A couple of pigeons that somehow got in are now the only full-time inhabitants of WLIR/92.7's former studio at 175 Fulton Ave. in Hempstead. Or three, counting the one that hatched a few weeks ago.
Feathers are scattered everywhere in the old "penthouse" just above the 7th floor, and (yes) white droppings, too. Ghosts of radio past are as well.
Over there in the far corner of this forlorn, hollowed-out space once sat station owner Elton Spitzer, who died in 2016. He had the idea of letting the DJs of his legendary station do whatever they darn well pleased.
A few paces away sat program director Denis McNamara (who now lives in Northport). He made darn well certain they didn't.
Then there was Larry Dunn, or "The Duck" to a generation of 'LIR fans. On a recent day, with the skies above Hempstead choked with Canadian wildfire smoke, he was back in the place he called home for about a decade in the '80s.
"I'm glad I don't work here anymore," he says — no explanation required — as he glances around a tiny side studio that once housed the station's call-in phone lines.
During the '80s, when WLIR was arguably the most influential radio station in the United States, Dunn was one of a dozen or so hosts who brought New Wave to America. INXS, The Police, New Order, The B-52s, Depeche Mode, U2, The Go-Gos, Blondie, The Human League, Culture Club, Thompson Twins … The list is impressively long and was also the focus of the celebrated 2018 film about WLIR, "Dare to Be Different."
There is no official "historian" of 'LIR, but its one-time morning DJ and station music director could effortlessly function as one. A New Wave savant with a daunting command of facts, dates and trivia, Dunn seems to have forgotten nothing, or anyone, from those years. Ask a casual question about the Stray Cats, and settle in for a disquisition. Wonder about U2's first concert from the old Malibu Club in Lido Beach, and he will recall the set list.
Tall, lean, slightly stooped, thinning hair absent-mindedly parted down the middle, Dunn could still pass as a DJ, but also a college professor, magazine publisher and bank executive. He's done each in fact (and is currently with Island Federal Credit Union in Hauppauge, after a run as Newsday's advertising chief).
This past May he celebrated his 20th anniversary as host of SiriusXM's "First Wave. ''
Radio has been his life, but so has Long Island. A father of four, married to 'LIR's former promotion director, Suzanne Azar, Dunn, 65, hosts his Sirius show out of a home studio in Massapequa Park, weekdays from 5 a.m. to 9, Saturdays 10 to 2.
We spoke recently about the 'LIR glory days, when there was the "Screamer of the Week" (listeners voting for their favorite songs), and when countless new bands broke onto the U.S. music scene from this modest perch in "Beautiful Downtown Hempstead." The following was edited for length and clarity.
Let's quickly talk about upbringing. I know you are a Long Island native, but born in Brooklyn?
My parents moved to North Merrick when I was 5 or 6.
They met as bank tellers in the city. My dad [Lawrence] worked for the FDNY — Ladder 102 in Bed-Stuy, Rescue 4, Woodside and 129 Truck in Flushing — and my mom [Loretta] later got her nursing degree and worked in the burn unit at Nassau County Medical Center.
Your first day at 'LIR was in 1978 when you were an intern from St. John's. You got a job there June 1, 1979, after graduation. Was radio always your ambition?
'LIR was. I just loved the DJs, and the way they presented themselves. My favorite DJ at the time, and the one I modeled myself after, was Joe Bonadonna. I'd never heard a station like this before in the metropolitan area — progressive rock, while WBAB was a lot more vanilla. But at 'LIR in the '70s, I was hearing songs that I'd never known had existed.
And then you got hired full time?
I was also working up the street at Mardell's pharmacy, so I bounced back and forth. I was the music director but they also let me do a public affairs show on Sunday morning.
What exactly did "the music director" of 'LIR do?
We'd shuffle through all the vinyl we'd get in those days. Every DJ got albums because the promotion-marketing machines of the major record labels thought that if they got to the DJ, they got to the listener … Through the '70s, we played everything from jazz to reggae to rock and even a few country acts. We'd get a lot of brand-new, fresh vinyl.
Besides Bonadonna, tell me a little about a few of the other DJs at the time, and their musical tastes.
Let's see — Ben Manilla, who was into the blues, is out in California and has been working with Dan Aykroyd the last 25 years; John DeBella, now in Philadelphia, went on to do top 40 in Pittsburgh, and did a lot of humor for us — he was also close to Joan Jett; Ray White [who died in 2021 and helped launched the careers of Billy Joel and Phil Collins] was a musicologist — he championed David Gilmour and U2 and so many different genres; then, Donna Donna, who championed a lot of the guitar bands was a huge fan of the Clash and The Replacements; Malibu Sue was a big champion of dance, also Erasure, Talk Talk and Depeche Mode; and Bob Waugh, who I was very close to, championed a lot of the new artists.
So set the stage for me: What was the Long Island music culture of the '70s and '80s like? One reflexively thinks of "Eppy" — Michael Epstein — and My Father's Place, or Billy Joel, and the Good Rats — and of course — the clubs. What else?
