Daniel Lerner

Mon, 02/26/2024 - 7:45am

Daniel Lerner, an innovative radio station owner and well-known philanthropist, passed away on Feb. 21, 2024, at the age of 91, at his home in Merion, Pennsylvania.

Lerner was best known for developing the Adult Contemporary radio format in the 1960s while co-owner of WSSH-FM (“WISH”) in the Boston area.  He was later the owner of WKSZ-FM in Philadelphia, which had success as an Adult Contemporary station, KISS-100, in the 1980s and then as Y-100, with an Alternative Rock format, in the 1990s.

As a philanthropist, Lerner funded nonprofit organizations from Maine to Florida. In honor of his 50th undergraduate reunion at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, he funded the Daniel Lerner Family Endowed Scholarship, providing financial assistance to students in the fields of music and communications. He also endowed major building facilities, including the Lerner Atrium at FoundCare in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the indoor walking and running track at Central Lincoln County YMCA in Damariscotta, Maine. Lerner served for more than a decade on the Board of Directors of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine. To honor him and his wife for their service and generosity, the Gardens named the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses in 2009 and the Lyn and Daniel Lerner Visitor Center in 2022.

Lerner was born in Philadelphia in 1932.  He grew up in Drexel Hill and graduated from Upper Darby High School in 1950.

His father, Joseph Lerner, had emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. with his parents and siblings in 1894 at age five. He grew up on a farm in Carmel, New Jersey, and left school after the eighth grade. Joseph Lerner founded a successful women’s clothing manufacturing company in Philadelphia and strongly encouraged his two sons to gain the higher education he never could. They both earned graduate degrees.

Daniel Lerner attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in music and graduating in 1954. After working for the City of Philadelphia Civil Service Commission, he returned to Penn, where he earned a master’s degree in communications at the Annenberg School in 1961.

He began his career in broadcasting in 1961, as an account executive at an AM radio station, WADK, in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1962, he joined WFIL-AM Philadelphia in the same capacity. In 1963, Lerner and his brother Arnold purchased WLLH AM & FM in the Boston area. In 1966, they separated WLLH-FM from its sister AM station and changed its name to “WISH.” It was there, in the early years of FM radio, that Lerner developed the format that eventually became known nationally as Adult Contemporary. WISH soon became one of the most listened-to stations in the Boston market.

Due in part to his father’s declining health, Lerner returned to Philadelphia in 1967, accepting a position at the television station WFIL (Channel 6). In 1972, he became General Manager of radio station WIFI-FM. Upon leaving WIFI, he applied to the FCC for the then recently revoked license of WXUR, Media, which had previously been owned by controversial radio evangelist Carl McIntire. WXUR had lost its license due to violations of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine.

After a competitive hearing, the FCC assigned the license to Lerner and partner Judith Golson in 1981, finding they were the best-qualified applicants to own and operate the station. The station signed on in November 1982 as “KISS-100.”

Within two years, KISS-100’s “Soft Hits” format made it one of Philadelphia’s highest-rated radio stations. The station’s slogan, “No hard rock, no sleepy elevator music,” was widely imitated across the country.

By 1993, with KISS-100’s niche becoming overcrowded, Lerner changed the station’s name to Y100, and its format to Alternative Rock. After an intense two-year battle with competitor WDRE, the latter dropped the format, enabling Y100 to reach the top of the ratings chart among younger listeners. It remained one of Philadelphia’s top revenue-producing stations until Lerner sold it to Radio One in 2000.

In retirement, Lerner enjoyed spending time with his family, boating, visiting vacation homes in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and Florida, and giving back. In addition to his work for Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, he served on the board of directors of Rocky Run YMCA in Media, Pennsylvania, and was a founding board member of FoundCare, which provides health care services for underserved people in the West Palm Beach, Florida region. Lerner was also a four-decade benefactor of Garrett Williamson, a nonprofit childcare and learning center serving the greater Newtown Square, Pennsylvania area.

He and his wife Lyn were married for 68 years; she predeceased him in 2022.  

He is survived by daughter Ann Poole, who lives in Newcastle, Maine with her husband Dirk; son Paul D. Lerner, who lives in California with his husband Stephen Reis; and daughter Julie Lerner, who lives in New York with her partner Rob Silver.  He is also survived by brother Arnold Lerner, who lives in Florida with his wife Maureen, and by granddaughters Savanna Poole and Marina Poole. 

A Celebration of Life gathering will be held on Sunday, June 2 at 3 p.m. at the Levering Mill Tribute House in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that a donation be made to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Garrett Williamson or the nonprofit organization of your choice.