For more than 40 years, radio personality Dennis Elsas has been one of the most influential voices on FM radio. He was one of the pioneers of the progressive FM radio revolution on WNEW-FM, where his guests included Elton John, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger and, most famously, John Lennon.
Elsas’ 1974 interview with Lennon, a two-hour discussion ranging from Lennon’s new album to his immigration issues to rare Beatles memories, is now part of the permanent collection of the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio). It’s also an important part of the award-winning 2010 PBS American Masters film LENNONNYC.
Elsas currently hosts a weekday afternoon program at WFUV. On his show, an eclectic mix of rock, folk, jazz and blues, he has interviewed artists ranging from Ringo Starr to Elvis Costello to Edie Brickell. He can also be heard Saturdays and Sundays on Sirius XM’s Classic Vinyl station, not to mention on numerous commercials, documentaries and promos.
He recently chatted with Baristanet about the early days of FM radio, the Lennon interview, and his upcoming multi-media show, “Rock ‘n Roll Never Forgets.”
How and when did you realize you wanted to be a DJ?
I don’t think I realized I could do this for a living until I was doing this for a living. I went to (Queens) College thinking I would be a lawyer, but a group of students started a radio station while I was there. I had always loved radio—I literally had a transistor radio under my pillow as a kid—so I auditioned to be a host. From all that listening to my transistor radio, I had learned how to both ask questions and listen, so they liked me. After I graduated, I was hired by a small station in Westchester and then WNEW.
What was WNEW like at the time?
It was seen as a very cool station; it had a definite swagger. When I started there in 1971, WNEW was at the forefront of the progressive FM radio movement. We were an eclectic bunch of DJs who had the freedom to pick the songs we would play. We were expected to play some hit songs, but we could also champion whatever obscure artist or music we felt passionate about.
Talk a bit about the John Lennon interview.
John was originally coming on the station to promote his new album, Walls and Bridges. I respected that that was why he was there, so I asked questions about it. I prepare a lot for an interview, and I think that must have made him feel comfortable on-air. Off-air, we chatted about the Beatles; it had only been four years since their breakup. I asked him if he would mind discussing the topic on-air, and he was happy to do so. He even took over as guest DJ for some of the interview, playing some 45s he had brought with him. The whole thing was unbelievable but actually unfolded very naturally.
Any artists you’d still love to interview?
Bob Dylan would be a fascinating subject, although very challenging. Likewise Neil Young. I’m sad that I never got to speak to George Harrison, since I interviewed the other three Beatles. And there’s a younger group called The New Pornographers that intrigues me. They obviously know their pop music history; latest album, Brill Bruisers, is an homage to the Brill Building in NYC.
Tell us about your upcoming show.
The title, “Rock ‘n Roll Never Forgets,” is actually the name of a 1976 Bob Seger song. My show is about friendship, loyalty and karma. Basically it’s highlights from my most memorable interviews, with visual accompaniment. There will also be a q-&-a with the audience at the end. It’s a very personal evening.
“Rock & Roll Never Forgets” will take place Sat. Nov 1 at 7 PM at MAM’s Leir Hall. Tickets are $15, $12 for MAM members.