You've seen the web memes, photos, and videos that show all the devices, gadgets, and services that have gone by the wayside since smartphones have become ubiquitous in our lives. The compass, calculator, flashlight, camera, Rolodex, notepad, and so many other handy items have all but been replaced by the iPhone and similar handsets that have become as important to us as our wallets.
If you're in radio, just don't add the “hot line” to that list.
You'd think that as a PD in the digital era, all you'd need to get the attention of a DJ, host, or show on the air to efficiently and effectively send them a text message. But the red phone in the studio – the hotline, the Batphone – that silently sets off a blinking light the person on the air couldn't possibly miss is still an effective way of trying to avoid a disaster – or quickly finding out if one just occurred.
Unlike the splicing block, the cart machine, and the pager, the hot line is still a go-to communications tool of choice at many radio stations, although a simple text to the jock on the air is becoming a more prevalent way to quickly connect. And that got me thinking about a blog post I've had on the shelf for more than a year:
Weird hotline stories.
Many stations have two direct outside phone lines into the studio – a “warm line” – a number for general communications, but nothing urgent. And then, the hotline, originally named after the red phone that was set up between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in June of 1963, back in the “Cold War” days, designed to head off a nuclear war because of a mistake, misunderstanding, or a politician run amok.
In radio parlance, the hotline serves essentially the same purpose, giving a PD the direct line into the studio – and the jock on the air's attention. PDs still call in with questions like these:
“What was that?”
“Did you forget about the giveaway?”
“Do you know your mic's still open?”
“What format are you running?”
The blog post I planned was to collect funny, relatable hotline stories for a whimsical post. I reached out to a couple of old PD friends, but just didn't feel I had enough good stories to put it together.
Until last week. And that's when the announcement leaked out on Facebook that Larry Berger had passed away.
Unless you worked in New York Radio or spent some time at ABC Radio, chances are you never got to meet Larry. He was not the most outgoing of PDs, and although the term networking had not been invented when Larry did his best programming in the 70s and 80s, he was not especially interested in getting his name “out there.” There were more dynamic, outspoken programmers back in the 70s and 80s. Larry chose to fly under the radar.
Larry Berger is best known for programming ABC Radio's FM flagship in New York City – WPLJ. It was a juggernaut of a station in the market for years and years. And while WNEW-FM was massively cooler, more influential, and very iconic to music heads, PLJ knocked it out of the park in the Arbitron ratings and subsequent sales for years and years.
That was when Larry was at the helm. Before PLJ, Larry spent time programming WRIF here in Detroit before turning over the controls to Tom Bender. And that's how I met him. While Tom was a mentor, Larry was something of a patriarch. Early on, he was the most famous, major market PD I knew who would take the time to have a thoughtful conversation with me about programming, music, and philosophy.
When Larry shocked the radio world and decided to take WPLJ to Power 95 – a CHR format – in the early 80s, I was heartbroken. I felt Larry had betrayed “Album Rock” – the format, the culture, and the audience. But Larry saw a future dominated by pop – Michael Jackson, Madonna, and other bigger than life mainstream acts – and he rolled a huge pair of dice to change formats at a time when PLJ was still performing well as a rock station.
Larry wasn't about the music, a group of artists, or even thousands of fans. He was about coolly and pragmatically assessing the best pathway for PLJ to achieve continued profitability over the long haul. And he concluded it was the Top 40 route.
Larry and I weren't exactly close friends anyway, and when he marched down this new path in 1983, I was in the throes of rolling out the Classic Rock format. We were officially moving in very different circles, and didn't have a whole lot to talk about.
He transitioned PLJ to CHR, never looked back, and ended up in a battle royale with Scott Shannon and Z100. It was an amazing episode in “radio wars” in the nation's biggest market. After many ABC execs moved on to different pastures after the company's sale to Cap Cities, Larry left the market and programmed in the Bay Area.
Aptly described on his Facebook page as “a thinking man's PD,” this photo and Larry's caption says it all about his 24/7 mindset. Relaxed? Comfortable? Arrogant? Never.
Larry was a stickler for quality, and in those days, ABC Radio had the resources to deliver a great sounding product in the seven markets where they owned an FM station. (This was pre-consolidation so companies couldn't even own more than one FM per market – and in only 7 U.S. metros.)
