Ellen Goldfarb knows the exact moment that she first realized how much WLIR changed her life.
It was the first time Goldfarb, then an 18-year-old from Plainview, walked into Spit nightclub in Levittown in 1982. “I was addicted to ’LIR then,” says Goldfarb, whose documentary “Dare to Be Different,” about the former Hempstead radio station’s remarkable influence in the ’80s, will make its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27. “I walked into this huge nightclub and thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool!’ Seeing hundreds of people dancing to the music I listened to every day on the radio, I felt like I was at home with all these strange people, like I was home with a new family. It was a magical feeling.”
And she was not alone.
Between 1982 and 1987, when it was forced off the air due to a complicated licensing dispute with the FCC, WLIR/92.7 FM was arguably the most influential radio station in the United States. Through its groundbreaking playlist created by program director Denis McNamara, WLIR introduced the area to New Wave — the post-punk movement that was commandeering the cultural mainstream in England and, with the station’s help, America, through its pioneering use of synthesizers and music videos. The station was the first in the country to play Rock and Roll Hall of Famers like Irish imports U2 and homegrown rebels like Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, who are part of the documentary, as well as superstars like Duran Duran, The Cure and Depeche Mode.
“’LIR was so key in breaking so many acts,” says Joel Peresman, president and CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. “They gave these people a shot.”
Peresman, who was an agent in the 1980s representing Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and dozens of British New Wave artists, says that when his bands succeeded on WLIR, he was quickly able to prove to those who hadn’t heard of these new acts that they would have an audience in America. “They showed there was such a thirst for these artists,” says Peresman, who was interviewed for the documentary. “Their support meant you could bring a band over and do dates. . . . That gave the bands the opportunity to show how great live they were.”
When you get those kind of results, the music industry pays attention very quickly. And soon all sorts of artists — from Johnny Rotten to Billy Idol — were making a pilgrimage to Hempstead to see McNamara and the rest of the WLIR crew, including star DJs like Malibu Sue, Donna Donna and Larry the Duck.
“Denis McNamara at ’LIR had a real vision,” Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes says in the documentary. “That was the thing that changed radio — the vision.”
McNamara says he was honored when Goldfarb approached him about doing a documentary on the station in 2010.
“I didn’t think it was successful when it ended,” says McNamara, who still lives in Northport and now has his own radio consulting firm. “I felt the government mistreated us and that the community was robbed of a semi-natural resource. . . . But afterwards, when my job was to deal with artists? They treated me like I used to play for the Yankees.”
When McNamara was honored by the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2010, Jett insisted on being the one to induct him. And he says he is proud to see what she — and so many other artists he introduced to American radio — have accomplished. (Jett recorded a new song, “Dare to Be Different,” to serve as the documentary’s theme.)
“It was a very vibrant, exciting period,” says McNamara, who became executive producer of the documentary. “Nostalgia is a wonderful thing as long as you make sure not to live there too long.”
However, McNamara says the best part of the documentary process was seeing how WLIR changed the lives of its listeners. In between the interviews with stars like Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, and Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, the documentary also talks to listeners who describe the lengths they would go through to lock in the station’s often dodgy signal and what finding all this new music meant to them.
“It’s been a labor of love,” says Goldfarb, who originally got the idea for the documentary from seeing all the Facebook groups dedicated to WLIR and the music from the era. “In my life, the music and the DJs helped me. It gave me a place to escape to. It brought peace and harmony in my life.”
Originally, Goldfarb planned to write a fictional feature film about her life in Plainview after WLIR changed to the New Wave format. But after she began her research, she found that the radio station’s story was more interesting to her. Her brother, Jay Reiss, who co-wrote the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” suggested she do a documentary first.
“They shaped a culture on Long Island,” says Goldfarb, who hopes to secure international distribution for the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Everyone should know what ’LIR did for music and music history. They were the first to do something like this, to go against what was expected.”
Goldfarb hopes to follow the documentary with a book featuring the transcripts of the interviews she conducted for the film. She hopes a Broadway musical based on the station’s history could also be possible.
“With what’s going on in the world today, ‘daring to be different’ is just as important now as it was then,” Goldfarb says. “Being able to be who you are is still revolutionary.”
WHAT “Dare to Be Different” premiere with A Flock of Seagulls, Dave Wakeling and The Alarm
WHEN | WHERE 8:30 p.m. April 27, Tribeca Film Festival Hub, Manhattan; also 9:45 p.m. April 28-30 and 3:45 p.m. April 30, Regal Cinemas Battery Park, Manhattan
INFO $21; 866-941-3378, tribecafilm.com
Though there are always plenty of rumors about companies looking to put the ambitious WLIR programming back on Long Island, the radio station hasn’t played any rock music since Univision acquired it in 2003. But the “Dare to Be Different” spirit still lives on. Here’s where you can hear it now:
THE INTERNET The WLIR.fm website is the home of WLIR’s Internet radio station, which includes Larry the Duck’s show at noon on Mondays and Fridays and a mix of current music and WLIR classics from the ’80s.
HD RADIO WLIR’s Internet radio station is now being broadcast on 105.3 FM’s HD-3 frequency and the station is looking at expanding to other HD frequencies.
SMARTPHONES The WLIR app is available in iTunes and Google Play stores to stream the Internet radio station on your phone. — GLENN GAMBOA