As the queen of classic rock radio, Long Island's Carol Miller has been playing the music well before that "classic" label came along. Born in Queens, raised in Searingtown (where she still lives part-time), her career began in Philadelphia in 1971 while still a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was studying to become a doctor. She'd later go on to Hofstra — for a law degree.
Instead of law, rock radio beckoned. Her first job was at Philadelphia's WMMR/93.3, then weekends at WNEW/102.7 where she went full-time in 1973. Miller left shortly after — she has long disputed one story that this was over friction with WNEW's other top female rock jock, Alison "The Night Bird" Steele — then joined WPLJ/95.5. She has ruled classic rock radio by night ever since.
Miller returned to WNEW in 1983, then left hours before the station's notorious switch to "hot talk" in 1999. She has been at WAXQ/Q104.3 for most of this century, and is a longtime contributor to Sirius XM, too. Her long-running show on Q104.3 airs weeknights from 7 to midnight.
Also of note: She has hosted various forms of her signature all-things-Led-Zeppelin "Get the Led Out" since the early '80s.
Miller, 70 — who will be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame on Nov. 1 — spoke with Newsday recently about her singular career
You grew up in Searingtown?
I'm surprised more people don't know that I'm a Long Islander because I've been here my whole life and still am — I have my parents' house. [She also shares an Upper West Side apartment with her husband, veteran sound mixing engineer Paul Logus.] The street I'm on was once surrounded by trees that got mowed down for buildings; it was a lovely place and still is, so I couldn't give it up.
What was it like back then?
Great, and to me, everything was starting to happen. I graduated from Herricks High in '68, and that's when it hit the fan with all the nutty stuff. On Saturdays, my best friend and I would go into the city to the Cafe Wha?
You listened to much radio as a kid?
I remember when I was 3 putting on the radio. [She pulls out a tiny transistor radio, circa 1965]. When I was in high school, I'd listen to 1010 WINS … WMCA … WABC … and I also did what was called "DX," or find stations from out of town.
Did you ever have an inkling that one day you'd be a rock jock?
Oh, no, no, no, no. I was going to become a doctor — and got into medical school at Downstate. There were so few women on the radio, and the first time I heard women playing popular music on the radio was during a trip to France with my parents, where I heard Radio Luxembourg [and] thought they were having so much fun.
Let's fast forward to the early '70s. You get a part-time on-air job at WNEW, then later the full-time one at WPLJ. Set the stage for what happened then.
I decided I was going to go to law school and got into Hofstra, then got a job at WPLJ which I did not expect to be full time but weekends so that I could go to school during the week. Then I was offered full time and couldn't say no. I also thought, what kind of career could this possibly be? PLJ had been WABC-FM, and by the time I got there, it had been doing well, but the program director Larry Berger's job was to make the station number one. He did that by taking us right down the middle between [archrivals] 99X [WXLO] and 'NEW. It was a broad format — from Barry Manilow to Led Zeppelin — and after we knocked off XLO, he turned the battleship to 'NEW.
How did that "down the middle" strategy work exactly?
Into the early '70s, 'NEW was still free-form while we were given categories of songs and allowed to pick from a certain number of selections. A new album would come in and a song off of it might be played five times a day so listeners could get familiar with it. But that song would always be followed with something they'd know. That's how so many of the staples of what we now call classic rock were introduced.
And it worked?
The station became a monolith and we really beat up 'NEW too. Everybody and I mean everybody knew us — Tony Pigg, Jim Kerr, Pat St. John, Bob Marrone, Dave Charity and Jimmy Fink. We had a really great crew and were all still kids in our early '20s.
Then you later get back to 'NEW, which is the next major part of your career. Was Scott Muni running it at the time?
He had not been the program director in a while, but was still the powerful figurehead and if Scott did not like something, then it wasn't going to happen — like the monarchy in England. Scott wanted me there because we had both worked for WABC and he knew that you learned something about the workings of radio that you didn't learn at 'NEW.
You were there at the nadir too — Aug. 9, 1995, when Jerry Garcia died and the new 'NEW declined to play any tributes?
That allegedly killed NEW and I was on the air at the time too. We had begun to disregard our original listeners, and had switched to something called "triple A" — adult album alternative — and were no longer playing any Grateful Dead. I went to my program director and said, we gotta play the Dead. He said no and we had a little discussion, but the answer remained no. For years afterward, I've apologized on the anniversary.
