Dennis Elsas and ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Never Forgets’
Contrary to one opinionated pop song, video did not kill the radio star, MTV’s late-20th-century reign notwithstanding. Nor did the consolidation and corporatization of terrestrial radio, despite its best efforts to do so. Not even satellite radio, nor innumerable internet stations, nor multiple streaming services, have brought about the demise of FM.
Dennis Elsas, a longtime D.J. at New York’s legendary WNEW-FM, has not only navigated the twists and turns of broadcasting for more than four decades but thrived in its many forms and formats. In that time, he has conducted celebrated on-air interviews with rock ’n’ roll heroes including John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, Jerry Garcia, and Elton John.
In 2000, Mr. Elsas joined WFUV, Fordham University’s noncommercial station, where he is on the air on weekday afternoons. In 2004, he launched a career in satellite radio, where he is heard on Sirius XM’s Classic Vinyl channel and, most recently, its new Beatles channel.
On Sunday at 7 p.m., he will present “Rock ’n’ Roll Never Forgets,” a multimedia show featuring highlights from his interviews with rock ’n’ roll royals, at Guild Hall in East Hampton. In “Rock ’n’ Roll Never Forgets,” Mr. Elsas shares rare audio and video along with favorite stories and a unique perspective on broadcasting, from the early days of the Top 40 AM stations he grew up with to WNEW’s revolutionary programming and his 21st-century adventures at WFUV and Sirius XM.
In hindsight, Mr. Elsas’s life prior to Sept. 28, 1974, could be seen as essential preparation for the hours in which he and Lennon, who with the Beatles changed popular culture over the previous decade, conversed and played records on a rainy afternoon. Growing up in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, “I didn’t know anyone in media,” he said. “I didn’t even know there was media.”
“For most of that period,” before the late-1960s rise of FM and stereo broadcast, “I’m listening to 1010 WINS with Murray the K and other personalities, WABC with Scott Muni” — later his boss at WNEW — “and WMCA with Dan Daniel and a host of folks.”
Later, against the backdrop of the British Invasion, which launched countless more bands on either side of the Atlantic, he attended Queens College. “I’m thinking, maybe I’ll be a lawyer, my parents would like that,” he recalled. “But I discovered that there was a speech department, and I liked a couple of the courses: advertising, radio, film, and TV.”
With no support from the institution, “we launched the first Queens College radio station, broadcast to the cafeteria and the student lounge. It’s 1966, ’67, all this music is coming out, and in addition to going to school I’m learning my craft, making it up as I go along, absorbing the best of what I’m hearing.”
With the Federal Communications Commission’s 1967 non-duplication rule, which prohibited FM simulcasts of AM broadcasts, rock ’n’ roll began to appear on FM frequencies, giving rise to freewheeling and “underground” programming, helping to spread and fortify the growing counterculture. In his first job, at a small, middle-of-the-road station in New Rochelle, Mr. Elsas convinced his superiors to allow a nighttime rock ’n’ roll show, which he named “Something Else Again,” after a 1968 album by Richie Havens. “I was making it up,” he said, “my version of early progressive FM, in the early days of WNEW and the best of what I could take of Top 40, creating a personality and a playlist.”
He sent an audition reel to Mr. Muni, then WNEW’s program director, and received a polite rejection. Three months later, the station had a temporary opening for a fill-in D.J. “I got that phone call I’ll never forget,” he said, “that great, deep, Scott Muni voice: ‘Do you want to come in for an interview?’ I showed up in my only suit.” Within six months, he was the station’s music director.
“He was a young guy, and he was terrific,” said George Meredith, a former advertising executive who worked with WNEW for many years and now lives in Springs. “It was an interesting thing he had to do, because Scott Muni had been there for years. There were all these careers there, and he fit in great. He did well by it.”
“I was basically learning at the feet of Scott Muni, getting that ‘College of Rock ’n’ Roll’ knowledge,” Mr. Elsas said, “getting a perspective on how radio is done, and also meeting my rock ’n’ roll heroes. That allowed me to get to the Lennon interview.”
At the Record Plant, a studio where Lennon recorded much of his post-Beatles work, Mr. Elsas had met and invited the musician to talk on the air about his forthcoming album, “Walls and Bridges.” To his surprise, Lennon accepted.
“He knew that I knew my stuff,” Mr. Elsas recalled, “and I could figure out pretty quickly that he’s a Beatles fan. When he shows up, I know he’s there to talk about ‘Walls and Bridges,’ and I’m a responsible young broadcaster, I’m going to help one of my idols talk about his album. But what I really want to talk about is Beatles, Beatles, Beatles.”
A wide-ranging conversation followed in which Lennon told stories of his former band, discussed his immigration struggle, and delivered incisive and always witty commentary on music, commercials, even the weather forecast. “I met a centered, enthusiastic, warm, gracious guy who was understanding of how excited I was,” Mr. Elsas said.
All things must pass, and WNEW’s format changed, and changed again. “I’m starting to look at my career as what I did in the 20th century, and what I’m doing in the 21st,” he said. “I spent the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s working for the biggest and most important rock station in New York,” during which he also created a career doing voiceover work. At WFUV, “I grew with the station, they grew with me.” There, “I found an opportunity to embrace all the old stuff I loved and share that with an interested and willing audience. Because the radio station prides itself on breaking new artists, I get the added benefit of being part of that discovery.”
He enjoys the Classic Vinyl channel because “I love that music, and I’ve learned that you can’t talk about these bands as often as you do without finding out even more. It also gave me a national platform. And I like being part of new technology, so for me, satellite is a win-win, and being able to combine it with WFUV, it’s a win-win-win.”
“Rock ’n’ Roll Never Forgets” is approximately 90 minutes, with a question-and-answer session to follow. It is not simply an “oldies” show, Mr. Elsas said. Rather, “it’s me looking back at the people I’ve met, both famous people and also the listeners. I couldn’t have done all this without them.”
Tickets for “Rock ’n’ Roll Never Forgets” cost $20 and $30, or $18 and $28 for Guild Hall members.