'New Wave: Dare To Be Different' Shines a Light on Influential Long Island Radio Station During the '80s

Virginia Turbett/Redferns

Debbie Harry of Blondie performs in 1980. 

Showtime recently premiered its long-anticipated documentary on the influential Long Island radio station WLIR (it would temporarily switch to WDRE in the late '80s/early '90s), the first radio station of its kind in America that was fully dedicated to punk, new wave, synthpop and Britpop between 1982-1991 (they were more of a progressive and Southern rock-leaning freeform station prior to the reformat and, after 1991, the station changed back to WLIR and adopted a more grunge and alternative rock-driven playlist).

Directed by Ellen Goldfarb, New Wave: Dare To Be Different is an engrossing, emotional and educational remembrance of the frequency 92.7 FM that powered the youth of the New York City suburbs during the Reagan and Bush years. Stories, insight and whimsy abound in exclusive interviews and testimonials from the likes of Joan Jett, Erasure's Vince Clarke, Howard Stern, Blondie's Debbie Harry, Curt Smith of Tears for Fears, The B-52's Fred Schneider, Billy Idol, Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, Midge Ure, Howard Jones and a ton of others. And when woven in with recounts from such beloved on-air staff members as Larry the Duck, Donna Donna, Long Tall Andy and Malibu Sue McCann, you get the quintessential story of not only WLIR, but Long Island’s place in New York rock culture (a story that deserves its own documentary).

Billboard spoke with Goldfarb, McCann and WLIR’s influential programming director Denis McNamara about the utopia of FM radio in the '80s and how New Wave: Dare to Be Different (available now at Showtime On Demand) came about. 

For a native Long Islander who grew up listening to WLIR, this film is as close as it’s gotten to any kind of proper cinematic account of rock n' roll life in the suburbs beyond the boroughs. Was there a conscious effort to tell the story of not only the radio station but its region as well?

Denis McNamara: I talked with Ellen a lot about trying to acknowledge what came before Dare To Be Different, especially on the WLIR side because it was good. But it was just of a different time and place. It’s really nice that Jay Jay French from Twisted Sister and Eric Bloom from Blue Öyster Cult and Mickey Marchello from the Good Rats all contributed and all have been so supportive of the movie. Because they represented an era where LIR did break all kinds of rock music, and they were the very fabric of the live music scene on Long Island, which was so important to everything, especially in that club era. It was all about the rock clubs. It was a jarring juxtaposition for them when we switched to the new wave format, and they’re pretty honest about that in the movie. But I think the fact that we still have a relationship with them and they contributed to our cause, I bow down to them. That was the strength LIR had appreciated in their minds, I guess. To them, LIR was a very important part of their careers, so I was proud of that.

Ellen Goldfarb: This was a story that really needed to be told. I mean, it’s about this little radio station from Long Island that was battling these big Goliath stations of New York City. They were trying to stay afloat because they had all of these FCC issues back in the '70s. Poor Elton Spitzer came on board and was trying to rectify everything, and he worked so hard at doing that. It wasn’t his fault; he just took on this mess. But LIR, the DJs, they kept it quiet from everyone. Nobody knew what was really happening. Nobody knew the DJs were running to the bank to get their paychecks cashed because there was no money in the account. They were working there, essentially, for free, but they loved the music so much and the passion for what was going on at the time it didn’t matter. Who would do that now? Nobody. So it was this remarkable story about this radio station from Long Island that developed a culture on Long Island. Not New York City—Long Island. It was all about the whole bridge-and-tunnel effect that was going on.

Malibu Sue McCann: This film has been in the works for about seven years now, and we were all pretty involved in it. It’s funny, because we all wondered if it would really tell the story. But I have a friend who’s from Nevada. She literally grew up in Las Vegas, believe it or not. She lives in New York now, but has no idea about any of the music we played on LIR back in the day. Never heard of the station, never heard the bands. And she loved it when she saw one of the special screenings of the film, so she was the best person to ask (laughs). She was like, “OMG, I totally get it. I got the story, I was entertained. I wasn’t lost in the references.” So that was a good sign. And it did so well at the film festivals, and now Showtime picked it up.

How did the initial reaction of the format change resonate with you when they switched to all new wave?

