Denis McNamara made an educated guess that worked.
That hunch came in 1982 and it not only changed the format for a struggling 3,000-watt radio station in Hempstead, but transformed Long Island's airwaves into something world famous. The program director and DJ contemplated the future of WLIR/92.7 FM.
"I lost sleep over it," McNamara says recently. "I talked to a lot of people and I remember it came down to two choices in my mind. And I sat down with station owner Elton Spitzer and he said, 'You make the choice.' "
Option one: a "new music" format ("I hated the phrase 'new wave,' " McNamara says. "It sounded too trendy and could be gone in a year"). Option two: a progressive adult-contemporary sound, which may have had commercial appeal, he said, but wasn't quite as much fun.
"You know, if you're going to be the station that 'dared to be different,' it wasn't that daring," McNamara says of the latter format. And so the new version of WLIR was born. The station had already been playing Elvis Costello and Blondie with the album-oriented rock of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, but now it was onward and upward with the new music: McNamara, who turns 58 Sunday, introduced America to groups from across the Pond - think The Clash, The Cure and Depeche Mode.
There's more to get excited about all these years later. Tuesday night, McNamara will be inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. (And - how cool is this? - none other than Joan Jett is supposed to induct him!)
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"It's a real honor to be associated with the people that are in that hall of fame. It's just amazing," says McNamara, who went on to head up international A&R at Polydor Records in the '90s, stayed on in the label's various incarnations through the mid-Aughts, and now runs NYM Inc., an Internet radio consulting company. "There are a lot of memories coming back right now. This is what this does to you - makes you nostalgic, reflective. And it's not as painful as I thought it would be. It's actually a pretty good feeling."
Here's something that will make radio listeners feel good, too: McNamara is back on the air doing guest-hosting stints at Long Island classic rock station WRCN / 103.9 FM. Warning, though: For those who remember him introducing the latest Duran Duran hit back in '83, it might be a little weird hearing McNamara talk so eloquently about Bad Company, Neil Young or Eric Clapton (even if that's what he did when he got to WLIR in the mid-'70s).
McNamara comes across as that cool avuncular type with all the war stories, but they aren't tales of battles in far-off lands - they are recollections of hanging out with the likes Bono, Van Morrison or Lou Reed. He's in the process of starting a book about his life in Long Island radio, the music biz and spending time with all those artists.
"Music is a very special and mysterious thing," he says. "That's the one thing I can say I found out through all of this."