He was especially cognizant of the commercials that ran on PLJ, including the loud, obnoxious Crazy Eddie spots that were all over the station because of its great ratings. I wrote a post exactly one year ago about Larry's quest to literally “blow up” these spots – something that has probably never been done since. You can read Larry's saga here.
As Tom Bender recalls, “(Larry) was a master multitasker. I remember him running out of a meeting to check on his soybean futures, calling the station to solve some crisis, retiring to meditate, and then back to the meeting…all very focused.”
A couple of years ago, we started up a conversation on Facebook Messenger. Larry would read some of my blogs, comment on them, and correct my memory, when necessary.
And as it turned out, he was the guy behind one of the greatest hotline stories I'd ever heard. It involved setting up TWO hotlines, one Larry could use to offer a compliment or share some good news – and the other to ream out the on-air personality. The story was that corresponding illuminated photos of Larry hanging on the studio wall lit up depending on which line he called – one with him smiling and the other with him scowling. It was the perfect tool for an anal PD trying to make his station sound perfect. So, I reached out to him last year to set the story straight.
And here's what he told me:
“When WPLJ's studios went combo (the DJ running their own board) and moved from the 8th floor at 1330 (Avenue of the Americas) up to the 9th floor where our offices were, the engineers designed a totally new studio with a view facing west and a window!
The joke was to install TWO HOTLINES which would light up two display different images of my face in appropriate looks. This was never actually done, but it made a great story.”
He went on to give me his favorite hotline stories from those PLJ days:
“I didn't use the hotline much, and it was often to just chat or compliment as often as it was to critique.
“Three stories: One time I was set to take a week-long vacation with my wife to the Caribbean. Plans were made and a memo was posted in the studio with emergency numbers, etc. But due to some problem with a visa to enter the Caribbean country (I think it was Haiti), we never boarded the plane and came home, disappointed, to our Manhattan apartment. I switch the radio on to WPLJ and there was Pat St. John, playing two versions of “Riders On The Storm” simultaneously and flange-phasing them like “The Big Hurt.” I had heard his younger brother Michael Stevens do this on WRIF and knew what was going on, so I hotlined Pat and probably took a year off his life since he thought I was in Haiti!”
“Another time, I hotlined Tony Pigg about something (don't remember) and it just set him off enough so he literally ripped the phone off its mounting in the studio.
“Finally, my favorite hotline was at WRIF when the station was still in the trailers. The phone flashed a heat-lamp on the left side of the jock's face, so it could not be ignored!”
Larry was intensely focused on his mission as a programmer, especially in those high-flying PLJ days. I was in Detroit when Howard Stern struck out on W4. Although he was still finding his voice, I liked Howard's show a lot, and heard lots of potential. I was happy he was leaving Detroit so we no longer had to compete against him. Knowing Howard was born and raised in the New York City area, I wondered whether Larry might be interested in considering the unproven Stern for PLJ.
As Larry patiently explained to me, PLJ's incumbent morning guy – Jim Kerr – was doing quite well, and he had no plans to even consider making a change. While Stern, of course, went on to great fame and fortune in New York Radio and beyond, Kerr was the consummate, beloved morning host for PLJ for years to come, and of course, on Q104.3 in the years since. Jim has had great success with Shelli Sonstein, who was also at PLJ back in the Berger days.
Fittingly, Jim Kerr will be honored by the National Radio Hall of Fame next month. So apparently, Larry knew he had a good plan in place.
To those of us blessed to work at ABC Radio during its FM rock radio heyday – Allen Shaw, Rick Sklar, Nick Trigony, Marc Morgan, Willard Lochridge, Larry Divney, Marty Greenberg, Joe Parrish, Lisa Tonacci, Gloria Johnson, Tom Yates, Tommy Hadges, Jim Smith, Corinne Baldassano, Roger Skolnik, Tom Bender, John Gehron, Alan Burns, not to mention the jocks like Carol Miller, Pat St. John, Jimmy Fink, Tony Pigg, Jim Kerr, Shelli Sonstein, and so many others – Larry's passing is a true moment in time for all of us.
And every time I see a hotline go off or hear a hotline story, I think of Larry Berger's grinning (or grimacing) face.
A couple of fun facts about WPLJ:
- The call letters were derived from the Mothers of Invention song “W-P-L-J” which stood for white port and lemon juice.
- Elton John's famous live “11-17-70” album was recorded in front of a small audience at the WABC-FM studios (later WPLJ).
Apologies to any names I left off the ABC FM/WPLJ radio roster.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
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