Radio Signals

Back when teenagers learned to play “Stairway to Heaven” before they learned to drive, rock radio taught them the difference between hip and square. But now that the sound of a woman disrobing for Howard Stern draws more listeners than the new Lenny Kravitz single, one New York rock station is changing its tune. At WNEW – where languishing ratings are inducing a shift to an all-talk format – the move will not only make it harder to find a Rush song on the FM dial but may also jeopardize one of commercial radio’s last great music programs, Vin Scelsa’s “Idiot’s Delight.”

Scelsa – who helped pioneer free-form radio in the late sixties and remains unburdened by rotation lists or formatting – revels in new and obscure artists, but his true joy is the creative segue. On one recent show, Scelsa pronounced a short eulogy for Jean-Claude Forest, creator of the French comic-book character Barbarella, and followed that with the Bongos’ “Barbarella” and Duran Duran’s “Electric Barbarella.” Another night, Scelsa spoke with Heart’s Nancy Wilson, then persuaded her to play a few acoustic songs – including, yes, “Stairway to Heaven.”

Between the tunes and talk, the encyclopedic Scelsa riffs on whatever occurs to him – and lately, this has included the possibility that WNEW will pull his Sunday-night show as the station attempts to recapture a young-male demographic that now prefers puerile jokes to power chords.

A spokesman for CBS, which owns WNEW, says that “Idiot’s Delight” will remain on the air “for as long as it continues to perform.” (Arbitron releases individual show ratings to stations but not to the public.) Scelsa’s contract, however, runs only through January. “It’s altogether possible I will be able to move along there and do what I do,” Scelsa says cautiously. But sources close to the veteran jock say he is exploring alternative outlets in case 102.7 switches him off.

Scelsa’s departure would mark the end of the innovative and eclectic broadcasting that made the station required listening throughout the seventies and into the eighties, when ‘NEW was the place to hear new tracks by artists like Bruce Springsteen and Blondie. Now drive-time talk jocks like Opie and Anthony complain about having to play any music at all, preferring instead to insult anyone within range of the station’s 6,000 watts. “Opie and Anthony are not only dancing on the grave of what was once a great radio station, they’re taking glee in dismantling it piece by piece,” Scelsa beefs, referring to a recent well-publicized episode in which the pair gave away albums from the station’s storied library. “That lack of respect for the history of the station I find very disheartening, and very indicative of the overall cultural demise of the nation.”

WNEW, meanwhile, is keeping Scelsa in the dark about the fate of his program. “Everything has to change; I understand that,” Scelsa sighs. “But it’s a shame that this once-great radio station, which has faded in importance over the past few years, can’t die a dignified death.”

Radio Signals