For WDHA, The Song Remains the Same

After 35 years, WDHA sticks to its rock ‘n’ roll guns.

Terrie Carr, left, and fellow WDHA deejay Curtis Kay are familiar voices to North Jersey rock fans.
Terrie Carr, left, and fellow WDHA deejay Curtis Kay are familiar voices to North Jersey rock fans.
Photo by Joe Polillio

It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning and Terrie Carr is doing her daily juggling act. Inside the dimly lit studio of radio station WDHA in Cedar Knolls, Carr spins rock music, fields listener requests, segues to commercial spots and works the audio board, blending music and voice with conductor-like precision.

“It’s what I thrive on,” says Carr, who has deejayed at the station on and off for 25 years, and also serves as music director. “I love to do a million little things, I feel connected to our audience and that’s what terrestrial radio is all about.”

It’s a throwback mentality, but Carr and WDHA (aka 105.5 FM) are very much in the present. The station has been digital for two decades; turntables stopped spinning 15 years ago.

“I don’t have to worry about a record skipping,” says Carr. “It’s almost foolproof.” Still, she says, “the vibe in the studio hasn’t changed a whole lot.”

Indeed, memories surround Carr, who handles the midday shift, and her fellow deejays. A banner stretches across one wall of the studio with autographs from guest musicians who have stopped by the station over the years. Carr, looking very much the rocker in black WDHA t-shirt and jeans, keeps a cowbell and a giant bunny PEZ dispenser close at hand at the console.

On this day, Lou from Morristown calls in for Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonight.” Later, Bobby D. requests something from Red Sun Rising, an Ohio band whose debut was released more than 30 years after Squier’s song hit the airwaves.

Mixing the old and new is how WDHA has remained relevant to listeners while keeping the same rock format since 1980, when the station was located in a house on Route 10 in Randolph.

The format, says station manager Nancy McKinley, “is really in keeping with what the people in northern New Jersey want. Rock is a really important part of their lives.” McKinley has spent nearly 10 years at the station and also oversees sister oldies outlet WMTR (1250 AM).

The station claims between 300,000 and 400,000 listeners per week. Nielsen Audio, which measures radio listening, credits WDHA with a 3.9 share for fall 2015 in the Morristown market (which covers all of Morris County).  Among rock stations, that puts WDHA in a ratings tie with New York-based classic rocker WAXQ (Q104.3). The top-rated station in the market, WPLJ (95.5), plays adult contemporary music and has a 6.5 share, according to Nielsen.

“You grow and evolve with the times,” says Matt DeVoti, sales manager for WDHA and WMTR. “Our listeners have remained constant and we have an advantage with 25- to 54-year-olds. Being in North Jersey is good for us.”

WDHA’s programming reflects the age span of its listeners. A typical hour might begin with Van Halen, Led Zeppelin and Kiss, but also include newer, edgier acts like Shinedown and Halestorm.

“They know who they are and who their listeners are and that is how they program,” says Dave Lombardi, vice president of promotion at Caroline, a New York-based independent music distributor. “When I’ve got the right record for them, they will expose the heck out of it.”

WDHA actually dates back 55 years, to February 1961, when it launched from a small studio above a drug store in Dover. First playing adult contemporary music, the station took its call letters from parent company Drexel Hill Associates, named for the Pennsylvania hometown of then-owner Peter Arnow.

The station switched to Top 40 in the 1970s and rock in 1978. It’s credited with being the first to broadcast rock in stereo in the New York area.

Greater Media, a Massachusetts-based company that owns 21 stations in five states, bought WDHA in 2001. The chain has six stations in New Jersey. Along with WDHA and WMTR, Greater Media owns WMGQ (Magic 93) and WCTC talk radio in Somerset; WRAT, rock radio in Belmar; and WJRZ, a greatest hits station in Manahawkin.

WDHA is the longest-running rocker in the state and the New York market—and remains one of the few rock stations in the area. These days, competition also comes from mobile devices, the Internet and satellite radio.

Carr, who grew up in West Orange and still lives in Essex County, says WDHA’s local connection sets it apart from national satellite music stations. And its online stream through the iHeartRadio website and app gives it equal footing with digital outlets.

