By Mike Kinosian,
It can mean being a board-op for syndicated programming (think NPR and educational fare); having the chance to actually host a local music-intensive program (typically classical, jazz, or standards); or working at an unlicensed carrier-current outlet where rules are relaxed and music tends to be considerably more contemporary, alternative, and/or progressive.
Altering that customary paradigm is Hillsdale College, the first American college to prohibit by charter any discrimination based on race, sex, or religion. Even indirectly, it refuses to accept any taxpayer funding, even indirectly in the form of student grants and loans.
Situated in south-central Michigan, this independent, coeducational, residential institution of 1,450 students is about to go full steam ahead with its Hillsdale radio station; has a satellite Boyle radio studio in the nation’s capital; and is receiving considerable assistance from an out-of-state group owner and long-time friend of the college.
Rhetoric in a positive light
Emphatic in his claim that Hillsdale – a liberal arts school in a pastoral, rural location is “different from every other college” in the country, John Miller, director of its Herbert H. Dow II Program in American Journalism, remarks, “It is a traditional school with conservative values. The program I run focuses on print journalism.”
Soon after they graduate, many Hillsdale journalism students embark on careers that have taken them to places such as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Fox News. “We are one of the only colleges in the United States, along with the military academies, that requires students to take coursework in the Constitution,” notes Miller. “The traditional approach to how we teach is based on what the Founding Fathers really believed. We are advocates of a traditional understanding of the Constitution and we want all our students to learn about it. This is one part of a larger thing we do, which is trying to sustain the traditional liberal arts.”
Upon learning that the school could apply for an FCC license to operate a low-power FM facility (LPFM), Hillsdale College officials jumped at the chance.
Ever since debuting this summer, WRFH “101.7 Radio Free Hillsdale” has been airing wall-to-wall patriotic music. “The reason we started the station is we wanted to be a service to the students,” Miller declares. “We wanted to help them know how to speak into a microphone and how to conduct an interview. We believe that will help our students become better at the art of rhetoric.”
That is the case whether they aspire to be teachers, lawyers, print journalists, candidates for public office, or the next great talk radio personality. “This is the place where they can get better,” Miller insists. “Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the trivium of the traditional liberal arts. Rhetoric is right there at the core, so we want this to be a tool for helping them to do that.”
A next big step in developing this initiative was the hiring of a “Radio Free Hillsdale” station manager, with Miller stating the school was seeking a professional who “knows how to run a radio station and who will help us build programming that features students. Once that happens, we will go off our 24/7 playlist. We will then bring in students who will read the news and run their own shows. We will train them in serious radio journalism. I imagine that will include being a reliable news source and telling the truth about the events of the day. It will probably also include talk shows where people offer their opinions. We’ll see who will come out and who will want to participate.”
This goal was accomplished last week with the announcement that Hillsdale College had hired Scot Bertram, program director and morning co-host at WROK in Rockford, IL. Bertram is a young, professional broadcaster highly-regarded in the industry. He will begin the new job next semester.
Included on Miller’s wish list is to have “Radio Free Hillsdale” land an interview with a presidential contender such as US Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT). “He would get some serious questions, rather than the kind he had at the last Democratic debate,” Miller promises. “In the classroom, I could talk the ear off a student about how to interview a political candidate. The real teacher though is the act of doing it. That is why it is so important to give students this opportunity to be in a booth, be behind a microphone, and actually do the job.”
Station’s driving force
Support for non-commercial “Radio Free Hillsdale” comes via private donations to the college.
Not only is he a donor, friend and supporter of the college, the United States Air Force Academy graduate is also enlisting financial assistance through his Bold Gold Media Group and The Bold Gold Broadcast and Media Foundation.
In tandem with Miller, Benedetto helped to construct the job description and qualifications needed for the station’s general manager. “Whenever they wanted input about a potential candidate, I – or someone on my team – would offer advice,” Benedetto explains.
Aiding in the hunt to employ a fulltime hands-on manager to lead the station was a critical part of the puzzle; however, it barely scratches the surface of Benedetto’s role with the Hillsdale College facility built upon his long relationship with the college and deep understanding of its philosophy and mission.
Covered by Bold Gold was the cost of the license application for this LPFM, as well as associated engineering and legal fees. “The license for this class of low-power FM was applied for during the [October 15 – November 14, 2013] window,” Benedetto points out. “This is an on-going project that we will be involved with for many years, as we intend to support the broadcast program into the future and potentially grow it even more over time.”
History enthusiast favors today’s town hall
Integral in explaining why Benedetto was drawn to Hillsdale is the fact that visitors to the home of the self-described “history enthusiast” will find his vast library collection well represented by works written about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.
