WLIR-FM was best known as an influential Alternative, New Wave, Punk Rock and Modern Rock radio station that "dared to be different". WLIR-FM helped launch the careers of many famous disc jockeys. The station became world famous during the 1970s thru 1990s while transmitting further west in Nassau County on the 92.7 frequency.
In 1970, part-time announcer Mike Harrison convinced Rieger to change to a progressive rock format with the famous WLIR Seagull as its logo. This meant playing obscure artists, playing many cuts off an album (not just the hit singles), and having disc jockeys speak in a slow, mellow tone. The station also became known for its concert series and support of local bands such as The Good Rats.
As the 1970s went on, most rock stations drifted to the more commercial album oriented rock, but WLIR bucked this trend. As punk and New Wave Rock started to become popular at the end of the 1970s most rock stations in the United States ignored these genres but WLIR again bucked the trend by playing artists from these genres.
On August 2, 1982, the station made a significant change in format from progressive to what it called "Dare to be Different" because according to the program director at that time Denis McNamara, "It was the right time and right place". The new format featured new wave, punk, post-punk, early alternative rock, synthpop, and novelty records. The personalities of the disc jockeys became much more upbeat. The station became known worldwide for introducing new artists and playing singles months (if not years) before other stations. WLIR became the first radio station in the country to play U2, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Duran Duran, Madonna, George Michael, Men at Work and Prince. The station was one of the few commercial radio stations in the United States to play these type of artists. One method of doing this was the "Screamer of the Week" a promotion in which listeners would call in and vote for their favorite new song of the week. New Order, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Yaz and Blancmange were early staples of this format. According to McNamara the "entire music industry was looking upon 'LIR and that 'LIR marketplace of New York and Long Island as one of the hippest music areas of the world. People used to refer to it as the gateway to America if you were an upcoming artist." A criticism of the station in this period was that it favored artists from Great Britain (and to a lesser extent western Europe in general) at the expense of local bands.
In 1987, the station's license was revoked after a fifteen-year battle, and as a result on December 18, 1987, the station's ownership changed. The call letters of WLIR were changed to WDRE by the new owner, Jared Communications, (later to regain the WLIR call letters), while the previous owner (Elton Spitzer's Stereo Broadcasters Inc.) took the WLIR call letters to an AM radio station in Rockland County, New York. The previous owners also took the "Dare To Be Different" slogan with them as intellectual property, so WDRE's moniker became "New Music First". The "Screamer of the Week" became the "Shriek of the Week" and the station remained on the cutting edge of new music as they broke new bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana and others.
The explosion in popularity of grunge and alternative rock in the early 1990s led to the period of turmoil detailed below. The synthesizer-based music on which much of the station's playlist was based was now out of fashion. Alternative rock artists which used to be played almost exclusively on the station were now being played on many rock and pop music stations.
In 1992, WDRE Garden City (New York) started simulcasting its programming with what was 103.9 WIBF-FM Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which later became WDRE Jenkintown/Philadelphia. Subsequently, in the mid 90's, Greg Morey claims to have created the first alternative rock network known as "The Underground Network". The Underground Network simulcasted WDRE New York and consisted of WFAL 101.1 Cape Cod, WRLG 94.1 Nashville, KDRE 101.1 Little Rock WWCP 96.7 Albany KFTH 107.1 Memphis, WMRW 98.5 Westhampton, as well as WIBF. After several years, The Underground Network was ended and it was decided in 1996 that WDRE Garden City/New York would switch formats to Adult Album Alternative (AAA), bring back Malibu Sue (who had been fired earlier by then PD Ralph Mottla), change its call letters back to WLIR and change its moniker to "The Island". Also in 1996 WDRE Philadelphia became an independent local modern rock station.
On January 9, 2004, Univision bought the 92.7 frequency and other assets for $56.9 million and began simulcasting the Spanish radio format of WCAA Newark, NJ. on 92.7 under the call letters WZAA. The Last song played on WLIR that day was "Forever Young", the upbeat version by Alphaville. The WLIR call letters moved to the 107.1 frequency on Eastern Long Island, which was earlier part of the simulcast of Spanish "Rumba 107" WYNY. The new WLIR adopted an Active Rock/Alternative format and new image as "THE BOX". Since the 107.1 version of WLIR is located about 50 miles east of the original WLIR, many of the station's fans in New York City, southwestern Connecticut, southern Westchester County, New York, northeastern New Jersey, and even the western parts of Long Island itself could not easily receive the station (many of these areas were closer geographically to other 107.1s, WXPK in central Westchester County and WWZY in Long Branch, New Jersey, which hindered reception).
On September 15, 2005, WLIR changed formats to a block-sponsored smooth jazz/chill music format known as "FM Channel 107: NeoBreeze." As a result of the format change, which was also instituted at two other stations owned by the WLIR's owners (The Morey Organization), all of the on-air staff was fired. This truly marked the end of WLIR's unique "new music" format after almost three decades. In addition, with the new format, the station would run commercial-free during the day, with the actual airtime during this period paid for by advertisers. According to the station's owners, this move was made as an attempt to take on satellite radio and MP3 players, which had been cutting into listeners of traditional radio.
On December 20, 2005, after three months of low ratings, the NeoBreeze format was dumped, and the WLIR alternative format returned.
On December 26, 2006 BusinessTalkRadio.net President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Metter announced the purchase of three Long Island radio stations: Alternative WLIR-FM (107.1), Classic Rocker WBON-FM (98.5), and Top 40/Rhythmic WDRE (105.3). WBON was renamed WBZB and flipped to a business talk format on January 2, 2007. The sales of WLIR-FM and WBZB were approved on February 27, 2007 and according to the FCC database, the selling price for WLIR-FM was expected to be $1,750,000 and the selling price for WBON-FM was also expected to be $1,750,000 The sale of these stations, however, was never completed.
On October 11, 2007, WLIR-FM began simulcasting on translator 96.9 FM Manorville (W245BA), expanding its coverage area into western Suffolk County and a portion of eastern Nassau County. On November 18, 2007, this simulcast of WLIR-FM ended with the simulcast of 98.5 WBON, "La Fiesta", taking over the 96.9 frequency.
In what seemed like an annual ritual, on January 3, 2008, WLIR-FM began simulcasting programming from sister station WDRE (Party 105), fueling speculation that a change in format to ESPN was imminent.