Wayne Robins, Adjunct Professor, Department of Mass Communication, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies (CCPS), has interviewed some of the most celebrated names in rock and roll. But these days, he gains more personal satisfaction and pride from passing on his passion to the next generation of journalists.
“When I first started at St. John’s in 2013, I thought of myself as a journalist who taught on the side,” Prof. Robins recalled. “These days, I think of myself as a teacher who writes on the side.”
“I’m really blessed to be teaching here,” he continued. “It is as satisfying—or even more satisfying—as my newspaper job was at its peak.”
Prof. Robins is the former longtime pop music critic at Newsday. Beginning in 1975 and continuing for two decades, he balanced reporting on top-tier acts such as Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 with reviews of emerging performers such as Joan Jett and Pat Benatar. He even found time to appreciate Long Island’s garage-band scene.
Nearly 50 years after beginning his writing career, he became something of a celebrity himself as the first writer inducted into the Long Island Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame. It is no small honor for the critic-turned-St. John’s instructor; previous enshrinees include Mariah Carey, the late singer and philanthropist Harry Chapin, composer George M. Cohan, the band Twisted Sister, jazz legend John Coltrane, and, of course, Mr. Joel.
Informed of his selection in January 2020, Prof. Robins had to wait until November 22 to be formally inducted while the organization endured the COVID-19 pandemic and searched for a new home. Eventually, it settled on a site in Stony Brook, NY, that opened on Thanksgiving weekend.
“It has been almost three years since I was told about it,” Prof. Robins said. “But it’s the realization of a plan—the induction, the ribbon-cutting of the hall itself.”
Prof. Robins teaches five classes at St. John’s, all related to his years as a critic and reporter. His signature course, and the first one he taught at the University, is the undergraduate course The Journalist as Critic. Others include Writing about Music: Pop, Rap, and Rock and The Craft of Interviewing.
Students seem to respect Prof. Robins’ experience as a journalist, even if they are not fully aware of his influence on the rock and pop scene generations ago. Barely out of college in 1972, Prof. Robins wrote the first-ever Columbia Records biography of Mr. Springsteen. Approximately 20 years later, he was one of a dozen people to see a live rehearsal of U2’sZoo TV tour, after which front man Bono introduced himself and thanked Prof. Robins for writing about the music of his youth, including the Ramones, fellow Long Island Music Hall inductees.
Reflecting on those early years, Prof. Robins recalled how he was more convinced of Mr. Springsteen’s staying power than executives at Columbia Records. Half a century later, Mr. Springsteen is considered by many to be an American icon whose live performances still electrify audiences.
“The corporate guys at Columbia were all wrong about Bruce,” Prof. Robins said. “They thought he was a prestige artist that critics would like, but who would never sell any records. But from seeing him perform, I knew those first two albums—Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle—did not fully showcase his ability.”
Prof. Robins’ pivot from record company employee to music critic in the mid-1970s coincided with Mr. Joel’s rise as a pop star. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose Hicksville, NY, roots made him a Newsday celebrity, has sold more than 150 million records and given dozens of interviews to Prof. Robins.
On his website Critical Conditions, Prof. Robins jokes about the significance of Mr. Joel to Newsday. “Whenever Billy Joel sneezed, Long Island caught pneumonia,” Prof. Robins wrote.
How did he remain objective when the readership clearly was not?
“I couldn’t just be a homer; I couldn’t just say everything he did was great if I didn’t think it was,” he explained. “But I also could not be needlessly hard on him just to show independence. I learned to write about him with great subtlety.”
Critical diplomacy is just one skill Prof. Robins is attempting to impart to his students. Others include the time-honored necessities of fact-checking, respect for the readership, and the value of “informed” opinion.
Born in 1949—the same year as Mr. Springsteen and Mr. Joel—Prof. Robins intends to continue at St. John’s for as long as the students respond to him. He twice has been honored by the University; in 2017, he was named the top adjunct at CCPS, and in 2021, he was one of three faculty members honored by the Values and Inclusion Program for a commitment to values consistent with the University’s Vincentian heritage. He earned a promotion from Adjunct Associate Professor to Adjunct Professor in 2018.
“How do you succeed at a newspaper?” Prof. Robins asked. “I tried to make myself indispensable. If the art critic was on vacation, I would cover something for him, same with the movie or TV critic.”
“I remember one of the most important lessons I learned was when I was reminded that I was the pop music critic, not the rock and roll critic,” Prof. Robins continued. “You can’t go to a Barry Manilow show and review it by the same standards as the Rolling Stones or the Ramones. You ask yourself, ‘Is he the best Barry Manilow he can be, or is he phoning it in?’ ”
“Those were some of the lessons that were passed on to me that I pass on to my students,” Prof. Robins concluded.