Prior to 2010, his Bold Gold Media Group owned/operated music-intensive stations. Launching WTRW, Scranton, Pennsylvania was the first time his company ventured into political talk. “It was very enlightening for me,” recounts Benedetto, whose “94.3 The Talker” features syndicated talk radio players Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, and Laura Ingraham, as well as local morning personality David Madeira. “I was quite impressed with how many people began talking to me about their exposure to WTRW. I saw first-hand how talk radio can be a modern-day American town hall.”
Through “94.3 The Talker,” Benedetto discovered Hillsdale College. “Mark Levin talks about it and I heard the president of the college, Dr. Larry Arnn, call-in to discuss such things as the Federalist Papers and Abraham Lincoln from an academic standpoint,” Benedetto elaborates. “I thought it was a great thing that there is a school like that. I learned about Hillsdale College over the radio. As is the case with so many other Americans, I was impressed that they offer free, online constitutional courses. About 895 thousand people have signed up for these courses, in large part through the promotion on talk radio. That is such a great success story for radio. Hillsdale College has made itself a household name – certainly among talk radio listeners – and I learned more about it through the Scranton-Wilkes Barre station I own. Listeners of our talk station have taken these courses and I have seen their lives change.”
Learn by doing
One thing led to another and, after Benedetto contacted Dr. Arnn to pledge financial support to Hillsdale College, involvement of the energetic Air Force captain (Benedetto was discharged in the spring of 2003) mushroomed on several levels, including the quest for a station manager. “I am optimistic that, by next semester [early-2016], we will begin to have students on-air to do some original programming,” assesses John Miller. “Right now, no students are involved with the station. Now that we hired a manager who knows how to use a person’s interest and talent, I think there will be dozens – I have certainly had many inquiries. When they contact me, I tell them there is nothing right now, but I ask them to be patient and get back to me in January. Certainly, news and talk will be elements to what we will do. This is pure speculation, but I would love this to be a place where some student who wants to play his favorite songs on a Friday night can come and do that. In its way, that is less serious and maybe a little more fun, but there is nothing wrong with that.”
Four-year Hillsdale College veteran Miller has had several ideas for expanding the journalism program, particularly in the direction of documentary filmmaking and video journalism. “We are moving in that direction, but the radio thing came almost from nowhere,” he concedes. “I never really thought about it. We learned about it from Vince, who has become a great friend of the college. He loves what we do and he loves how we approach the Constitution. He is the one who pointed out that, as an educational institution, we could do this. Vince is a full partner who has been with us from conception through implementation. We recently had a formal dedication lunch on campus and Vince was a featured speaker. He has been side-by-side with us all along, providing help in every imaginable way. He is such a champion of the medium – it is just contagious. He is a great entrepreneur and an excellent partner for us.”
Approximately 40 Hillsdale College students are pursuing journalism as a minor and Miller stresses that, “Journalism will never be a major here. That is the correct way to do it because we think students should major in the traditional liberal arts. They need to take classes with our excellent teachers who can fill their heads with subjects such as history and literature. We have a demanding core at the college. You learn journalism by doing journalism – not by sitting in a classroom listening to a professor rattle on about it. We do a little bit of classroom instruction, but we try to put students in a position where they can practice journalism at our campus paper or at the radio station. I teach a class about writing style, but we do not lard up our curriculum with all kinds of courses that justify our jobs. I am one of the few professors on campus who does not possess a PhD. I got this job because of my work experience.”
On-staff of The National Review for almost 18 years, Miller is its national correspondent although he acknowledges his participation there is “very much of a part-time thing now,” but he still has that connection. “It allows me to bring my work into the classroom. Staying plugged into professional journalism is very helpful when my students are seeking internships and jobs. I miss writing full-time; however, I enjoy what I am doing at Hillsdale College. I love the school and its mission and I really like the students. They are good, smart, hard-working kids. I want my own kids to be around people like this when they go off to college. It is a joy to be around them and to try to help them. This radio station will be a fantastic opportunity for many of these students.”
Augmented by a Beltway sibling
Just a few blocks away from the Capitol, the Kirby Center (pictured at right) is where students go to spend a semester as part of the Washington Hillsdale Internship Program. They work during the day and take classes at night.
The building contains a radio studio that directly links to the campus station at Hillsdale College.
Overseeing operations of the Kirby Center and various DC Hillsdale academic/educational programs is associate vice president and dean of educational programs Dr. Matt Spalding, who emphasizes that, “In other college campuses, radio stations are seen as a way to go off in all sorts of different directions. We see our radio station and our radio studio as a way to advance the most important ideas about American culture, American society, and American greatness. Radio is perhaps the most important vehicle to advance what we are trying to do. There is something about radio, which is people talking to each other and someone on the other end listening, that is very conducive to the type of discussion that is appropriate for teaching. We find the medium of radio is very attractive for advancing ideas and advancing the way people participate in that discussion.”
