DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. — It’s 9:19am on the last day of broadcasting for a radio station that has dutifully served three generations of pop and rock music fans across the New York Tri-State area.
The sounds of Jon Bon Jovi can be heard, with the still-immensely popular singer in these parts belting out the lyrics to the summer 1990 No. 1 hit “Blaze of Glory.”
The track was a staple on WPLJ-FM 95.5 in New York, the ABC Radio-owned AOR-turned-CHR helmed by such legendary air talent as “Fast Jimi” Roberts and morning hosts Jim Kerr and Shelli Sonstein.
In that era, the station was “Power 95.” Today, WPLJ is a Hot AC … counting down to its final sign-off at 7pm Eastern today.
At the same time, another AOR-turned-CHR-turned Hot AC station with its own legendary status in its market will say goodbye to listeners. It’s the former ABC Radio-owned WRQX-FM 107.3 in Washington, D.C.
Both stations have been owned by Cumulus Media. Once 7pm hits in the Nation’s Capital, “Mix 107.3” will join WPLJ in the annals of radio history.
The industry is listening, and perhaps shedding a tear as FM radio enters its next era — not only in Washington, D.C., and in New York but across the entire U.S.
CUMULUS CLEARS CLOUDS WITH KEY DIVESTMENTS
On February 13, a reconstituted Cumulus Media — free of half its outstanding debt and again trading as “CMLS” on Nasdaq — pulled the trigger on two deals that had many in Nashville gathered for the 50th Country Radio Seminar (CRS) diverting their attention from Music City and instead toward New York City.
Cumulus was sending Country WNSH-FM 94.7 in Newark, N.J., to Entercom, along with two Springfield, Mass., stations, in exchange of WXNT-AM, WNTR-FM & WZPL-FM in Indianapolis.
Then, there was the bigger deal: the sale of six stations to Educational Media Foundation for $103.5 million.
That’s the broadcast ministry that today is the second-largest licensee of radio stations in the U.S., behind iHeartMedia. Its Christian Pop KLOVE network has grown tremendously in recent months, adding such important markets as Miami and Los Angeles. Legendary San Diego radio personality Jeff Detrow — known as one-half of “Jeff & Jer” — can be heard in afternoon drive, where he’s been since January 2018.
EMF is getting WYAY-FM in Atlanta; KFFG-FM in San Jose, WZAT-FM in Savannah, Ga; and WXTL-FM in Syracuse.
And EMF is getting WPLJ-FM in New York and WRQX-FM in Washington, D.C.
Cumulus President/CEO Mary G. Berner said in February, “These transactions are consistent with our portfolio optimization strategy, and both deals are accretive. The Entercom swap significantly bolsters our competitive position in Indianapolis and the EMF transaction generates substantial cash for debt repayment and investment in other business opportunities.”
For EMF, the Cumulus deal will bring the number of KLOVE radio signals to 564 nationally, answering questions over whether it will put that or its Air 1 Worship Music format on the stations it is getting.
END OF THE ROAD
At 9:45am on WPLJ, morning hosts Todd Pettingill — whose been with the station since Scott Shannon lured him from WFLY-FM 92.3 in Albany, N.Y., in 1991 to serve as his co-host — and Jayde Donovan took a call from a human resources professional. They noted that, ironically, in 15 minutes HR would be meeting with them to discuss their exit package.
Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” then played.
“Final, final thoughts …,” Pettingill said on the last break of their morning show. The phone screener, Cristina, had tears in her eyes and could barely talk as she held back tears.
For 43 years, six months, and a week, the show’s engineer has been a part of WPLJ. He’ll be exiting, too, with the station’s sale to EMF.
While the engineer had been a part of the station since 1975, WPLJ began on February 14, 1971. Until then, the station had been WABC-FM; it had been slated to become WRIF-FM, but those call letters instead were mistakenly given to a Detroit-based FM. That left WABC-FM in need of new calls. The choice was WPLJ based on a Frank Zappa song: “White Port Lemon Juice.”
By September 1971, under Allen Shaw, WPLJ tightened its playlist, becoming an Adult-Oriented Rock station focused on album hits. This propelled WPLJ through the 1970s and into the early 1980s as a fierce competitor to Metromedia’s AOR in New York, WNEW-FM.
By Fall 1982, WPLJ’s era as an AOR was put on notice, as WAPP-FM 103.5 debuted just in time for the summer months, and did so without commercials. It put a serious dent in WPLJ’s ratings, and led the station to tweak its playlist in reaction to the new Rock competitor.
By late July 1983, longtime PD Larry Berger had a choice to make. Should it stay the course as an AOR in a fast-changing marketplace that saw WRKS-FM “98.7 KISS FM” capture teen audiences with rap music and Long Island-based WLIR-FM 92.7 attract Caucasian teens and young adults with a New Wave format? Or, should it shift to Top 40 ahead of the arrival of a new standalone radio station Malrite Communications would soon launch?
As Scott Shannon prepared for Z100’s August 2, 1983 launch at WHTZ, Berger began inserting records such as Sergio Mendes’ “Never Gonna Let You Go” into the mix. By July 1983, a pending CHR war was on. In October 1983, jingles were added to WPLJ, which was well on its way to becoming “Power 95.”