Denis: This was, as Midge Ure says in the movie, an important time in music, and luckily we came in at the right time in the right place. And I felt that it worked. You know, there were so many naysayers at the time. But basically, against all these supposed know-it-alls, we managed not only to succeed initially but thrive and become recognized for being the gateway to America for bands outside the United States and also a way for New York bands to be recognized. We tried to capture all the scenes.

Ellen: I actually listened to LIR before it changed formats, because I was a rock person. But as soon as it changed, my whole world turned upside down. It was amazing, and I was right there when it all happened growing up in Plainview. I used to go to all the clubs and the stores, the cool places where you could find vintage clothing. WLIR was literally the only station in 1982 to completely change formats in such a drastic way; lose the rock format, drop acts they were championing back then like Billy Joel and Twisted Sister and Blue Öyster Cult. Not even KROQ in Los Angeles did that. They completely created a genre of music that considerably helped a lot of young bands’ careers because they played them in heavy rotation. They were the quickest ones to get it; they were breaking them. And these bands knew about it. They heard about WLIR in Europe and said we need to get over to that station in New York. That’s where Duran Duran had their first U.S. appearance, at Spit in Levittown. That’s the one part in the film where Nick Rhodes is talking about seeing the sign that said New York City this way, Long Island that way, and that was the way they went and gone directly to the station to do their first American interview. U2 broke in New York, too. One of their first American shows was at the Malibu in Long Beach.  

Malibu Sue: It was also an outlet for the punk movement in New York City going into the '80s as well. Those people were some of our best listeners and they had such a hard time getting the station. That was some of the most fun about listening to WLIR from outside of Long Island was how much of an effort did you have to make to get the signal on your boom box or transistor. We even had a contest, and I think it’s referenced in the movie, about what you do to get the station. We had such great and creative listeners, that was the thing.

What about the importance of the imports sections of the local record stores to the programming of WLIR?

Denis: Absolutely. And now you have to recognize the significance of these artists that, at one point, only got played on LIR and usually during the overnights. Acts like Kraftwerk, Nile Rodgers and Prince, especially. I’m just so happy we stuck with Prince; we thought he was great, and we made it work just like everything else on the rotation. It’s like what Matt Pinfield says in the movie, it seemed like every freaking week there were three great new things that came out of nowhere. And also, we had so much music coming at us because once the major labels tuned in and started believing our success, we were able to get music. But what the movie says about the imports is true, a lot of what we played was stuff we had been buying at the record stores, which is certainly different from today. When I want to hear a song that’s on the charts in England, I just push a button and I can hear it. In those days, we were running out to read the NME, Melody Maker and seeing what was being released. I used to get Record Mirror, I think it was called. In fact, Billboard’s charts of the world was a big page for me. I used to go through all the records from the other countries and see what was on top of their charts.

Ellen: I was at the Record World in the old Mid-Island Plaza all the time. That was the place people went. We didn’t have social media, and the Internet was in its infancy. We didn’t have Google or Spotify. Going out was our social media. We used to go to the record stores, listen to the radio and hit the clubs at night, and that’s where we found creative and like-minded people. That was our scene; it was where we learned how to dress, what kind of music was cool, where to go and hang out. There’s a thing about going to record stores and listening to the music while you are there, talking to people about singles. It becomes more of a social interaction and it becomes more of a connection rather than just going online, clicking on iTunes and buying something for 99 cents.

Malibu Sue: Denis always assigned us listening. All the jocks got copies of albums on cassette or LP and then CD to bring home and check out. He always wanted the jocks’ input, which we all thought was great, and something you usually don’t see, especially these days. He also put together a staff with magical ears. We really all had the ear, you know? If you were on-air and didn’t do your homework, the music director at the time, which was Larry the Duck, he would put in your mailbox the albums and the things you were supposed to listen to, and you were supposed to come back with feedback about what tracks you liked, what you thought the album sounded like, which songs would you put on the air. And it was all this stuff nobody had ever heard of at the time. If you didn’t respond in a timely fashion, he’d come after you. But it was like earworm food for all of us, so we were each doing our homework every night.

When you take into consideration just how many teenagers and college kids were living in Nassau County, it’s amazing to consider the reach of influence you had with the youth en masse.

