Getting Schooled on College Radio

| October 21, 2019

By Mike Kinosian
TALKERS 
Managing Editor

 

HEMPSTEAD, NY — One would be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone uttering anything even approaching a negative concerning the often life-changing genuine privilege of working at a college/university radio station.

Whether or not a person with such a campus involvement goes on to pursue a broadcasting career, having that invaluable experience as a resume line item will forever evoke highly fond memories of exemplary personal achievements.

There is, however, one highly significant proviso about this rosy scenario: All college/university stations aren’t precisely the same and the (soon-to-be) 2020 version hardly resembles its (say) 1990s counterpart.

In other words, today’s college student isn’t working at their parents’ campus station.

WRHU’s triple play

History has shown us that flukes can happen in award shows, be they at the Grammys, Emmys, Oscars, Golden Globes, or Tonys. As the “Big Brother” mantra goes, it’s wise to “expect the unexpected.”

On the other hand, when one particular station wins the radio equivalent of those aforementioned statuettes (“Marconi”) three times in a 2014 – 2019 stretch, it is definitely not an aberration.

By way of elaboration, Hofstra University’s WRHU boasted the National Association of Broadcaster’s first-ever “Noncommercial Station of the Year” Marconi in 2014 and repeated the honor in 2017. This year (2019) marked the NAB’s first “College Station of the Year” competition and WRHU carted off the hardware.

Instructions on how to apply for a Marconi are given on the “Awards” page of the NAB’s website. “If you are interested, you submit an essay and audio,” details WRHU’s 14-year director of operations/Hofstra Radio, TV, & Film department adjunct professor John Mullen. “I think about the station, collect audio, and write the essay about what the students do.”

Well-represented at last month’s (9/26) awards presentation held in Dallas during the NAB Radio Show, WRHU’s delegation consisted of four core student managers, including station manager Kenny Conrad; general manager Bruce Avery; and Mullen. “Bruce and I are adult administrators/advisors, but Kenny accepted [the Marconi],” Mullen stresses. “We try to put the students first and set them up to win. When the station wins an award, the students go on stage [because] they are the ones who need to be seen by hiring managers.”

Netting award without Ducking sports coverage

Five facilities competed in the “College Radio Station of the Year” category, with the nominees making it a clean sweep for the New York – New Jersey area. In addition to WRHU, other stations nominated were Nassau Community College’s WHPC, Garden City, New York; Montclair State University’s WMSC, Montclair, New Jersey; Rider University’s WRRC, Lawrenceville, New Jersey; and Seton Hall University’s WSOU, South Orange, New Jersey.

Undoubtedly, all five outlets were deserving of the recognition but several things in particular make WRHU unique.

Operated primarily by a roughly 250-member student staff, which in itself is fairly mind-blowing, the noncommercial, educational, community-oriented facility has another 20 or so “community volunteers.”

Not all college stations broadcast its school’s sports contests – WRHU does.

Furthermore – and this is the rather monumental twist – WRHU produces/distributes/hosts games of the Long Island Nets, the development league team of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets; Atlantic League of Professional Baseball’s Liberty Division Long Island Ducks; and the NHL’s New York Islanders.

Seizing the opportunity

Regarding the latter, the 2019 – 2020 season, which got underway just over two weeks ago (10/4), marks the tenth consecutive year all games of the NHL franchise (Islanders) are airing on WRHU. Hofstra students produce, engineer, and perform on-air roles for the entire slate of that Eastern Conference/Metropolitan Division team’s broadcasts. “Think of us as a mini-Westwood One or a mini-Compass Media [Networks],” Mullen suggests. “We connect to the rink where the play-by-play and color person are located. Reporters are sent to the locker room to interview players.”

Officials from the New York Islanders walked into Mullen’s office in 2010 and asked if WRHU would be interested in producing/distributing their games. “[The late renowned urban contemporary programmer/on-air talent] Frankie Crocker once said to me that when a moment [such as this] presents itself, you grab it and make the most of it,” Mullen remembers. “Those words sat in my head during that meeting. I looked at my boss and said I would do whatever it took to make it successful; failure was not an option.”

Two feeds for the Islanders hockey games are created/distributed. One goes to commercial partners – Disney’s WEPN-AM “1050 ESPN,” New York; WRCN “Long Island News Radio”; SiriusXM; and NHL.com. The other is a noncommercial feed to WRHU. “Students learn mix minus, network operations, partnership marketing, traffic, continuity, engineering, and how to deal with account executives,” Mullen comments. “They create the spots and voice most of them.”

