New York’s WNYC celebrates 100 years with on-air birthday party

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Mayor Fiorello La Guardia read comics on air during a strike of newspaper delivery workers in 1945.

The earliest identifiable WNYC recording features Charles Lindbergh and a station announcer, Tommy Cowan, in 1927.

“It sort of sets the tone of WNYC covering … the exciting people and events of the day through a lot of these receptions and ticker-tape parades,” Director of Archives Andy Lanset told Current. 

That clip will be part of an ongoing series of 90-second audio spots showcasing the station’s history beginning July 8 as it celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The station will also have an on-air birthday party featuring Lanset and public affairs host Brian Lehrer at 7 p.m. July 8 and then transition at 8:54 p.m. to a reimagining of its first broadcast exactly 100 years earlier. 

CEO LaFontaine Oliver told Current that WNYC has been a critical lifeline for New York City over and over throughout its 100-year history. 

“From Pearl Harbor to 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to COVID, we’ve always been there for the city,” Oliver said. “We plan on always being here.”

The reproduction of WNYC’s first broadcast will feature Tony Award–winner Sarah Jones and last until 10 p.m., shorter than the three hours and 26 minutes of the July 8, 1924, broadcast. 

“We have the original log book, so we know what happened that night almost minute by minute,” Lanset said. “They have sort of a map or blueprint.”

Oliver will appear in the reimagining as City Commissioner Grover Whalen, who suggested in 1922 that the city have a radio station. 

The Empire State Building will also be lit in the station’s signature red at about 8:30 p.m. that evening. 

A timeline on WNYC’s website highlights many significant moments in the station’s history, such as when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia read comics on air during a strike of newspaper delivery workers in 1945, as well as 9/11, when the station lost its transmitter with the World Trade Center’s collapse. 

“We managed to stay on the air despite losing our FM transmitter,” Lanset said. “We continued to do our work.”

WNYC has helped the system innovate and elevated new and exciting voices, Oliver said. As examples, he pointed to Radiolab, On the Media and Notes from America with Kai Wright.

“You hear a lot of stuff coming out of WNYC on stations across the country, and that’s something that we’re proud of,” Oliver said. WNYC’s programs are carried on more than 660 stations, according to a spokesperson. 

But as the station celebrates 100 years, public media is facing challenges, including layoffs across the country and at WNYC last year. 

Oliver hopes the anniversary will serve as a “catalyst” for the station to deepen its work. He acknowledged the challenging environment. 

“What is it calling us to do and what is it calling us to be?” he asked. 

WNYC is in the midst of hatching its next strategic plan, he said. That includes exploring a multiplatform future and how the station becomes more nimble and focused on meeting the audience’s needs. 

“We have an opportunity, as we have in the past, to sort of reinvent and grow,” Oliver said. 

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