Have I mentioned how I love summer? I’m not a fan of being outside or of the bugs and sunburn that follows but I do appreciate having time to do things I want to do but cannot during the school year. One of the things on my list was to watch New Wave: Dare to be Different, the documentary about New York’s WLIR radio station that played the heck out of new bands, including a lot of band’s that fell under the New Wave/alternative category.
I didn’t grow up anywhere near New York so I didn’t get to enjoy the radio station for myself. No, I grew up near Chicago with a strange relationship to radio. When I was little, I tuned into B96, the local Top 40 station. By that point in the 1980s, Duran was already huge so they played a lot of them along with the other popular early/mid 80s artists. More alternative artists were not played, however. Then, in 1985, I moved further away from the city. This new town lacked any real radio stations to speak of. Years later, when I was in high school, I discovered that I could get some Chicago stations very late at night and some of them did, indeed, play more alternative. Once I had that lifeline, I swear my life turned around. Anyway, so I can definitely appreciate how a radio station could mean so much to people.
This well-organized documentary definitely gave a history of the radio station and the context with which it was created. WLIR was born in 1959 in Long Island and changed formats a few times until in 1982, it embraced new wave/alternative. While the station chose this new direction to stand out, to avoid being lost in the shuffle, it ended up creating something more than a radio station. The documentary showed how it began a culture of sorts that affected both bands and fans until they lost their FCC license.
I learned a lot by watching this documentary. One aspect of the station that earned my respect is how the station was able to introduce the New York area to a lot of amazing bands, including Duran Duran. They did this in a variety of ways, according to the documentary. First, they embraced imports from the UK. I loved that radio stations employees would go to the airport to meet the planes that carried records from London. Clearly, they recognized that the UK was the center of a lot of great, new music then. Second, they didn’t follow the usual directions from record labels, which wanted to dictate when a single should be released. Instead, WLIR played songs when they felt like it. Lastly, they also spent a lot of time just combing through cassettes listening for songs that were gems. I totally appreciate forward thinking, dedicated people willing to put the time and work into something like new music.
Of course, the fact that this station was willing to play these new bands definitely helped the bands find success. On top of selling more albums, bands also began playing to bigger and better venues. One thing that the station did was have what was called, “Screamer of the Week.” The idea was that fans could vote on which song ranked as best song of the week, which led to heavy rotation. Apparently, Duran had 13! When I heard this, I had to smile. I remember that MTV used to do something similar where people could call in and vote for the favorite video. One time, I ended up calling like 25 times to ensure that Save a Prayer would win. Needless to say, my parents were less than thrilled once they received their phone bill. Oops.
If I didn’t think that this station was cool enough, I loved when I found out that the fans of the station developed a culture. People’s hairstyle and clothes began to shift to more of the New Wave look. They began regularly attending clubs that played the music they were hearing on the radio. Soon enough, other radio stations followed. Clearly, the “anyone can do it”, punk attitude appealed to more than just listeners in the New York area.
Beyond the great history represented in this documentary and the fabulous music that was played, I have to acknowledge that I enjoyed seeing our friend, Lori Majewski, featured as well as one Mr. Nick Rhodes. The best part of Nick’s appearance? I adored the story he told about the first time that the band landed in New York in 1981. According to Nick, they were super excited until the limo turned away from Manhattan, towards to Long Island. That said, they spent a lot of money using the vending machines in the Holiday Inn there. That is a pretty hilarious image! I wonder what those vending machines sold!
The documentary created a longing for me for other entities that are willing to buck the system. This station didn’t need to follow format or expectations. The DJs played what they wanted and weren’t afraid to show what they thought and felt. For example, one DJ played I Want to be Sedated by the Ramones over and over again after Reagan won a second term as President. As the documentary ended, I felt a wave of sadness that this type of radio station seems long gone, but I also felt pure joy in just being a part of the generation that appreciated New Wave. I feel fortunate in that I was a kid in the 80s.
If you have a chance to see this documentary, watch it. You don’t have to be a native to the New York/Long Island area to enjoy it. Plus, did I mention that it has great music and Nick Rhodes? Those are two great reasons, if you ask me!