Malibu Sue McCann has changed over the past few decades (but then, who hasn't?) First of all, the "Malibu" has been retired, the rest of the name, too.
This Wantagh native now answers to Susan McCaskie. She works for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a strategic communications analyst and — a self-described "transportation geek" — also files traffic reports for WCBS/880 and WINS/1010.
When she finds the time, McCaskie, 63, also works as a "background artist" — better known as an extra — on various New York-based TV shows and movies. If you look real hard, you might be able to see her milling in the background on a recent episode of "The Equalizer." She's the kindly-looking mom with sandy blond hair.
Indeed, McCaskie is a mom — to adult twins — while she lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like " a troll under the [Verrazano] bridge," she jokes.
Then, of course, there's this: McCaskie was once a member of a team of WLIR/WDRE/92.7 jocks who changed the world. To name-check a few, they included Ben Manilla, Donna Donna, Larry "The Duck" Dunn and the late Ray White.
From 1982 to 1991, they championed a new type of music, largely British in origin, that formed the synth-pop, post-punk, early alternative rock movements, more broadly known as "New Wave." From a ramshackle penthouse studio perched atop a Garden City building, WLIR would become the nation's first and for years only U.S. radio station to air U2, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order and Duran Duran.
In fact, some 700 bands and musicians got their first airplay here. Mastermind and program director Denis McNamara gave the station both a motto and battle cry — "Dare to Be Different" — which is also the name of the celebrated 2018 documentary film that tells much of this story.
But whatever did happen to this band of radio visionaries who dared to be different? Whatever happened to Malibu Sue, who spent nearly 20 years on and off at 92.7, from 1984 to 2003, making her the longest-tenured DJ from the golden years? Newsday caught up with her recently to find out.
What is a "strategic communications analyst" anyway?
We're part of the Port Authority's unified operations center that oversees what's going on at all the facilities — air, land and sea — to keep everything moving. When most people think of Port Authority, they think of the bus terminal, but we're aviation, shipping, rail, bridges, tunnels. We handle anything that's mitigation.
Next obvious question — how did Malibu Sue become someone who keeps the air, land and sea traffic moving smoothly in the Tristate area?
Well, music radio led me to news radio and then that led to traffic reporting. I'm a transportation and traffic nerd — just fascinated by all that kind of stuff — then got into this new position that the Port Authority had created in 2015 … I took a lot of courses, had a lot of great teachers and mentors at the Port Authority and Port Authority Police department. Most people in emergency management are first responders and I've learned a whole lot from them. [Nevertheless], I'm a small cog in a very large wheel.
I do notice that you still don't have a Long Island accent.
That's all part of being a professional announcer. I took speech and voice classes years ago to achieve what's called 'General American,' but when I get lazy at times, or tired, I will still drop the 'rs' and say 'watah.' But hey, I did grow up on Long Island — Wantagh — go Wantagh Warriors!
You later graduated with a degree in psychology from SUNY Oneonta, which hardly seems like a radio career track.
One of my professors called me the 'dancing psychologist,' but the trouble was that I couldn't leave it at the office, so to speak — I carried everyone's problems home with me — and I also wanted to be a dancer. Music was always my life and dancing was my way of expressing that love, [then] I had a knee injury which ended my career. But I was also always fascinated by radio. Whenever I entered a room, I'd turn on the radio before I turned on the lights. As a kid, I'd call up WGBB every night for requests, and drove the overnight DJ crazy.
But the life goal was to get to Broadway?
Absolutely, that's what I would have loved to do but after the knee injury and surgery, my surgeon told me to work out early in the morning. I'd get up at the crack of dawn to listen to Ben Manilla [and] not long after, called up the station on a whim and asked if I could speak to the station manager, Zim Barstein. I really just wanted his advice on how to get into radio but he called me in for an interview.
You then get hired as an intern. What next?
Denis McNamara, the genius behind "Dare to Be Different," wanted someone to do beach reports but first said, 'what do you want to call yourself' — he's a fan of nicknames, if you hadn't noticed. I had no idea — maybe Cruisin' Susan? '' — then remembered the one I had from my dance days: Malibu Sue. And the way that came about was that I had been an aquatic supervisor for Nassau County, and had worked my way through the lifeguard program, later became captain of the lifeguards. During my dance days, my choreographer — who knew I'd been a swimmer — would put on Beach Boys music during rehearsals, and he started calling me 'Malibu Sue.' Denis said it was kind of a natural match [for the beach reporter].
