to play, we would have had no audience in New York. This was the case for many new U.K. bands. I am sad to see a crucial part of our musical heritage in the U.S. being changed so radically."

As WPLJ alumni reunited for one final gala sending off the iconic call letters (culled from a Frank Zappa song) at the Cutting Room in New York City on May 21, Billboard had the honor of speaking with one of the station's most legendary jocks, current Q104.3 morning man Jim Kerr, about the heyday of this most historic frequency.

What are your thoughts on the switchover WPLJ will be experiencing on Friday?

It's not even a switchover, it's WPLJ ceasing to exist altogether. What the company that acquired them -- which is a nonprofit broadcaster and one of the largest in the United States -- has done was just acquired a frequency, nothing more, nothing less. No studio, no nothing. A new owner starts on a new day as a new frequency. PLJ is gone.

But it's so important for the history of this station to be preserved in some way. What you guys were doing during its heyday was revolutionary for commercial radio.

Unfortunately, the person who was program director during that time, Larry Berger, passed away last year. He was the real architect for the station. Those of us who worked there, we worked from his blueprints. He was a real change-maker and a great programmer, who knew how to shift with the times while also remaining who we were; specifically during the rock era. Basically, you look at the station when it first became a rock station. There was a core of artists: Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Who, Pink Floyd, Doors, Hendrix, Clapton, stuff like that. And then there was a lot of stuff which radiated out from that variety and the occasional surprise. As the years went on, we added to that original core without diluting it by including the Eagles, Boston, Fleetwood Mac, Pat Benatar, Heart, Sabbath, AC/DC into the mix, all of which enhanced the discipline of the core artists we'd usually play.

Then with the late '70s rolling around, the new wave explosion happened, and the punk thing was happening at the same time. Quite frankly, however, we weren't the leader on that; we were waiting to see what would rise to the top of popularity, and then program those artists into our mix and make it compatible with what we were playing. WPIX-FM, they were actually far, far, far more heavy into new wave and punk, and played the music much deeper than we did.

And WLIR as well, right?

Specifically WLIR, which was a small class-A radio station out of Nassau County, and were probably the leader in this hemisphere, not just in this country, breaking that new music onto the airwaves. And they were very successful with their audience, which was unfortunately limited geographically because of their signal strength. But they were very successful with their core audience in that format, where WPIX was not successful. They were far from successful.

I was thinking about that just recently. I think that the big difference between the two -- and you have to remember WPIX covered the whole market ,where WLIR didn't -- was that WPIX drifted into a kind of smug condescension. You know, "We're the cool kids and we're smarter than you. We know more than you. We're hip, you're not." They weren't just playing the music, but they were also suggesting in some ways subtle in some ways not so subtle ways that they were way cooler than the people who were into Foreigner and Fleetwood Mac.

Meanwhile, WLIR sounded like pure fun. They didn't present themselves as these snobs. You turned on LIR and listened to Larry the Duck or Donna Donna or Denis McNamara or Malibu Sue and you were guaranteed to have a good time with them. It wasn't like they were a bunch of musicologists trying to tell you what you should like and what you shouldn't like. They weren't talking down to their audience, and that was the key to their success.

Meanwhile, it seems like WPLJ existed somewhere in between what WLIR was doing and what was hot on the top 40 as the 1980s rolled in...

What we did then at WPLJ was we cherry picked bands like Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones, B-52's, The Police, The Cars, Cheap Trick, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Devo, Men at Work, Boomtown Rats -- we would add those groups to our core. But obviously, adding all that stuff in meant that other stuff had to go. So what went was some of the stuff we had played going into the mid-70s like Cat Stevens, Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, stuff like that. But what also went was some of the R&B we used to play on PLJ, like Earth, Wind & Fire and Barry White started to disappear and they were replaced by these new artists.

And it worked very well; when you listened to it, it was a good mix, because we were also playing the contemporary music of our core artists like the Stones and The Beatles and Rod Stewart as well. It was possible to really like Elvis Costello and really like Heart. You didn't have to hate something in order to like something else. There was no reason why you couldn't play Devo and Supertramp on the same station.

Then WPLJ began re-introducing R&B back into its playlist as well, yes?

By 1983, part of the rock coalition began to fragment and fall apart, and that was the result of the influence of what was going on over at MTV. You gotta remember, we had a very young audience in our rock heyday. We dominated the 12-24 demographic every year, because it was such a youth-based station, because all of us who worked there were generally pretty young ourselves [Laughs.] And by the time the mid-80s rolled around you were dealing with Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and stuff like that. With our market, you put on a Madonna record and every 19-year-old boy would listen to it and totally freak out and just hate on us. 

So at that point in '83, our program director decided the future -- if we were going to grow our audience -- would be to venture into a top 40 direction. What we did -- and it turned out to be very successful -- was we kept the same philosophy we did as a rock station, in regards to putting together a rotation of a pretty big variety of stuff. It would be Kool & The Gang going into the Eurythmics going into The Rolling Stones, and it worked. Also, at the time, Bruce Springsteen was putting out new stuff, Yes had "Owner of a Lonely Heart," Robert Plant's The Honeydrippers. We always wanted to stay on top of things.

Do you have a favorite era of WPLJ when you were on the air with them?

I really loved the 1979-1980 PLJ. Not everybody was a big name, but everybody was good. There was a female artist at the time, Carolyne Mas, she had an album out and it made our Top 95 album list that year. It was a good time.

And while WPLJ is going away, New York remains the strongest radio market in the country. And there are still plenty of great stations to tune into in the wake of PLJ going off the air.

Oh definitely. In hip-hop, you got Power 105.1, with a real strong morning show with Charlamagne and DJ Envy, and then Angie Martinez in the afternoon. You got Z100, with their huge Elvis Duran morning show -- and if you love Taylor Swift, that's the place to be! Her new song, "Me!" is such a great top 40 pop song. I love it. She does it with the guy from Panic! at the Disco. Linda Ronstadt, in the '70s, was HUGE on WPLJ, and that's what Taylor Swift reminds me of, honestly.

Do you believe radio still triumphs above the din created on the Internet with streaming services and podcasting?

Broadcast over-the-air radio still reaches 93 percent of the entire population of North America. Radio was supposed to die when TV came along, and every time a new technology comes along, it's always like, "Oh radio's going to die." But radio didn't die, and radio is still alive, and it's going to stay alive for a long time -- because it's a very special and personal medium. It's ubiquitous, it's easy to use, it provides a connection to the world, it provides companionship. It's very different from having your own personal music playlist.

That's fine, too. That's like having a record collection -- only it's now in the cloud, [rather] than against your wall. But that's only cool if you want to sit and home and listen to your own music or in the car. But if you want to connect with the world, you can still turn on the radio and know that tens or hundreds of thousands of people are listening to the same song at the same time as you.