The Many Lives Of Larry ‘The Duck’ Dunn

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When it comes to life experience, Larry “The Duck” Dunn can lay claim to being a man who has lived a handful of lifetimes. Best known as the longtime music director of WLIR for nearly all of the ‘80s, he continues to spin the 5 to 9 a.m. shift on Sirius/XM’s First Wave 33 from Monday to Friday, with the occasional Saturday thrown in.

Larry “The Duck” Dunn broadcasting on Sirius/XM from his Massapequa home base
(Photo by Dave Gil de Rubio)

Among the career pit stops he’s made ever since he resigned on the air at WDRE back in August 1991, (more on that later) are Newsday Media Group/Cablevision, Reed Elsevier (owners of NME and Melody Maker), Variety and Disney/Capital Cities ABC. Most recently, he’s spent the past five years with Island Federal Credit Union, moving up and becoming a Certified Strategic Marketing Executive (CSME) after getting certified three years ago in Seattle.

And while he never envisioned ending up in finance, the Massapequa resident has happily embraced this world.
“The credit union world is wonderful because its not-for-profit, whereas the banks are for-profit,” Dunn said. “Because of that, our rates are much lower. We have a lot more free services. We report to the members, whereas banks report to shareholders. It’s an interesting and great model. Also, the credit unions cooperate with each other, which is why they do shared branching, not just here on Long Island, but around the country. We have ATMs that have no fee, so you can go to other credit unions. And if you’re a Chase banker, you’re not going to get that with Citibank.”

Dunn’s other passion for the past 12 years has been serving as a vice president on the board of Long Island Cares (LIC) and making sure people who are food insecure get fed. While he ascended to the position while he was the senior vice president of Advertising at Newsday after the person serving on the publication’s board left, the North Merrick native’s connection with the organization goes back to when he was a senior at Mary Regina High School (which is now known as Kellenberg High School). It was here that he and future Nassau County judge Bob Bogle connected with LIC founding member Harry Chapin, who was then performing shows to raise money for world hunger.

“I was the concert chair at the time and Bob and I heard Harry was doing these [charity] shows,” Dunn recalled. “He didn’t want to do the clubs because there was a cost associated. In the words of Sandy Chapin, who is the chairwoman of the board and Harry’s wife—she always said Harry loved the high school kids because they were impressionable and would get it. He wanted to play the high schools so what happened was we got the number for Harry Chapin and Bob called and got Sandy on the phone. Can you imagine calling Harry Chapin’s home number? And then Bob and I were told what was exactly involved. We got the auditorium through Father Mullen, who was the principal. He got us the auditorium for a Wednesday afternoon at 4 o’clock. This was before social media. We spread the word, sold the tickets out and gave all the cash to Harry.”

Larry “The Duck” Dunn and
his wife Suzanne
(Photo courtesy of Larry “The Duck” Dunn)

That connection to Chapin encouraged Dunn to take the LIC seat, a role he’s proud of, particularly given how hard communities have been hit by the pandemic.
“I’d shaken hands with Harry Chapin, so I felt there was this bond with Long Island Cares, especially with food insecurity now with what we’ve gone through with COVID-19,” he explained. “We fed over 278,000 people during COVID-19 that had food insecurity. That was over 19 million pounds of food. So I got involved, joined the board and got really passionate about it.”

Rookie broadcaster
Larry “The Duck” Dunn kibitizing
(from left) with Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony of Van Halen circa 1981
(Photo courtesy of Larry “The Duck” Dunn)

As the oldest of seven kids before his family moved to Merrick when he was a kid, Dunn’s energy and gregarious nature has been the fuel for his life’s journey. When he was told his parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, he worked a full-time job as a pharmacy tech at Mardell’s in Hempstead, which unbeknownst to him, was up the block from WLIR, a station he’d been religiously listening to in high school and up through matriculating full-time at St. John’s University. Dunn’s tenacity led to his going from being a WLIR intern to becoming the youngest on-air staff member back on June 1, 1979, when the station was playing a progressive rock format and hadn’t yet transitioned into becoming the New Wave beacon of the ‘80s. Long before Dunn was introducing Duran Duran at Madison Square Garden or helping break U2, his early radio years were a trial-by-fire, interviewing the likes of Van Halen and Ozzy Osbourne fresh from exiting Black Sabbath. The turning point came in 1982 when program director Denis McNamara broke from being one of five AOR stations in the market (the others being WBAB, WPLJ, WAPP and WNEW because as Dunn put it, “How many times can you play ‘Stairway To Heaven?’”) and embraced genres like synth-pop, post-punk, reggae, early alt-rock and Goth—music that was being roundly ignored on the rest of the dial.

As recounted in the 2017 documentary, Dare to Be Different—WLIR: The Voice of A Generation, it was a wild ride until the FCC revoked parent company Phoenix Media’s license in 1987. And while Dunn was brought back by the new ownership to serve in an advisory role for programming and music needs, his full-time ride status ended when a new program director handed Dunn a playlist and said this was what he was going to spin. The concept was anathema to the LIR stalwart’s prior radio experience and led to his on-air resignation during the weekly Saturday night gig Dunn had spinning at Malibu nightclub.

Larry “The Duck” Dunn (far right) and Berlin featuring Terri Berlin (fourth from right) on a recent Sirius/XM ‘80s Cruise
(Photo courtesy of Larry “The Duck” Dunn)

“I’m not a quitter but I did something because I couldn’t take the management [at the station],” Dunn said. “Going off a playlist was not what I was hired for. I was hired for musical freedom, knowing what to play at the right time and the artist segue. Denis [McNamara] gave us freedom to break artists. We may have been viewed as the New Wave station but we were the new music station. It was like doing A&R in radio. We were always looking for that next golden nugget and that was part of the pride. It’s one thing to break it, but it’s great to play great music because without the listeners what are you? You’re an antenna broadcasting to nobody.”

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