I thought Malibu came from the Lido Beach club of the same name?
[Laughs] Everyone thinks that. I used to tell my parents, one day your daughter will be named after a great nightclub, the bad news is, she will not own it …
I know there's an entire movie about this, but if you had to condense it all into a few thoughts, what was it like during the years that followed?
I was blessed to work with visionaries and an amazing team that helped carve out that format. Denis had a talent for recognizing and cultivating talent and it was just a great time in music and radio. We'd find music from every which way and every direction, and go through the bins at TSS [Times Square Stores, which filed for bankruptcy in 1990] looking for cassettes, then bring them back and listen to them and say, 'how about this?' It was just a group of mavericks who stayed outside the norm, and did their own thing.
That renegade style began long before you got there too, right?
Absolutely, beginning in 1970, LIR was always a progressive station, so Dare to be Different was an evolution of that. It was always known as being innovative and progressive.
We experienced so many difficulties — the time the transmitter was bulldozed during some construction program — and then [the FCC mandate] that we could only be the interim operator of the station, but if we wanted to be the full-time operator then we had to get off the air. We even had challenges with sunspots. There was so much crazy stuff but it all happened for a reason. We couldn't compete with these giant [New York City-based] radio stations which gave us the opportunity to create the format we did and go forward the way we did.
What was the unspoken — or for that matter spoken — message to your many devoted listeners?
That you could be anybody and were free to be anybody. There were no gender lines. It was all about inclusiveness and diversity, and — like our listeners will say to this day — they felt like they had a place where they belong because otherwise they were misfits in their own lives. It didn't matter who you were or how you identified — it was you're 'free to be me …'
Indeed, the station evolved into New Wave but in the '70s also championed a lot of other new bands — including iconic Long Island-based ones like Twisted Sister — and even Billy Joel. What was it like to suddenly abandon them in 1982?
It was very difficult for Denis who had a very good relationship with Billy — who was on so much that I think people thought he was a DJ there. He was on the softball team, the WLIR Heavyhitters. He was part of our world [but] I think [Joel] was pretty cool about it. He definitely wanted to be part of other things [at the station] in later years.
But why New Wave? Lots of other new music was exploding then, from funk to contemporary R&B and even the early stirrings of hip hop.
We did do some of that but also thought, why is nobody playing THIS music? We couldn't understand it and were like, 'this is so great, why isn't anyone playing it?' We couldn't compete with those huge New York City stations and had to do something. And Denis always was a maverick who did not always color inside the lines [and] had battles with record companies too. We just wanted to play good music, and not have it part of some marketing plan that was presented to us. We figured, 'we're going to put this on the air because we think it should be heard.'
How did those huge New York City stations react?
Every other DJ I met was like, 'wow, you guys get to play what you want?!' All these jocks had gone into the business because they thought they'd be able to play what they loved [then] were given a playlist and guideline. They were jealous of us because we got to do what we wanted to do.
Each of you had different tastes — what were they?
I definitely loved the jangly guitars [sounds] — Johnny Marr, the Smiths, the Damned. Donna was really known as the DJ who championed the Ramones. We each had different tastes and you could always tell when we got records, and say, 'oh Donna will definitely love this' or 'I don't think Larry will like that …' It's hard to put [taste] in words, but we were very open-minded. I was definitely more into the quirky and dark. People never expected me to be blond, even with the name Malibu Sue.
700 artists got on your air? The real figure?
That sounds about right. I still can't believe the magnitude and number, and we went deeper in the cuts too. And after all these years, [the music] still sounds great. It's the one format that holds up. My own children loved the Pet Shop Boys and Enigma. The Cure, the Smiths, Depeche Mode. I still listen to New Order's "Blue Monday."
How important were the clubs to that whole Dare to be Different ethos?
Oh they very much contributed, for sure. Malibu, Spize, Spit, Paris, New York — God, there were so many great clubs. They really supported the whole effort of exposing new music and it was so great to go out to them, where everyone would get dressed up [laughs] like Siouxsie and the Banshees, with the skirts and makeup and hair. There were no gender lines, and if you talk to the bouncers, they always loved working New Wave night because there was never any trouble … no one ever judged you.
Did you think you were changing the world or just having a good time?
I think a bit of both. We were having fun and changing the world.