Partnerships can change from year-to-year, as last year, for instance, WRHU distributed games to Entercom New York sports talk WFAN and Radio.com. “I make sure the students are able to offer [the Islanders] a quality, major-market product,” Mullen underscores. “Our students have now produced and distributed [approximately 750] games. As far as I know, no other noncommercial, university-based station is doing professional sports. I think we are the only one [airing] games for one of the four professional sports leagues.”

Daily Thanksgiving discussions

Located across the street from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum – home of the Islanders, Nets, the National Lacrosse League’s New York Riptide, and the New York Open – Hofstra has an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 6,700 undergrads and roughly 4,200 postgraduate students.

Previously known as WVHC and before that, WHCH (in the days when longtime New York City on-air mega-personality Dan Ingram was a Hofstra student), WRHU (“We’re Radio Hofstra University”) celebrated its 60th anniversary last March. “The station [470 watts at 88.7 FM] basically covers all of Nassau County, a part of Suffolk County, and portions of Queens and Brooklyn; it’s 30 miles in all directions from our Hempstead studios,” informs Mullen, a 2012 Hofstra grad and 2019 Hofstra Radio Hall of Fame inductee. “Talk is the most important part of college radio. Every single format on the radio is talk-based. The positioning statement of our longform, morning talk show is ‘Long Island Life – National News, International Issues Through the Minds & Mouths of Hofstra Students.’ I tell students to imagine themselves sitting at Thanksgiving dinner talking about the news of the day to their older relatives. It could be about Long Island, national, or world events.”

Topics for the station’s wakeup program are thoroughly researched and students book/interview relevant speakers. “It’s exactly what you would find on NPR, ‘The Today Show,’ or ‘Good Morning America,’” Mullen assures. “During the day, students can polish their skills in our CHR, alternative, country, and classic rock shows. Our former country show host, Jason Goldstein, is now a producer/on-air talent at [Cumulus Media New York’s WNSH ‘New York’s Country 94.7’]. After graduating from Hofstra, Dennis Foley has had a tremendous career [as news director of Alpha Media San Antonio, which includes news/talk KTSA].”

Meanwhile, Joe Sibilia had a vision to be a morning drive host. He interned for Joe Piscopo’s morning show on Salem Media Group New York news/talk WNYM “AM 970 The Answer” and is now associate producer of “The Rich Zeoli Show” on Entercom Philadelphia’s WPHT “Talk Radio 1210.” According to Mullen, many other students who worked at WRHU have wound up at SiriusXM, WFAN, and Entercom New York City all-news siblings WINS and WCBS-AM. “[In addition to landing jobs as on-air talents], our graduates have become public relations directors and television news staffers.”

Public affairs shows air in a three-hour, WRHU afternoon drive block (3:00 pm – 6:00 pm). “It includes a women’s topics talk show with about 90% of the participants female students,” Mullen points out. “They pick topics that are important for, by, and about women. They might do something regarding women in the workplace or how women overcome adversity. There is a live/local 30-minute newscast, which is modeled after WCBS-AM and WINS. The point is we have talk programming for the community in both morning and afternoon drive. On the weekends, we have very important community programming, including shows broadcast in Italian and Polish. We service the community with ‘appointment listening’ shows that have been on the air for decades. The educational mission is that the students work with the community volunteers.”

Prestigious validation

Syndicated programming, however, is not a focal point for the Hofstra University outlet. “Our students come into WRHU’s living laboratory to create content,” Mullen emphasizes. “We do not want to carry syndicated programming because it would take away landscape on the air that students could develop. We get offers all the time to carry syndicated programming but it’s going to take away the opportunity to grow talent.”

Much like when a school progresses to March Madness’ Final Four or competes in any of college football’s high-profile bowl games, prestige of winning a Marconi award provides a unique recruiting chip.

Thus, scoring this industry nod can be extremely important on multiple levels. “It is the pinnacle of what you can achieve,” Mullen remarks. “It brings prestige to Hofstra University as a whole; to the [Lawrence Herbert] School of Communication; and – of course – to WRHU itself. It helps students when they market themselves for jobs. They can say they were part of a Marconi Award-winning radio station. That gives them credibility, in addition to their other skills and natural abilities. The award gives them a stamp-of-approval. A first-semester freshman can start touching equipment and making content for a Marconi Award-winning radio station. There are benefits at working at our college radio station.”