By 1988, New York had become a highly volatile radio marketplace. On October 7, WNBC-AM 660 said farewell. At the same time, dance-focused WQHT-FM moved from 103.5 MHz to the 97.1 MHz signal, trading places with WYNY-FM, at the time a Country station. With the birth of “Hot 97” and changing tastes in pop music, few new that, behind the scenes, the leaders at New York’s Twin Towers of radio were about to exit.
On December 1, 1988, Berger resigned as WPLJ PD. According to Radio & Records‘ coverage of his exit, it was to pursue “other interests, including the expansion of his radio and syndication consultancy.” On January 20, 1989, it was revealed that Berger had accepted the PD role at Fairmont Broacasting’s AC KIOI-FM “K101” in San Francisco.
At about that same time, Shannon revealed that he would not be renewing his contract with Malrite. While his contract ended June 30, 1989, his final show would be January 27, 1989; Shannon infamously moved to Los Angeles to sign on “Rock 40” KQLZ-FM 100.3 “Pirate Radio” under then-owner Westwood One.
Little did anyone know that just about two years later, Shannon would be extending the legacy of Berger, who died in October 2018. In April 1991, with typical Shannon bravado, he took to WPLJ and declared, “Watch out, little Stevie Kushner,” in reference to Steve Kingston, then running Z100. “The Mojo is coming to get you.”
While the “Mojo Radio” Top 40 brand kept the energy going for WPLJ in an era when freestyle dance music and mainstream pop was highly challenged and fading in popularity, it would end in early 1992, with its shift to its current Hot AC presentation. This was seen as Shannon launched a lengthy tenure in mornings, and from August 19, 1991 with the presence of Pettingill.
Just before 10:10am, when Roy Rogers’ “Happy Trails” — a signature trait of Shannon’s — signaled the official end of the Todd & Jayde in the Morning program, Pettingill tearfully took the microphone, opening weeping as he made a deep, personal revelation.
“I take a lot of personal blame,” he said of WPLJ’s ultimate demise, noting that he tried to get the morning show re-energized in the hope that the rest of the station would propel ahead after several periods of stagnant, and declining, Nielsen Audio ratings reports. Since January, Entercom’s WNEW-FM — now a Hot AC, just like WPLJ — was the format leader 6+ in the ratings.
For some of the snarkier radio industry observers, WPLJ’s end was sparked by the “retirement” of Shannon, in 2014. He later resurfaced as the morning host at Classic Hits WCBS-FM in New York.
“I’m sorry. I apologize,” Pettingill said, noting that when Jayde Donovan came in to serve as his co-host, two strong-willed personalities needed to put aside their differences and egos and form a bond. That happened, he said, and they are friends today.
Their friendship will likely endure, even as their roles at WPLJ came to a close.
DIAMOND-STUDDED FAREWELL TO D.C.
With less fanfare but with equal impact on the future of FM radio, WRQX-FM 107.3 began Friday with one of its longest-tenured morning hosts, Jack Diamond, taking calls from wake-up hosts of the past, including Scott Woodside and Jim Elliott.
As “Elliot & Woodside,” WRQX gained fame as an adult-oriented Top 40 under the “Q107” brand. The two reminisced by phone with Diamond during the 7am hour, sharing with listeners what they’ve been up to since. Earlier in the show, Dude Walker — one of the first famed air personalities of the Q107 era, which began in spring 1979 — also appeared on Diamond’s final show by phone.
Walker’s “return” to WRQX was a fitting tribute to a radio station that had been WMAL-FM until ABC Radio decided to take on Top 40 WPGC-AM & FM — interestingly, a station Scott Shannon would pilot from March 1979 until 1981, when he would famously shift to WRBQ-FM “Q105” in Tampa.
With Walker in morning drive and long music sets on a Friday in April 1979, “Q107” would prove to a strong competitor through Shannon’s tenure at WPGC. Following Shannon’s exit, WPGC would flip formats, leaving “Q107” the lone Top 40-focused station in the Nation’s Capital against rap-focused WKYS until October 28, 1983. That’s when WAVA-FM 105.1 rode the Top 40 wave by following what WPLJ did in New York, shifting from AOR to CHR.
The battle between “Q107” and what would eventually become “Power 105” took many twists and turns. By late 1988, WAVA was getting national notice for its “shock jock” morning hosts, Don Geronimo and Mike O’Meara. At Q107, ABC Radio stayed the course … until summer 1990. Despite a strong summer replete with jingles and uptempo air personalities, consultant Steve Perun and PD Lorrin Palagi on Aug. 31, 1990 would end a decade and change of “Q107” in Washington. WRQX would become “Mix 107.3.”
As “Mix,” WRQX enjoyed a resurgence that propelled the station as a Hot AC for much of the 1990s, until WWVZ/WWZZ “Z104” gave it competition as CHR/Pop returned to Washington in early 1996 under Bonneville International Corp.
Today, “Z104” is long-gone; “Mix” exists and is ready to bid farewell with Diamond (a.k.a. Harvey Joel Fisher) wrapping up his second and final stint as WRQX’s morning host.
Interestingly, WRQX outlived Top 40 rival WAVA-FM 105.1, which Emmis Communications sold to Salem Media Group and changed to Christian Talk & Teaching on Feb. 14, 1992.
Now, some 27 years later, WAVA’s former rival is following it on a path toward Jesus, with hours left in its broadcast life.