Paul Sidney died a few weeks ago, in all likelihood you have never heard of him but if you are in anyway involved in community building, you need know about him. Paul Sidney ran and was the voice of WLNG radio out of Sag Harbor Long Island. WLNG is local as local radio can get. The station is a throwback to late 50’s style of operation where announcers add echo and heavy bottom EQ to their voices and the News is local, local and local. Growing up in the Hamptons of Long Island it was it was impossible to not be influenced by the sound and programming of WLNG as it was everywhere and literally at every event.
You can read Paul's obituary here, it tells the tale of his coming over to WLNG, becoming its driving force and cult of personality. What it will not tell you is just how deeply he ingratiated himself and the radio station into the very fabric of the lives of those who listened to ‘LNG and even those who did not. The comments section of the article will do that well enough.
In addition to music and local news WLNG features live call in shows such as "Swap n' Shop" -where people call in to trade a 1940’s fly wheel for a couch or someone looking to buy or swap for a full set of tools and toolbox. While at times it can be nap inducing it also is a window into people’s lives, needs and character. Paul would not just help the caller to describe what they wanted to trade or relive themselves of but also would check on their status – he engaged them in conversation about the news of their neighborhood. It was not radio it was community.
The radio station was among the first to have merchants record their own commercials, clearly not professional actors but direct and personal. The ads could be grating and awkward but then so were all the rest and yes, it was the person who owned the store. The ads always left you feeling – ‘that’s Jim’s place, I should stop by and see how things are doing.
Having the mission to be local as local radio gets WLNG and Paul would travel to every possible event occurring on the east end of Long Island, eventually using two fully equipped remote trucks . The remotes were Mr. Sidney’s glory and crowning achievement. These over-sized airstream RV’s were literally at every store opening, town parade, fund raiser and carnival. The draw an ‘LNG remote could –(and still does I am told)- muster was phenomenal. It was not an event of note if the remote trucks were missing. Paul knew how to work a crowd, how to detail just enough to give listeners a good picture- keep them listening AND to attend the event.
In my mid to late teens I developed an overly impressive angst about my surroundings and began a lifelong quest to find new, interesting and thought provoking music and media. This local radio station was the epitome of all I wanted to get away from. In my rush to find something else, the remarkableness of Paul Sidney and WLNG was ignored. As a young person, grappling with defining a personal identity, you grew to loathe when parents put WLNG on, pronouncing it one of the seven signs of local lameness. Yet hearing the station was always comfortable, like going to the carnival with your younger brother- you would rather go alone, check out the girls and hang with friends. But he’s your brother and its okay.
I left for NYC and its heady world of aggregating cultures and slick production values leaving the ‘farm report’ station behind me. Imagine my shock when I attended an NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) tradeshow and one of the first things I see upon stepping on to the exhibit floor is Paul surrounded by a flock of people. I nearly retained my youthful arrogance and rushed by thinking ‘what’s this goat doing here, intruding on my sanctuary? Instead I stopped to see just what everyone was doing around Paul Sidney. The questions were eager often hyperactive, asking just how such a small station could grab such large shares in the face of the conglomerates and city backed stations. Paul Sidney’s answers stuck me and started to chip away at my preconceived notions.
My thoughts wandered back to WLNG and Mr. Sidney as I started to get involved in hosting bulletin boards on BBS, AOL and later a few web communities in the early to mid 90s. It always struck me that group chat rooms were, in effect, community halls- only broadcast. Many compared and still compare them to the days of CB radio popularity, complete with the snide disregard for the value of conversations it generated. The online community often overtly revels in the fact that they are community, ideas are shared and bonds forged. More often than not individuals or groups talk just to hear themselves but in the end fundamental value is created– community radio. Social media now is, in part, the largest community radio project only the community is not a location but global and based on common interest.
Next time you tweet an event, start a rolling discussion on FriendFreed or post ‘real-time’ photos to facebook, remember that you are utilizing a form once dominated by people who used radio to build and keep communities talking. We owe our current mass media social networking to men like Paul Sidney, they may not have fully understood the import and impact , they provided the framework for it to be successful.
Paul Sidney’s Über local radio is the model social media should pay attention to, all media is local, regardless of the physical location of the community. Those of us who take forward positions in the creation and application of social media groups need to remember the passion, investment and yes, love of the community Mr. Sidney exhibited. I for one will miss his voice and although I rarely venture back to the Hamptons he and WLNG will always be the sound of The sound in my head.
Edit: *added August 9, 2013 - Inspired by a Post on the 50th anniversary of WLNG in the Sag Harbor Experess
As a Co-Founder and producer for the Pro Audio Visual community podcasting network AVNation.tv I find that I take Mr. Sidney's leadership and example to heart with every show and every episode we produce. Love the medium, love the community - revel in every nuance.