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Q&A: For 50 Years, The City That Never Sleeps Wakes Up With Jim Kerr.

Jim Kerr, morning host at iHeartMedia classic rock “Q104.3” WAXQ New York, is marking 50 years of waking up the nation’s No. 1 radio market. The station is in the midst of a weeklong celebration of NYC’s longest-running morning radio personality, which includes a Mayoral proclamation, visits from fellow radio brethren from throughout Kerr’s career, a dedicated listener day, and a live broadcast from the Empire State Building.

In an exclusive interview, Inside Radio caught up with Kerr to revisit his historic legacy.

What do you remember from your early days at WPLJ and New York City radio in general at that time?

When I arrived here to begin my job at WPLJ on March 18, 1974, I was very much overwhelmed. And terrified, quite frankly, because I was 21 years old, I was going to work in the ABC building. It felt very much like the big time… And I knew that I was going into a competitive situation where the people who were opposite me in the morning were all extraordinarily talented, a lot of them were nationally famous. I couldn't be as funny as Don Imus. I couldn't be as energetic and happy every moment of the day as Harry Harrison, who just opened his mouth and instead of words coming out, sunshine came out of his mouth. I felt like I just didn't quite know how I could fit into such an environment. I didn't have the depth of musical knowledge that some of them had. And certainly, I didn't know the city at all. So, I was pretty scared.

When I went out to dinner with the program director, I asked him, ‘What kind of act do you want me to develop?’ And he said, ‘We don't want you to develop an act. We hired you. So just go on the radio and just be you.’ And I guess that was pretty good advice because that's what I did. I went on the radio as a 21-year-old guy who had never been to New York, didn't know my way around, and was trying to find an apartment that I could afford. I was confused by the fact that downtown and uptown weren't just places, they were directions. And, I guess, the people who were listening related to that kind of honesty, even though it wasn't necessarily purposeful. It was just all that I knew how to do and felt comfortable with.

The changes in the radio industry during the past 50 years are well documented. But what hasn’t changed since you have began hosting mornings in New York City?

What hasn't changed is the ability of the listeners to use the radio as a companion and a friend. People may think that I'm insane, and maybe I am, but I believe deeply that I have over a million friends. I like to be with them in the morning. It's the high point of my day. When I read something in the newspaper, see something on TV, overhear a conversation on the street, or see something online that's interesting… I can't wait until the next day to go tell my friends about it.

Not just my show, but radio can be a friend and a companion in a very real sense. Spotify cannot be your friend. An algorithm can't be your friend. I'm there in real-time. Every day, waking people up, letting them know what's going on. Trying to start their day in a good mood. That's what I do. That's what I love to do. And I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that for so long.

What are some of your favorite memories of being on the air in New York over the past 50 years?

So many… I mean, standing on stage in front of an audience of high school kids in Queens with Paul McCartney was kind of amazing. Of course, it was also amazing the first time I met Paul McCartney in 1976. I went to Madison Square Garden, to interview him and when it was my turn, I was ushered in. The PR person introduced me as Jim Kerr from WPLJ. And Paul said, ‘WPLJ, where's Carol Miller?!’ The thought that he, Paul McCartney, who I saw on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was 11 years old… that February night in 1964, had heard of the radio station where I worked, just blew me away. I did the interview and I called Carol in the studio and told her that Paul McCartney had said, ‘Where's Carol Miller?” And of course, that freaked her out.

More recently, in 2019, I stood on a stage, right next to Elton John's piano while he was playing it… right there, like one foot away from me. There's a video of that, so I know that it happened, but immediately thereafter, it was kind of a blank, because it just didn't seem like it was real.

I think that the happiest memories that I have are the many, many, many opportunities that I've had to interact with people through the years, who have been fans of the radio stations that I worked at, just to meet them in person to spend some time to get to know them, and to learn what it is that they liked about the radio and how important it was to them. You can't put a value on that.

What are you most looking forward to during the full week of celebration?

They've set up a whole lot of events, many of which they have not told me much about. I've been kind of kept in the dark about a lot of things. But I know that [today] the mayor is coming by. On Tuesday, we'll have a lot of radio people coming by, including from our direct competitors, which I appreciate. And then we have the Howard Stern simulcast at eight. That was a total surprise to me.

Wednesday is listener day. From what I've been told, listeners have been leaving recordings about their time spent with me through the radio over the years, and they're going to be playing back a lot of those recordings on Wednesday. That will probably be my favorite day. And then on Thursday, I'm told I have some guests, but they won't tell me who they are. And then Friday, we have the big broadcast from the Empire State Building, and that'll be a lot of fun.

You started your radio career as a teenager in the late 1960s. What advice would you give to a young person who is entering the radio industry today?

Be yourself and be enthusiastic… Try out new ideas. Go into whatever studio at whatever station in whatever community that you happen to work at and focus your efforts on putting something on the air that the audience is going to like and enjoy. Think about them and how you can enrich and enhance the lives of the people who are listening. If you do that, you should be able to do okay. As technology changes, those skills will be transferable to new and different platforms.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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