Denis: Another thing was that the young audience on Long Island was so well-educated. It was a very sophisticated and culturally interested audience, and it was close enough to the largest media market in the country. I think it also keyed into having a good retail situation with all the different kinds of stores on the major strips like Old Country Road in Westbury and Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown. Also, let’s face it, it was a good media place. You were getting all the big TV stations and also Long Island stations that were beginning to grow. The radio ones were there. Certain stations like LIR were established entities already. And, you know, Newsday was a very effective newspaper with a great arts section.

Ellen: Back then, the drinking age was 18 and your driver’s license in New York was just a piece of paper. I was born in 1965, so I would etch out the 5 and make it a 3 and I would go to all the local clubs when I was 16, 17.

Malibu Sue: Long Island was such a big part of the change of radio and music. When there was interest in the film from Showtime and HBO, Bravo -- might’ve been a little bit of a battle even to pick it up -- I heard some word that they might keep going with it depending on the response. You know, more episodes, more of a story, because this movie is basically a general overview of the whole picture. There’s so much more involved. You could totally make a series of out it.

It’s quite stunning to realize how much antenna radio has changed in the last 20 years.

Denis: This movie really marks the changing of time, and it is an important piece of history. For young people, it shows them a pre-cell phone, pre-Internet existence that wasn’t so long ago. And here’s some of the great music that came out of it. The thing is, that music lasts and the support is still there, and a lot of the same vital artists continue to make music in this genre. I think it’s a great reminder -- or a lesson if you weren’t there the first time. If you were there, this really was one of the best times of your life, and now you get to share it with future generations.

Ellen: Everything’s changed. I mean, I’ve gone back to Plainview and its crazy how much it’s changed. But that’s the way the world is; it’s constantly changing. And that’s why this film is so important, especially in a time where we’re at right now. There’s a lot of dark things going on in the world with our presidency and all the school shootings and guns, all these dark things we’re hearing about in the world. This film will hopefully bring people back to a happier time when things were a little bit different. Maybe easier, I don’t know. There was stuff going on in the world then as well, but we didn’t hear about it so much because we didn’t have the Internet talking about stuff 24 hours a day.

Malibu Sue: What’s great, and I see it with my kids, is that it is the music of today as well. And that’s what LIR was all about. Dare to be different. March to the beat of your own drummer. Go fight for your rights and stand up for yourself. Wave your freak flag proudly. It’s okay for guys to wanna wear skirts, it doesn’t mean they are gay. And if they are gay, that’s totally cool, too. We were all about that, obviously. Our bands were very androgynous, because sexual identity was something they felt wasn’t particularly important. They were way ahead of their time, and it’s wild to see how it all ties into everything going on with the culture today. Again, I never pushed my kids to like the stuff I was playing on WLIR; they like it automatically.

Do you think this film might inspire some of these younger folks who are part of the vinyl revival to introduce them to terrestrial radio?

Denis: Ellen was very conscious in creating a message in our movie for young people, and it’s coming at a time when young people are suddenly kicking ass. I’d love to see more young people become inspired by the film. I always knew it was going to be a 30-plus pleaser in terms of demographics, but I’m getting the sense, from the festivals and other things, that there’s a real appeal to what we were doing back then for young people. I hope we can send some good vibes their way, and maybe they can learn from some of the stuff we went through.    

Ellen: There is a thing about human connection that’s being lost in the advent of social media. And I think we need to get that back somehow, because where is that going to take us as far as human-to-human connection? That’s why college radio is really important still. They were important back then and they will probably be important today if there was more attention drawn to them. It’s really important to support stations like KCRW and WFMU, because that’s where the new music gets out. Also through the Internet, yes, but that human connection is really what’s so key. I never convinced my kids to get into the kind of music I was playing on WLIR, but it’s great to see how much of the music of today is so influenced by the bands we were playing back in the '80s.

Malibu Sue: The new 92.3 here in New York should think about taking a page out of our old handbook and utilize some of the jocks from that time they have on staff. Put us on specialty shows or something, like Eddie Trunk. I think it would catapult them, and then it would connect audiences. It was very wise of them to go with the alternative format. It’s the last remaining rock format that has a younger audience as well as an older audience. The older generations are always listening to new music, going even before my time. It remains arguably the only current format where parents and their kids both love what’s on the air.