The staff of WLNG, (L-R) Rusty Potts, David Kline, Lisa Dabrowski, Chris Buckhout, Debbie Tuma, Dan Duprey and Gary Sapiane, celebrated 50 years of being on the air, and were photographed in their studio on Tuesday.
By Emily J. Weitz
A community is bound together by its Main Street, by its shared thoroughfares, through its playgrounds and its local watering holes. But there’s a less visible gathering place that unites a community, and it’s one whose identity is closely tied to its reliability and endurance: the local radio station.
WLNG has sat perched on the bay on Redwood Road in Sag Harbor for exactly fifty years. Much has changed about the village and the listeners in that span of time, but not so much has changed at the radio station. Granted, there was the big switch from vinyl to tape to digital (which happened surprisingly recently), but the character of the radio, the sound of jingles, and even the faces around the station have remained very much the same.
“We’re like an old friend to everyone out here,” says Gary Sapiane, the president and general manager of WLNG, who has been there since 1975. “The children who used to listen to us are now parents, and they’re still listening to LNG.”
Sapiane believes the reason people stick with WLNG for a lifetime is the sense of home and community that the station brings. This is part of their core philosophy, which the entire crew will attribute, without debate, to the late Paul Sidney.
The original owner of WLNG, Fitzgerald Smith, put the station on the air in 1963. By early 1964, he had hired a young Paul Sidney as program director.
“Paul didn’t believe in ratings,” says David Kline, the marketing director, who’s been with the station for 18 years. “He was more community-oriented. He was out there on all 300 remote location broadcasts a year. He was at the carnivals, at the Powwow. He was totally involved in the community.”
Since Sidney passed away in 2009, that community-oriented philosophy has remained. It extends to other facets of the station’s character as well. In addition to uniting the community together today, WLNG has a deep-rooted sense of nostalgia that connects listeners to a bygone era and a small-town feeling. From the hits of the 50s and 60s to the commercials and radio personalities themselves, listening to WLNG has a flavor of a time long since passed.
“Jingles are still a big part of our radio station,” says Kline. “A lot of people let go of those, but we keep them in our format. And people like Gary and Rusty (Potz) who have been here for 35 or 40 years. They carry through what was radio at one time.”
Sidney blazed an identity for the station that really involved the listeners and the community with the sound of the station.
“It was a great idea,” says Kline. “For example, most of the advertisers do the ads themselves. That really works. They know their ad was heard because people come in and tell them that they heard them on the radio.”
The music played at WLNG is all hits, mostly songs that made the top 40 charts of their day. Because they’ve stood the test of time, there’s a familiarity and nostalgia to the songs, whether you’re listening to the standard programming or to a special show, like Cool Bobby B’s Doo Wop on Tuesday nights or the Sock Hop Saturday night with Mark Edwards.
“We’re a nostalgia station,” says Potz, the executive vice president who’s been with the station for 38 years. “We’re a part of people’s lives… People like a station that’s familiar. They want to know what they can expect. The oldies we play, we have just about every hit that ever came out.”
Chris Buckhout, who’s the assistant vice president and treasurer, grew up around WLNG because his mother worked there.
“I always used to ask for an on-air shift,” recalls Buckhout. “Paul Sidney was a big encouragement. Paul was encouraging to a lot of radio guys on Long Island, to anyone who wanted to do radio the right way. He had a real passion for the medium.”
There’s something so familiar about the voices of all the personalities at WLNG that you might not even know you know them until you need them. That’s when radio really makes itself known as a pillar of the community.
“If something is happening locally,” says Potz, “we know almost immediately. People depend on us and we depend on them.”
This was made abundantly clear during Hurricane Sandy last year, when the power went out through most of Sag Harbor and WLNG stayed on the air even as the water rose on the floor of the station.
“We have generators here and at our transmitter site,” says Sapiane, “so we can stay on the air even when the power goes out.”
As the people of the East End watched with trepidation from their homes, they tuned in to WLNG for updates on the path of Sandy, on the storm surge, and on power outages and places to seek shelter.
“We provide information to keep people out of harm’s way,” says Sapiane with a hint of pride in his voice. “We’ve been through hurricanes. In the 80s there was an earthquake on the North Fork. During the crash of TWA Flight 800, we were there. During the fire in the Pine Barrens, I was in a plane, giving reports and letting people know that their houses and businesses were still there.”
The staff of WLNG was wading through water in the station during Hurricane Sandy, and the only reason they finally had to leave the building was they smelled something and feared some sort of gas leak or fire.
“Paul would have stayed,” says Kline confidently, and it sounds like Paul was a captain who would have gone down with his ship. “We were able to stay on until the end of it, and it was because of our philosophy: we want to be the resource for the community.”
Sidney believed that the radio should be a friend to the community, and that is doubly true during an emergency.
“The biggest reason for our success,” says Potz, “is that we provide information when people need it. We have local newscasts in a market where you don’t find local news.”
Potz believes that local radio should orient you to your place in the world. WLNG provides a forum for everything from local weather and traffic to reports of lost dogs or announcements of birthdays. But perhaps what they provide most notably is consistency.
“It’s very rare for a radio station to have employees this long,” says Potz. “This was always regarded as an insecure business. But working here has been more secure than working for the state. You can’t get us out of your hair with a crow bar.”
For a station whose identity is bound to a sense of nostalgia, the future is an interesting concept. Most of their success has come in doing more of the same. They keep updating their equipment and making sure they have the best technical sounds, but they also work hard to keep a sense of the past alive in everything they do.
“After 50 years, we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing,” says Kline. “We just want to invite everyone to be a part of this family.”
WLNG invites everyone to join the family this Saturday, August 10th at 7 p.m. at the Southampton High School auditorium, where the station will host the 11th annual oldies spectacular with the Duprees, Jay Siegel and the Tokens, and Kenny Vance, and more. Go to www.wlng.com for more information.