Elton Spitzer, the radio executive who built the former WLIR-FM into an internationally known powerhouse and etched the slogan “Dare to be different!” into the consciousness of generations of Long Islanders, died Sunday in Baltimore from complications related to Parkinson’s disease, said his son, Shane Spitzer. He was 84.
Spitzer took over WLIR-FM 92.7 in 1973 in the midst of a complicated licensing battle with the Federal Communications Commission, but always kept the legal battles away from the creative side of the Hempstead-based station.
“Elton loved that little 3,000-watt station on Long Island,” said Denis McNamara, the station’s program director at the time. “And he loved the impact that it had.”
In 1982, WLIR’s album rock format had grown stale and faced increasing competition from stations throughout the area. McNamara gave Spitzer two options — a soft-rock, adult contemporary playlist, or one built on the British New Wave movement and the more melodic end of the American punk movement.
Spitzer went with the New Wave, telling McNamara, “This sounds like more fun.”
It turned out that “fun” was an understatement. Soon, WLIR was introducing Long Island and parts of New York City and Connecticut to artists never been played on American radio before — including U2, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode and New Order — and influencing the rise of a whole “new music” format at radio stations across the country.
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“That changed my life,” said Ellen Goldfarb, a Plainview native who is directing and producing a documentary about the first five years of WLIR called “Dare to Be Different!” “It became the music of my high school years . . . And it also became music history.”
Goldfarb said she interviewed Spitzer twice in recent years for the documentary and got to know him personally. “He was such a lovely man,” she said. “I’m so upset about his passing and that he won’t get to see the documentary . . . But it’s a great way to honor him.”
Larry “The Duck” Dunn, who started as a high school intern at WLIR and worked his way up to becoming a DJ and the program director there, said that Spitzer hired people based on their music knowledge. “We didn’t all have voices of gold,” said Dunn, who is now Newsday’s senior vice president for advertising as well as a DJ on SiriusXM. “But he saw something in me that maybe I didn’t even see in myself.”
Spitzer’s ongoing battles with the FCC took their toll on the company and those who worked there, who mostly saw it as a labor of love. “We used to say ’LIR stood for ‘Low Income Radio,’ ” said Dunn. “He hated us saying that.”
But as often as the WLIR talent joked with Spitzer about their wages, they also stayed around.
“Elton was a very enlightened progressive station owner,” said McNamara, of East Northport, who was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. “I didn’t know how unique that was then, but I do now. Whenever I am honored with some award, I always pay tribute to him and tell people I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Spitzer ran other radio stations, but eventually began building Rhodes 22 sailboats in North Carolina with his brother, according to Shane Spitzer. “He was pretty proud of what he did at WLIR,” he said. “In his later years, when he talked about it, he glowed.”
McNamara said the last time he saw Spitzer was at an WLIR reunion last year. “The first words he said to me were, ‘Didn’t we have fun?’ ” McNamara said. “And we did.”
Spitzer is also survived by a stepdaughter, Beverly Marchica. He will be buried in a private ceremony on Friday.