John R. Rieger, a radio pioneer who founded "The World
Famous WLIR," the FM rock station that helped launch the careers of Billy Joel
and The Ramones, died Tuesday of natural causes in his Orient home. He was 91.
"He was instrumental in developing and bringing FM radio to the forefront
in Long Island," said Bob Wilson, account executive of WLIR 107.1 FM, now based
In 1959, Rieger began broadcasting classical music and Broadway tunes from
a basement studio at the Garden City Hotel. By the time he left in the mid-80s,
the station had shifted to rock and new wave, Wilson said. "It was one of the
few stations willing to play new music."
Rieger's sons recall growing up in a Merrick home that shook "with live
instruments and sounds, classical music and opera blasting from huge speakers,"
said one of his sons, Brad Rieger, 51, of Water Mill.
But music wasn't the elder Rieger's only passion.
pre-Castro Cuba, said daughter-in-law Vivian Rieger, 47, of Water Mill.
In 1967, the Rieger family sailed on a 21-foot boat up the Hudson River and
the St. Lawrence Seaway, eating peanut-butter sandwiches, tuna fish and Spam
until anchoring five weeks later in Montreal, Brad Rieger said.
"My brother and I were probably on sailboats before we could walk," said
another son, Jan Rieger of Orient, a sea captain in the merchant marine.
Born in Rockville Centre to Hungarian immigrant artists in 1913, John
Rieger's childhood interest in piano and violin led to training at the
Juilliard School of Music in New York City.
A World War II veteran, Rieger returned to New York after receiving an
honorable discharge and began working as an engineer for CBS Television, where
he met then-news producer Dore Claras. They married 60 years ago, and she
survives her husband.
The newlyweds left CBS because of a company policy that required one spouse
to retire if two employees wed, Jan Rieger said. "It gave impetus for him to
leave and start his radio station, and my mother was there by his side."
After retirement, the Riegers moved to Orient in 1983. Ten years later, he
co-founded the Peconic Amateur Radio Club, an 80-member group that provided
emergency communications for the Red Cross during the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks and after TWA Flight 800 crashed off the South Shore of Long Island in
1996, said president Roberta Keis of Jamesport.
Nicknamed the "Admiral," Rieger was still sailing - sometimes alone - as
far as to the Bahamas at age 69, said Brad Rieger, who owns a marine electronic
business. In many ways, the sea - complex and vast - was a good metaphor for
his father, he said.
"He was like a renaissance man," Brad Rieger said. "He could tune a
carburetor as well as tuning a violin."
Besides his wife and sons, Rieger is survived by five grandchildren and two
Burial was at Orient Cemetery yesterday.