A radio veteran, Mr. Neer credits his experience at the University with launching him on a successful career.
Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.
Disc Jockey, Writer, and Sports Radio PersonalityAt Adelphi: member of Kappa Phi Alpha; played freshmen soccer; disc jockey at WALI. “I did a ton of plays at Adelphi; Hat Full of Rain, A Taste of Honey, Twelfth Night. I had a leading role my freshman year in Goodbye, My Fancy.”
His love for radio: “Came from my dad growing up. He didn’t make a living out of it, but was very involved in radio drama, which was what they did back in the 50s. It wasn’t just disc jockeys playing records—it was performers acting comedy shows and things like that.”
Advice: “Don’t try to fit yourself into a cookie cutter mold of something that you’ve heard before—try to be different.”
A Career On Air
Richard Neer has worked at three stations for the majority of his lifelong career in radio—a rarity in this business. “WNEW-FM and WNEW-AM were legendary, and WFAN was the first all-sports talk station in the country. I’ve been on three legacy stations,” says Mr. Neer. “When the history of radio is written…those will be among the biggest, most important radio stations in the history of the medium.
A radio veteran, Mr. Neer credits his experience at the University with launching him on a successful career. As a freshman at Adelphi he walked into the University’s AM station, WALI, and asked if he could do a radio show. He convinced his roommate, George Yulis ’69, to host it with him. “We were doing a show two to three times a week,” he recalls. “It was loose, we talked a little bit, and when we ran out of things to say, we put a record on. And that’s how I got started.”
“What was great about Adelphi was that it was a small University—you got to know everybody,” he says. “If I went to a big school, there’s no way I could have walked into the radio station and gotten the chance to go on the air. It wasn’t going to happen—and had it not happened the way it did at Adelphi, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.”
By the time Mr. Neer was a sophomore, he landed a job as a classical announcer at the radio station WLIR—thanks to Robert Wynn (Bob) Jackson ’70, fellow DJ at WALI. “The general manager of WALI, Ted Webb, was also a DJ at WLIR, which played Broadway tunes and classical music at the time. He was looking for someone to do a classical show on WLIR, and asked my roommate Bob, who did WALI’s classical show, to come in and audition. I had a car so I gave Bob a ride to the station.”
After Mr. Jackson read, and was told that he wasn’t what they were looking for, he asked Mr. Neer for some advice. “I told Bob to read deep in his voice and project the artists’ names,” he says. What Mr. Neer didn’t know was that the microphone was still on and Webb was listening on the other side of the glass—and he liked what he heard. With the encouragement of Jackson, Mr. Neer auditioned, was hired on the spot, and did his first show the following weekend.
He continued there throughout the rest of his time at Adelphi. “I had classes in the morning, worked at WLIR in the afternoon, and had rehearsals for whatever play I was in on campus at night,” he says.
After graduating from Adelphi in 1970, Mr. Neer continued working at WLIR full time. He and his friend and colleague Michael Harrison, convinced the station’s owner that Long Island needed a rock and roll station. “The owner gave it a try, and within six months we were the number one radio station on Long Island,” he recalls of the station’s change to a progressive rock format.
One Friday evening after work, Mr. Neer and Mr. Harrison were sitting on the roof of WLIR, looking out at the view of Long Island and New York City. They had a radio with them, tuned into WNEW. “We hear Rosko, the big star of WNEW at the time, say it was his last show, and he would be leaving the station,” he says.
That Monday morning at 6:00 a.m., Neer and Harrison were in Manhattan, camped out at the doorstep of WNEW. Three hours later, WNEW’s program director, Scott Muni, agreed to meet them, and they spent the next two hours talking with him. After several weeks, and even more meetings, they were hired.
Mr. Neer started at WNEW in April of 1971 as music director, and hosted two weekend shows. “At that time, we could play whatever we wanted. Listeners never knew what they were going to hear next,” he says. “That was what free form radio was all about: improvising, talking when you felt like it, playing records you wanted to play, as opposed to any kind of formal playlist.”
“Promotion men who worked for record companies would try to get you to play their records. They’d ‘hype you’ on their records…take you to the artist’s concerts. That’s how I met Bruce Springsteen. He and I went on to become good buddies—mostly on the telephone, when he’d call and we’d talk for hours while I did the overnight show. This was before Born to Run came out, when he was just a scruffy kid from New Jersey who had made a couple of artistically successful but poor selling records.”
In 1975, when WNEW was doing live concerts on the air, Mr. Neer had the foresight to convince Mel Karmazin, WNEW’s general manager at the time (and current CEO of Sirius XM Radio), to do Bruce Springsteen. “I had to tell Mel, ‘Bruce is going to be big! This would be a big feather in our cap to do the first live Bruce Springsteen concert.’” And they did it. “It was like that with Billy Joel—after he came out with Piano Man, we did a live concert at the Bottom Line,” he says. “It was a direct, unfiltered way of exposing music.”
Mr. Neer was also instrumental in introducing Monty Python to an American audience, conducting the first interview with them when they came to America. The same was true with Peter Allen. Mr. Neer kept playing him on the radio and before long, other disc jockeys got into him too. “Before you knew it, people started buying his records and he became popular. It was almost like you had this great power,” he says. “You could help musicians get the exposure they deserved; you could discover a band and support them. Many became big stars and it felt great to play a small role in their success.”
By the late 1970s, however, the free form format of radio that Mr. Neer enjoyed so much began to dissipate. “The bean counters started realizing you could make money doing FM. As ratings became important, consultants came in, and they said you needed to have more structure,” he says.
No longer could a DJ bring records from home and play them on air. Everything had to be approved by the music director first. As time went on, WNEW became very strictly formatted, until its change to talk radio format in 1999. “Things got tighter and tighter until you got to where we are today, where there’s a playlist for everything, generated by a computer. And every station in the country is basically playing the same records.”
After working at WNEW for 28 years, and understanding the cultural significance of the radio station, he wrote a book about the subject in 2001. Throughout FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, he describes the transformations in radio that occurred during his career.
He considers this to be his greatest professional accomplishment to date: “The thing about radio is it is ephemeral. It’s in the air and it goes away, although these days it seems like everything is preserved on the internet. But the book documenting those years—it’s something that will last. The book is the permanent record of what we did.”
Today, Mr. Neer continues to do what he loves most on WFAN, where he has been since 1988. Although he misses the early days of WNEW-FM, his work at WFAN is rooted in what he loves most about radio. “The wonderful thing about sports talk radio is that you’re taking phone calls and doing interviews—you’re talking for the entire hour. The show really revolves around your ideas, personality, and the topics you want to cover—so it’s very much back to what free form radio playing music was all about,” he says.
In addition, Mr. Neer writes for Talkers Magazine, “The Bible of Talk Radio and the New Talk Media.” He also conducts exclusive interviews with novelists as host of the podcast, Novelist Café at podjockey.com.
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