Before we carried podcasts in our pocket and MTV was just another cable station full of inane reality programming, people who wanted to hear something different could actually tune in to the radio to discover new artists. Believe it or not, that antiquated device that comes as a standard feature in every car used to break new artists across the country. Granted, there were always Top 40 stations pumping the same 500 song playlist every day, but for every ten or twenty of those, there was an independent station delivering something new to hungry audiences. Most of these were college radio stations, but every so often a commercial station popped up and waved a middle finger at the corporate conglomerates. Director Ellen Goldfarb tells the story of one such station with Dare to Be Different.
In 1982, Denis McNamara, program director of a Long Island classic rock station called WLIR, made a conscious decision to change format and focus primarily on the new music coming from New York City and the UK. This switch not only introduced U2, The Cure, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Joan Jett to a new audience, it created a community of like-minded music fans seeking a change from the status quo airwaves. The station had no money, they worked in a cruddy office building and barely paid their employees, but artists respected them, labels listened to them, and Bono personally thanked them during a live performance. It wasn’t just a radio station, it was a revolution that listeners revere to this day. Needless to say, it didn’t last – because the FCC decided it was over.
“…WLIR, made a conscious decision to change format and focus primarily on the new music coming from New York City and the UK.”
Technically, this is as good as you get as far as archival documentary filmmaking goes. It’s the perfect balance of linear storytelling and stream-of-consciousness fun, a seesaw between talking heads and rare footage. You see the rise and fall of something important that became the blueprint for underground radio until Clear Channel and iHeartRadio bought everything. Ever wonder why corporate conglomeration sucks? Here you go.
While this is the story of an iconic radio station that touched the lives of its listeners, it’s also the story of something much greater. WLIR wasn’t just a vehicle for record companies to pump their product, it was a hub for music fans by music fans. Listeners invited these DJs into their homes, offices, and cars as not mere personalities, but as trusted family with like-minded ideas. There was something personal about the local radio, like having your best friend make you a tape of their favorite songs.
“…it was a hub for music fans by music fans. Listeners invited these DJs into their homes…”
Today, we live in an insular world. We download podcasts, buy subscription radio and program our own playlists according to our immediate needs, but we’ve lost something in the technology. There was an excitement in finding out what would come next that we’ve lost in the predictability of downloads, subscriptions, and playlists. No matter how many times you hit the shuffle button, you’ll never feel the chills brought on by some new song that you’ve never heard before.
As obnoxious as the retro trend of old technology can be, there are possibilities on the fringes. Cassettes and VHS tapes seem to be making a comeback, despite their inconvenience and low quality. Imagine if the same passion went into a pirate radio station. All you’d have to do is tune in.
New Wave: Dare to Be Different (2017) Directed by Ellen Goldfarb. Written by Jay Reiss. Starring Denis McNamara, Tom Bailey, Thomas Dolby, Chris Frantz, Debbie Harry, Billy Idol, Joan Jett, Howard Jones, Jim Kerr, Mickey Leigh, Annabella Lwin, Nick Rhodes, Fred Schneider, Curt Smith, Chris Stein, Seymour Stein, Midge Ure and Tina Weymouth.
10 out of 10 stars