It was like the radio industry woke up last week. After decades of heritage call letters of iconic radio stations disappearing or being “parked,” the radio historians came out of the woodwork last week to lament the looming end of New York radio legend, WPLJ.
Radio Ink's Ed Ryan got the pot-stirring started, interviewing radio luminaries like Lee Abrams, John Sebastian, and others to answer the question about the fate of those iconic call letters after EMF – the company that will flip the station to its Christian music network – moves on with their own branding. Many suggested a rock revival for PLJ – finding an ambitious owner in the NY/New Jersey area who wants to give those call letters another life.
Oddly enough, Walt Sabo (now better known as syndicated talk personality, Walter Sterling) and I had the same idea:
Walt: “The best use of the calls is to retire them, like a great ball player’s number.”
Fred: “Maybe it’s time to retire call letters like sports franchises do with jerseys. It would be a shame for those calls to end up on (an) AM (station) in Poughkeepsie.”
We refer to him as “Radio's Best Friend,” but it's time to call Art Vuolo a historian, archivist, or both. He passionately took the time to talk about what should happen to iconic call letters during this era-ending moments:
“Will some station in the Garden State grab those WPLJ letters on June 1, or will somebody in New York with brains and a true caring for their heritage, do something great with the name? At the risk of sounding like a 1966 Beach Boy’s song “God Only Knows.”
The Smithsonian would never allow this to happen to historic artifacts, and neither should the radio industry. Like all those great sets of calls, WPLJ comes with a story – in fact, many stories. I was fortunate enough to start my radio career in the '70s with ABC. At that time, radio companies were only allowed to own seven FMs and seven AMs, so every station mattered. And WPLJ and WABC in NYC were ABC's flagship radio stations.
For its first many years, PLJ was a rock station – and an incredibly successful one. Talk to anyone who grew up in the New York/New Jersey area during the time, and they'll tell you that PLJ was a seminal station (along with another set of lost calls, WNEW-FM). Pat St. John, Jimmy Fink, Carol Miller, Tony Pigg, Zacherle, and of course, Jim Kerr and Shelli Sonstein (still anchoring Q104.3 mornings) were all major players in PLJ's all-star lineup.
Like all those original ABC-FM rock stations, there was a story behind the choice of those call letters. Legend has it that group head Allen Shaw “borrowed” them from a Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention song – “W-P-L-J,” – which stood for White Port Lemon Juice. If those calls get “parked” or buried as someone's HD-2 or at that AM in Poughkeepsie, what becomes of the history of the station, its legal identifier, and what it all meant to the radio industry – and millions and millions of fans?
As you all know, I am not an attorney or even an F.C.C. regulations expert, so I am not aware of the machinations necessary to make it possible to retire call letters like we do sports jerseys and players' numbers. But I do know that buildings earn landmark status through a process with the National Register. Why not call letters – like KMET, WBCN – and so many others that I'm expecting to hear about in comments and on social media that have been abandoned on the radio highway?
Ironically, radio honors the people who made the business great – especially those who entertained and informed America over the airwaves. The National Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago has hundreds of designated honorees.
But call letters?
As the industry finds itself in yet another period of buying, selling, swapping, and consolidating, the designation of historic call letters may be an idea whose time has come.
Best, bittersweet wishes to everyone who ever worked at WPLJ during its many incarnations. A lot of truly talented people roamed those halls and made some amazing radio in those studios.
And if you've never tried White Port and Lemon Juice, this may be a good day to start: