As a member of the team at WLNG Radio in Sag Harbor, Gary Sapiane was once thrust into action as the sole bearer of breaking news, both good and bad, for dozens of displaced East End residents who were cut off from the world to their west due to the Sunrise Wildfires of 1995.Twice, for hours at a time, he and a hired pilot flew over the burning forest in Flanders and Westhampton, and went live on the air to relay what was burning and what was spared by the flames that burned for nearly a week.
And just this past November, Mr. Sapiane and his crew weathered shin-deep water flooding their Redwood Road studio during Hurricane Sandy, delivering updates of power outages and flooding to their listeners, ignoring the threat that was actually soaking their feet.
As an on-air talent since 1970, hosting his own four-hour show and an hour-long segment called “Swap and Shop,” in addition to serving as president and general manager of WLNG, Mr. Sapiane has also helped reunite lost pets and their owners and delivered lost treasures to their rightful owners.
But Mr. Sapiane didn’t hesitate to pick the hardest news he’s ever had to report on the air: delivering the news about the death of a friend, Paul Sidney, the longtime president and general manager at WLNG, in April 2009 after he lost his battle with leukemia.
“It was really tough—I had to do it, though,” he recalled during a recent interview. “It was rough. It was rough.”
He continued: “There has been a lot of things difficult to handle over the years—hurricanes, blizzards, fires, anything you can think of. But we’re like a family here, so …”
WLNG celebrated its 50th anniversary on Tuesday, and Mr. Sidney, who had been an on-air voice since the station went live in 1963 and, a year later, became its first program manager, is credited with giving the radio station its distinct flair and sound—offering a unique mix of recognizable tunes, folksy jingles, local voices and exclamatory “dings.”
And, half a century later, the late broadcaster continues to be the inspiration behind the station’s identity.
“We are different, an antique—that is what makes us unique,” said Mr. Sapiane, describing WLNG’s modus operandi as “organized chaos.”
“The reverb, when you speak, it makes you sound like you are in an echo chamber,” he said. “The jingles make you feel like you’re in a time warp. It all gives us an identity.”
And beyond providing an identity that has stayed true for 50 years and counting, David Kline, WLNG’s marketing director and employee of 18 years, thinks that Mr. Sidney’s commitment to the community is what has kept them successful.
“He just knew what formula to put together to outshine every other radio station,” Mr. Kline said. “For Paul, it was all about getting out in the community, getting to know our listeners.
“At one point, we did over 300 remote broadcasts a year,” he continued. “We try to get people to call in and be a substantial part of the show, not just a quick comment here or there. Paul loved a ‘hot mike’—he’d stick it in front of anybody. He wouldn’t let them talk—he’d do all the talking—but he still got them involved.
“I mean, Paul even had advertisers come in and do their own commercials, so that people could come in their store and say, ‘I heard you on the radio!’ I think it is all part of his charm. Our charm, now.”
In the spirit of serving the community, WLNG, which finally moved away from using vinyl records about five years ago, tries to retain its local roots in a variety of ways. From hosting a segment called “Pet Patrol,” where residents report missing or found pets, to committing themselves to cause-based news reports, such as when they aired a live two-hour conference call between a Long Island Power Authority spokeswoman and disgruntled neighbors lacking power following Hurricane Irene in August 2011, the station understands that its success depends on how much they are relied upon.
“Their spokesperson didn’t even know we existed, but by the time the coverage was over and [Hurricane] Irene was a memory, she knew pretty well who we were,” Mr. Kline said of the LIPA representative. “We knew she’d come on and try to give us the PR BS, so we opened up the mikes to the phone lines.
“Those on-air conference calls were entertaining,” he added. “She got an earful—the lines were flooded. But in the end, we know we helped people, even if it was just to get their issues off their chest.”
Also vital to listeners, and subsequently important to WLNG staffers, is the almost immediate coverage of locally breaking news stories, which Mr. Kline attributes to a solid relationship built between themselves and those tuning in each day.
“We had the recent Jitney accident almost immediately—we had to be the first ones,” Mr. Kline said, after previously discussing being the first media on scene following the TWA Flight 800 crash off the coast of Long Island in July 1996 that killed all 230 aboard. “It must have been less than five minutes before we were covering [the Jitney crash], because people just call in and tell us about things, or ask what is what. We may not have all the answers for them, but we can tell the rest of our listeners, ‘Hey, there is mass traffic here.’
“Our news team is our listeners, essentially,” he continued. “I swear, we have some listeners who sit there at night with police scanners just so they can call in and let us know there is a fire at so-and-so’s house.”
Mr. Sapiane, who praised the callers as indispensable, joked that WLNG has “thousands of stringers working for us.” A stringer is someone who contributes sporadic content to a media outlet for little or no compensation.
To mark the occasion on Tuesday, WLNG invited many ex-employees, local politicians, community members and sponsors to their waterfront property. In between the 1963 classics, the year the station began, being played all day that day, Mr. Sapiane spent much of his time outside interviewing the attendees live. The station recieved multiple proclomations, including from the Town of Brookhaven, which declared August 13, 2013 to be WLNG Day.
Despite heavy rain all day long, cars lined Redwood Road and people crammed the close-quarters of the studio, spilling out onto the back porch. Then, at 4 p.m., when the bash was set to start, the skies cleared up, enabling people to move outside and enjoy themselves.
“Paul stopped the rain for us today! He’s smiling down on us!” declared DJ Brian “The Cannon” O’bannon.
As they were sitting in their studio prior to the celebration, Mr. Sapiane and Mr. Kline were asked to think about the next 50 years and what they could mean for the station.
Before they would offer their thoughts, neither could help but share some of the good times they had with Mr. Sidney. Mr. Kline, whose original job was serving as a remote engineer for Mr. Sidney’s remote broadcasting center—a converted public bus—likened their relationship to that of a marriage.
“Actually, not a marriage—it was more like father-son. He was my son,” Mr. Kline joked. “Sometimes I had to babysit him. But when he was on the mike, he was a showman. Always a blast to be around.”
Mr. Sapiane could not control the smile creeping across his face as he shared his favorite memory of Mr. Sidney.
“This was years and years ago, but I remember occasionally that Paul and I would have a record playing, and we’d purposefully have the microphone on and have a conversation so people could hear us over the song,” Mr. Sapiane said. “Every single phone line would light up to tell us the mike is on. We’d go, ‘John Smith, oh man, he’ and then walk out of the room for a second. It was the absolute funniest thing. [The phones] were hot—you would’ve thought we were giving away a million bucks.
“That is the kind of stuff you hear on this station,” he continued. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
After the laughter died down and the sobering thought of another 50 years sank in, the two confidently stated that the old-time feel and “organized chaos” will live on as long as the station does.
“Anything can happen during a broadcast—honestly, anything. It keeps us on our toes. But one thing above all else will stay true from Paul’s days here,” Mr. Sapiane said. “If you need help, just call the radio station and we’ll try our best.”