“We get a lot of people who listen online, listen at work, listen at their desk,” says afternoon deejay Curtis Kay, a 35-year WDHA veteran and dean of the on-air crew. “I got a call today from a guy out in Illinois who is a diehard listener.”

Kay’s rise up the broadcast ranks came under two of the biggest names in New York radio. His first job was at WRNW-FM (now WXPK) in Rockland County, New York, under then–program director Howard Stern. “We were all working for $90 a week,” Kay says of his days with Stern. “He taught me a lot. Probably one of the nicest guys in the world.”

Later, Kay was hired at WDHA by then-program director Mark Chernoff, who now oversees WFAN Sports Radio in New York. Chernoff recalls the format change to rock and having to compete with up to four rock stations in the market at the time.

“We always felt,” says Chernoff, “that it was a really good rock market.”

In Chernoff’s day, WDHA sponsored concerts at local venues like the Final Exam in Randolph, the Capitol Theater in Passaic and the Showplace in Dover; all are now defunct.

Back then, the station also compiled an annual Homegrown album featuring songs by unknown local artists. Chernoff recalls the mother of a young Jon Bon Jovi lobbying in 1982 for her son’s song, “Runaway.” (WDHA couldn’t use the song because it already had won another station’s contest.)

There have been plenty of other memorable moments at the station. Kay remembers Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones apologizing profusely after arriving two hours late for an in-studio appearance. “He walks in with this, ‘I’m so sorry I’m late, please forgive me,’” Kay remembers. “I’m thinking, ‘You’re John Paul Jones, what am I going to say? You’ll never work in Morristown again?’”

Ozzy Osbourne was another memorable guest. “Ozzy is all over the highway,” says Kay. “I did a phone interview with him and actually woke him up.”

Legendary New Jersey concert promoter John Scher, whose roots go back to his days of promoting shows by Bruce Springsteen, the Who and other rock icons, calls WDHA “a throwback” and applauds the station’s grasp of its audience. “They’re very involved in events and all things musically and sociologically that fit into the average rock listeners,” says Scher. “They’ve always been very strong in that area.”

Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Research, confirms that 35 years in the same format makes WDHA a “rare breed.” And it’s not easy. Ross says programming the older music legends helps offset the lack of newer stars in what he refers to as the “active rock” format.

“It is hard to put together new core artists,” explains Ross, a New Jersey resident. “Rock is still big, enduring music. We’re not headed for a time in the near future where people wake up and don’t like Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC anymore.”

Ross says WDHA also succeeds by remaining attractive to local advertisers. “They sell to people who cannot afford New York radio. If you are a local retailer in Somerville, you can be on WDHA or WMTR or both.”

McKinley and Kay say there has never been serious discussion of changing WDHA’s format. “Stations change formats for a number of reasons,” says McKinley. “One is they are dying. That has never happened here. We are solid in all of the areas we need to be.”

The station solidifies its community connection with charity efforts such as its annual Rock Dogs calendar, which features local pups, and location events ranging from a Rock Carnival with music and food trucks in Clark to a Trunk-or-Treat Halloween giveaway at a local Dodge dealership.

“Promotions are two-pronged,” says McKinley. “We promote ourselves, we try to tie in with the community for as many charity events as we can, and we try to be out in front of people, especially in the summer.”

For fans, WDHA remains an accessible outlet where they often can meet their favorite musicians. Carr tells of station visits in recent years by the likes of Bon Jovi, Kiss and Slash of Guns ’N Roses.

“Jon [Bon Jovi] and Richie [Sambora] were here in the mid-2000s and they had just done the Live with Regis and Kelly show. They flew right into Morristown Airport,” Carr recalls. “The parking lot was full of hundreds of people just waiting for them.”

Another time, a group of fans unloaded a Kiss pinball machine from a truck to be autographed by the members of the band as they arrived at the station. Kiss principals Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have been frequent visitors, thanks to WDHA’s onging commitment to their music. “You’re not going to find a lot of stations in the area that are playing Kiss or a lot of these bands because a lot of stations have formulas,” says Carr.

Then there was the Shinedown fan who got into a car accident on his way to see the group at WDHA. He went to the hospital, got patched up and hobbled into the studio with a full cast on his leg—just for a chance to meet the band.

Joe Strupp reports on media for New Jersey Monthly.

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