The Glorious Corner: WPLJ Radio, KISS, The Apollo Theater and More

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Robert Lamm (Chicago) and Tom Cuddy

By G.H. Harding

WPLJ FADES AWAY — Radio’s a funny game. Back in the day, DJs would actually pick their records to play; often their personal favorites. These days, everything is programmed. I once asked WFAN’s Zach Martin how many records of their own choices could they actually slip into an hour’s pre-programmed of music. He said 2.

Last week came news that WPLJ and NASH-FM were sold. According to Billboard: In a matter of hours on Wednesday, New York City’s radio landscape changed significantly as Cumulus Media Inc. dealt adult top 40 or “hot adult contemporary”- formatted WPLJ, and country WNSH (Nash 94.7), to Educational Media Foundation (EMF) and Entercom Communications Corp., respectively.

The greatest impact of those deals may be felt by listeners of WPLJ, a contemporary music mainstay in the New York market for over 50 years even before switching its call letters from the album rock-formatted WABC-FM in 1971. Since 1983, PLJ has been either top 40 or hot AC, but that comes to an end this summer when its spot at 95.5 FM becomes home to another station in EMF’s 500-strong K-LOVE contemporary Christian network. That suggests anything but a smooth transition: According to this past week’s Nielsen BDS airplay charts, only one song, Lauren Daigle’s crossover hit “You Say,” was common to both stations’ playlists.

WPLJ’s most successful era came during the 1970’s and 1980’s, first as a contemporary album rocker and then a mainstream top 40 outlet. For many who grew up in signal range, that first version of WPLJ — the call letters of which came from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s cover of a 1950’s rhythm-and-blues song “W-P-L-J,” an acronym for “White Port and Lemon Juice” — represented the move away from top 40 stations on the AM band (such as co-owned WABC) and the discovery of album-based rock acts such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Much of PLJ’s ratings success during that era can be attributed to DJs Jim Kerr, Carol Miller and Jimmy Fink, all of whom are still heard in the market today.

During PLJ’s mainstream top 40 years, ratings occasionally topped those of its toughest competitor in the format, the still-alive-and-well WHTZ (Z100). For much of that era, hosts Kerr and Pat St. John continued their on-air duties from PLJ’s album rock days without missing a beat.

For hot AC, which Nielsen ranked as the fifth most popular radio format of 2018 among listeners age 25-54, probably not all that much. In the New York market, WPLJ shares much of its current music – including acts like Maroon 5, Halsey and Panic! At The Disco — with at least five other stations: New 102.7, KTU, Z100, Lite FM and Entercom’s alternative-formatted WNYL (ALT 92.3). Then again, there is the possibility that PLJ’s listeners — especially those on the younger end of that 25-54 demographic — could leave terrestrial radio for similarly-formatted channels on SiriusXM, Pandora, Apple Music or, really, anywhere else online.

Then there’s Nash 94.7, the flagship of Cumulus’ country station chain, soon to be in the hands of Entercom. While country is also among Nielsen’s top five formats among 25-54 listeners, it has never been a ratings winner on FM in New York.

I well recall the days of regular PLJ concerts at the much missed China Club, arranged by Tom Cuddy, then at PLJ and now at WOR. Artists from Bryan Adams to Hall & Oates to Adele (one of her debut shows) and James Blunt were nothing short of brilliant.

Our inside radio source said to me that PLJ would have a format change within the next 90-120 days. All things must pass-at least we’ll have some great memories.

KISS

KISS OFF — Kiss bassist Gene Simmons has offered a brief response to former guitarist Ace Frehley’s recent “gloves are off” statement.

Last month Frehley branded his ex-colleague an “asshole and a sex addict” in an outburst that followed Simmons’ comments about why an original lineup reunion would not be a major part, if any, of the band’s current farewell tour. Frehley also claimed Simmons had tried to hit on his wife last year, and that “slanderous” references to the guitarist’s substance abuse issues had cost him “millions of dollars.”

In a new interview Simmons told the L.A. Times: “I’m not gonna say anything in print other than I love Ace and Peter [Criss] and I thank them forever — they’re every bit as important as Paul [Stanley] and myself for launching the band. I’m not going to make any guesses of why the emotions are so volatile, but it’s happened before.”

Frontman Stanley previously told Billboard he was refusing to be “sidetracked by anything” including Frehley’s statements, adding: “I have no comment about that.”

The Apollo

SHORT TAKES — I asked the fellow who hosted the after-party for Liam Neeson’s new film Cold Pursuit – the day after the La Neeson Affair broke, how it was. He said, Neeson stayed late, was in a upbeat mood and it was a excellent event … Celebrity scandals; there’s always another one right down the road … Monday’s Manifest is their season finale; the producers have been talking about a second season, but so far NBC hasn’t. It was a great show, with a great plot line, but frustratingly slow. We’ll see … The 18th Tribeca Film Festival will kick off April 24 with the world premiere of HBO’s The Apollo, a documentary portrait of the famed Harlem theater. Directed by Roger Ross Williams, the film blends archival and performance footage with interviews with celebrities and theater staffers to chronicle the history and legacy of the 85-year-old landmark on 125th Street. The film will air later in 2019 on HBO. Notable interviewees in The Apollo include Patti LaBelle, Pharrell Williams, Smokey Robinson and Jamie Foxx. The film tracks a new multi-media production of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me as it comes to the Apollo stage. The backstage narrative enables the film to explore black lives in America and the role that art plays therein, as well as the Apollo as a broader expression of African-American achievement. The Harlem venue has had an outsized influence on American cultural history. Its stage has hosted the likes of Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Luther Vandross, Dave Chappelle, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix and many others. In its nearly two-decade history, the Tribeca fete has occasionally featured narrative films on its opening night. In most years, though, and annually since 2013, it has kicked off with a documentary. This year’s curtain-raiser should have a unique feel, though, given that it will screen in Harlem, at the night’s namesake theater. “We’re excited to finally be going uptown to play the Apollo.” said Jane Rosenthal, Co-Founder and CEO of the Tribeca Film Festival. “The Apollo gives audiences an inside look at the major role this institution has played for the past 85 years. It’s seen the emergence of everything from jazz to R&B to soul and gospel — all quintessential American music genres, and this is the time to remind people of our nation’s rich history. ” … Happy Bday Steve Leeds!

David Salidor; Scott Shannon and Steve Leeds

NAMES IN THE NEWS — Keith Girard; Wendy Stuart Kaplan; Race Taylor; Zach Martin; Tony Noto; Jerry Orbach; William Schill; Alex Pedersen; Jacqueline Boyd; Cody; Chloe; Robert Funaro.

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