Executive editor of The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (Regnery Publishing, 2014) and author of We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009), Dr. Spalding has previously done many radio interviews in conjunction with promoting his writing. “I have a great deal of familiarity with – and like – the medium of radio very much,” he comments. “I look forward to doing more of it, but I don’t have any experience running a radio station. The studio has only been in operation a few weeks and nothing has gone wrong so far. I am very, very optimistic about what it will entail and how this will play out; this program will be very good for Hillsdale College. As far as we know, there isn’t another college in the United States producing a program like this to get their students involved with talk radio and broadcast journalism from anywhere near the philosophical position that Hillsdale is.”
Many colleges and universities have programs in the nation’s capital and several have facilities there, so, as Dr. Spalding confirms, “The general notion of having a college with satellite campuses is not that unusual. Hillsdale has a beautiful building with classroom space, auditorium space, places for dinners and lectures, a library, and now the Boyle radio studio. We are trying to create something quite different. We had a group of supporters here for a dinner to dedicate it. [Salem Radio Network host] Hugh Hewitt was doing his three-hour show from the Kirby Center with House Speaker Paul Ryan [R-WI] and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton [R-AR] among his in-studio guests. There is a window so people can actually see the show as well as listen to it. It shows that this is a very attractive place from which to broadcast.”
Hillsdale plans to make the Boyle radio studio available to professional talk show hosts in need of a remote broadcast facility when visiting Washington, DC. Those interested in using the Boyle radio studio can send their requests to PR@Hillsdale.edu.
TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison comments, “It will be wonderful to have a strategically-situated, talk radio-friendly studio, such as this, right in the heart of the nation’s capital. TALKERS is looking forward to reinstituting its series of Washington, DC public-policy forums at the Kirby Center – just as we did for so many years back in the 1990s and early 2000s across the street at the Heritage Foundation.”
At the Kirby Center for a little over two years, Dr. Spalding earlier worked for Hillsdale president Dr. Larry Arnn in California where the two were associated with the Claremont Institute. “In today’s political environment, there is a real opening and a real interest in learning more about the fundamental ideas and principles behind American constitutionalism,” Dr. Spalding maintains. “The radio studio and all the other activities we do here are an extension of our teaching mission. Our objective is teaching those in the Washington, DC environment. There is already a lot of interest in that. It is quite different from what you get from think-tanks, lobbying groups, and other organizations around town.”
Regarding a political slant that “Radio Free Hillsdale” might be taking, Dr. Spalding contends that, “If we understand ‘conservatism’ to be about conserving the most important ideas, then the answer is we would be a conservative-leaning station. We want to be careful about being nonpartisan, but we do want to skew toward and advance what we believe. We also want to defend those things that need to be defended. What drives us is less a particular agenda, but more of what ideas need to be conserved. We are not going to back away from the heart and mission of the school and why Hillsdale is Hillsdale. We are going to do that in Washington, just as we do on the Michigan campus.”
During the spring and fall semesters, approximately 20 Hillsdale undergraduate students are in the District of Columbia, but there will be 50 or more during the summer. Training students for careers in broadcast journalism and having them espouse Hillsdale’s ideals fits with the school’s broader mission. “This studio allows us to have ‘friends’ of ours broadcast to Hillsdale [College’s WRFH] from Washington,” proclaims Dr. Spalding. “They can literally walk over here from Capitol Hill or travel by car in about 60 seconds. Speakers can give talks here, and then go upstairs to the radio studio.”
Dr. Spalding discloses, “We eventually would like WRFH to be ‘national’ Hillsdale radio. This might go in a ‘million’ different directions and we are very open to all of those things happening. Right now though, people should not expect to go to a website to click on our station. It is unknown at this point when such an expansion will occur.”
Nearly incalculable is the amount of hours Vince Benedetto has invested in planning, preparing, and consulting on this entire project – to say nothing of money, scholarship programs, and state-of-the-art equipment he, his Bold Gold Media Group, and the Bold Gold Broadcast and Media Foundation have donated. “This is an important and historic moment for the future of radio,” he enthuses. “No college is a more perfect match for helping prepare tomorrow’s future communication leaders than Hillsdale. This will be an ideal place for a young person to obtain a world-class education, study their nation’s unique history, and then learn how to amplify those things through the power of radio. People often say the radio industry does not invest in bringing young talent into our ranks and that we do not have a ‘bench.’ This program – and these facilities – will seek to help change that.”
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.