The '70s had been a miraculous era in the long history of rock 'n roll. Did you know just how miraculous at the time?
When we were in it, we knew it was amazing. I guess I couldn't imagine that people who are now senior citizens would still be doing it.
With all that music coming in all the time, how could you possibly choose what to play?
It wasn't that difficult because every album that came in was great. You also met all these people [Miller had long term relationships — she now calls them "friendships'' — with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and Paul Stanley of KISS]. When I was in Philadelphia, I met Springsteen — the local guy from New Jersey — and promised to play his record in New York. I first saw Billy Joel and the Hassles at Herricks High a few years before that. And because it was free-form, you simply played your favorite music.
Let's talk about some of the professional relationships you've had with these stars. Billy?
I haven't seen him in a long time but do have one little story, when we were both backstage at a Springsteen concert at Nassau Coliseum in the late '70s because he was on the same label [Columbia]. I'm going over to say hello to Springsteen and I hear these footsteps behind me, and it's Billy: 'Carol, I've never met Bruce, can you introduce me?' I thought, that's ridiculous. 'You're Billy Joel.' But I do [laughs] — 'Bruce, this is Billy Joel; Billy, this is Bruce Springsteen…'' It was a bizarre moment [but] Billy is brilliant and New York's music ambassador to the world.
You were the first to play Springsteen on a major New York radio station?
I had been at 'MMR playing 'Greetings from Asbury Park,' then got the weekend job at 'NEW where they were not playing the album because some people had been promoting him as the New Bob Dylan, which was offensive to a lot of fans. But I started playing it and others followed. I also did the campaign to make 'Born to Run' the state song of New Jersey, and got millions of signatures in support of that. It became the official rock theme instead.
Still friends with the Boss?
It's always nice when he sees me and he acknowledges the old relationship but I see a lot more of Steve Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen. But no, I'm not his friend. I'm not Barack Obama, you know.
Meanwhile, is there anything you don't know about Led Zeppelin?
They've been pretty good at keeping their private lives private for the most part. I do know their history but I cannot tell you what they do at home.
How do you get along with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page now?
When I first played them, it was all about the music, which was cataclysmic, but I didn't want to be anywhere near them. I started to do the interviews with them when they were older because they had become reasonable people. They're nice now — nice old men — but not when they were younger. They were totally lecherous.
You did write in your 2013 memoir, "Up All Night," about the rampant sexism in the business. How did you deal with it?
I was good at saying, 'no thank you, I've got to go back to work' although some people I did physically hit, or slap. But back then, you didn't take any of that seriously — 'stop that!' or 'Go away!' Or sometimes they'd say, 'would you like to go to Frankfurt with me' and I'd roll the movie in my head then say, 'no thank you.' My motto was always 'when in doubt, get out.' Anyway, none of that happens anymore for obvious reasons.
There were three female rock jocks over the decades at the major New York City rock stations — you, Alison Steele and Meg Griffin. Why so few?
Because the FM rock thing came out of top 40, and that was only guys. Alison Steele had been working at WNEW-FM in 1966 when it did have an all-girl format … She was the 'Night Bird' and had a kind of fantasy presentation. The stations expected women to have these come-on overtones, and I decided I couldn't do that — that I was just going 'to be your friend.'
Rumors that you and Steele [who died in 1995 at the age of 58] did not get along?
The guys at the station were little boys and they wanted a cat fight and started a rumor that she had been booed at a David Bromberg concert and that I had instigated it. I'm still angry about it because someone made it up. I got along really well with her. She was a lovely lady.
You've now been at Q-104.3 nearly two decades. How did that come about?
A number of us 'PLJ alumni got together with our original program director, Larry Berger [who died in 2018], and made plans to relaunch the old PLJ as 'New York's Best Rock 2.' The idea built some steam, and got a big story in the Daily News — and a little while after that Q hired Jim Kerr which busted up the team. When I heard they'd hired him, I thought, 'ohh, now they're gonna have to hire me.'
You've had a singular determination to keep your career going even in the midst of your ongoing — and not particularly well-publicized — battles with cancer. Is there a link between the two?
This career is the only thing I could have done full time, and also been in the hospital at the same time. I'll be in the hospital tomorrow. [Before this interview, Miller had come down with pneumonia.] What other job can you lay on the slab during the day and then jump off and go to work at night?
How's your health right now?
I'm doing fine. I beat two different cancers [breast, uterine] three times. I'm very proud of that.