Until the minimum drinking age was raised from 19 to 21 in 1985, the club scene was huge, and as the music transitioned from disco to New Wave, you had clubs that would change their names during the week, like Uncle Sam's in Levittown that turned into Spit on Wednesdays, or Metro 700 on Hempstead Turnpike in Franklin Square that turned into 007 during the week. Then there was the Malibu Club where I spun every Saturday night and we broadcast live.
Where to begin with all the great LI bands, like Blue Öyster Cult and Twisted Sister. Did 'LIR feel an obligation to play the local talent before it went all "New Music" in the '80s?
One of my first jobs as DJ was a regular feature called "Street Beat" — playing demos of local bands which was our way of supporting Long Island music. But a lot of them were pretty bad. Up until the time we changed the format on Aug. 1, 1982, we did play all the majors, like Pat Benatar and Blue Öyster Cult, but when we changed, we let 'em go.
Seems kinda cold.
It was purely a business decision. We couldn't keep cutting the pie with all the other AOR [album oriented rock] radio stations in New York. If we didn't do something, we were screwed. We were reborn — that's the word — and Denis made certain we stayed with the format. I remember vividly when Meg Griffin and Vin Scelsa were on the air and Vin wanted to play Hot Tuna's "Water Song" [a soft rock instrumental from 1973]. The hot line to the studio lit up — it was Denis who told Scelsa "this is your last show."
You had to drop Billy Joel, too.
I do think it was very difficult for Denis because he had such a close relationship with Billy, and had to turn him down … We always felt the song 'It's Still Rock & Roll to Me' [from 1980] was Billy's way of getting back on the air at 'LIR. He was a huge part of what we did back in the early days and a part of our family, too. Mickey Marchello [of the Good Rats] said in the movie: "We were always there for you then you abandoned us for all this [expletive] music." But I don't think it left any bad blood. People move on.
Then there were the battles with major record labels because you refused to play cuts from albums when they told you to — or the A side of singles when you only played the B.
We never went by their rules. Every Thursday, a box of records that was sent from Heathrow [in the U.K.] would arrive and I'd go through it then call Denis if I heard anything good, which we'd then play on Sunday's "Off the Boat." In some instances, the major record labels had released the album in the U.K. first, but we were playing cuts off of it before the U.S. release. They threatened us with cease-and-desist orders, which we ignored because we bought the record legally. It eventually forced them to do simultaneous releases here and overseas.
The irony is that you guys were the radio David among Goliaths — a tiny station that even briefly had to broadcast its signal from a TV-size antenna on the roof of 175 Fulton — which is still there!
[Laughs] The [original] antenna had been on land in Garden City owned by the federal government, which wanted to build a post office on the site. They told us the antenna had to come down and the chief engineer, Mike Guidotti, had to mount that little one on the roof. That's when we began to say, "We're broadcasting from beautiful downtown Hempstead!" It was a low point in morale because listeners couldn't get the signal, but it only lasted a few weeks. [The station signal was then transmitted from the North Shore Towers on the Nassau-Queens line.]
When did you first realize that New Wave was taking off?
We never called the new format "New Wave" — Seymour Stein [co-founder of Sire Records who died this past April] did. We called it "New Music — Dare to Be Different." That was our focus — breaking new music. And we knew we were making an impact when record label presidents [including Stein] called up to ask us what we just played. Listeners, too. If we said "turn left" [on the air], 8,000 of them turned left. If we said show up at a concert event, they'd show up. There also began to be crowds outside the studio, on the street, or building lobby, or stairway leading up to the penthouse.
There was real synergy between the clubs and 'LIR, too. How did that work?
The dance floor was our focus group in real time. When I did live shows from Malibu, I would play the dance version , so while everyone else was playing the three-minute single, we'd be playing that extended dance version. We'd drop our call letters into the middle of those songs — THIS IS W L I R — which prevented other stations from recording and rebroadcasting it. Rebroadcasting was illegal but some other stations — I won't say who — did try.
Let's quickly talk about your own on-air musical style — knowledgeable but never show-offy. You do seem to know a lot of stuff, though.
I've always kept a musical schematic in my mind — connecting the dots between artists and their bands. For example, Chuck Leavell founded Sea Level but the Chuck I know is from the Allman Brothers Band and he's been the piano player for the Stones since 1982.
You sound like a music nerd. Are you?
No! I never wanted to come off as a know-it-all. I believe in the spirit of humility. My approach is to have fun, to say, "Hey, it's Larry! It's just me!" I'm not full of myself, although — yeah — I know the trivia, or what my wife will call a "Duck fact," or "quack fact."
You did go to the trouble of losing your Lawn Guyland accent years ago by taking diction lessons, right?
I didn't feel I had the voice that would carry me into a full radio career, and I had people around me — like Ray White — who had a voice 10 times greater than mine. I sounded like a chipmunk.
Could there ever be another 'LIR?
I'd like to hope there would be if someone had the guts to try, but radio has become too homogenized, and look at all the songs that are breaking on social media. It's fast and furious.
My doorcloser: Where did the "Duck" come from?
DeBella came up with it — based on Donald "Duck" Dunn, the bassist from Booker T. & the MGs and the Blues Brothers. When I went to Sirius I wanted to get back to my real name but they said don't! I'll still occasionally get postcards with the [Big] Duck from Flanders, or someone will come up to me and say, "It's 'Larry the friggin' Duck." I just roll with it.