Fishing lesson

Whereas the years-ago hope was that students aspiring to work at a college radio station would culminate their journey in a daily or weekly show where they could play their favorite music, that’s hardly the situation at WRHU. There’s a lot more involved than running the board. “We have an incredibly extensive ten-week training program,” Mullen explains. “A tremendous amount of depth is taught to the students.”

Notwithstanding that the 2014, 2017, and 2019 Marconi Awards are prominently displayed in the station’s trophy case, WRHU cannot point to any specific ratings triumphs. The elementary reason: It isn’t a Nielsen Audio subscriber. “Our station’s mission is recruitment/retention of students and to make sure they have stellar outcomes,” Mullen accentuates. “To accomplish that, we have a ‘variety’ format. Ratings are never going to be huge for [WRHU], so it doesn’t make sense [for us to be a subscriber]. If the station’s goals were ratings-revenue-profit, we would be one format 24/7. That though is not the goal – we grow talent for the industry. Our biggest push is converged social media/multimedia. The goal is to teach students how to do social media and multimedia spins to their radio show. In the 1990s, we saw Howard Stern make a television show from his radio show – we try to make that same thing happen with WRHU. Talk shows done in our multimedia studio will run on Facebook Live or on Hofstra’s channel 32. When our students wind up working for Entercom, Cox, Emmis, Cumulus, or Salem, they’ll know how to do a multi-platform broadcast.”

Social media, Mullen opines, is simply an extension of what WRHU does. “[Terrestrial radio] is the original online chatroom and the original social media. It teaches students how to entertain, inform, and attract an audience. Radio is the perfect way to teach social media. You put bait on a hook called ‘programming’; attract the ‘fish,’ which is the audience; count the fish; and sell them at market – which is ratings and revenue. [Often times though], the mistake in social media is that people who create the content don’t make a sale, which is a pity.”

Many continue lamenting AM radio’s challenges but Mullen contends, “Every AM talk radio station is a television station. The future of radio – especially AM radio – will be connected to video and converting the assets of talk into multiple platforms. The more I can prepare students to do talk shows where there is a video component, the more it will help today’s owners of AM radio stations. Everything is going to be cross-platform, which is an exciting opportunity. My students can flawlessly execute a television broadcast of a radio show. We are projecting the industry five years ahead [so] our goal is to be sure the skills we are teaching our students can be used five years from now. Our social media strategy is to recruit students and to show employers what our students can do.”

Impactful – even if unsexy

As evidenced by the mammoth size of WRHU’s staff, it would appear that college-age students still love to create radio content. “Radio has a spot in the hearts of today’s students – we have many people who want careers in [this medium],” Mullen confirms. “They have a passion for radio and love listening to it. There are many media choices but radio still has a big impact on young people. Anyone who doesn’t believe that needs to take a look at it. I’m not sure that their listening is being measured but they can tell you the talent on ESPN Radio, WFAN, [iHeartMedia New York CHR WHTZ] ‘Z-100,’ and [Emmis New York rhythmic CHR WQHT] ‘Hot 97.’ Young people use radio every day but I’m not sure it’s something sexy they talk about very often.”

Several WRHU student staff members receive federal work/study money, while a number of others are paid modest part-time salaries from a school-supplied operating budget. “We fundraise, sell underwriting, and we get donations [to keep the station afloat],” Mullen divulges. “People from all walks of life who like the idea of the radio station will write out a check and support it. Some are small business owners and some are parents of students who had phenomenal experiences [working at WRHU]. Richard Philip Cavallaro was a member of our radio station. Contributions from his family [enabled us] to rebuild the station, which is why we broadcast from what we call the ‘Richard Philip Cavallaro Studio.’”

New York City stations sometimes part with equipment and furniture. Given that Mullen has good connections with most of the area stations, he will get contacted when certain items become available. Ten years ago when New York City classical-formatted WQXR was sold by the New York Times Company to New York Public Radio, they needed to get rid of everything. “[As a result], my entire office is full of furniture that came from WQXR,” Mullen quips.

Capitalizing on NEW opportunities

Initiating his radio career in 1981 at high school station WKWZ and later programming WCWP-FM, the college facility at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University, Mullen spent six years at Emmis New York immediately prior to joining WRHU. “When I became program director of [Emmis smooth jazz WQCD] ‘CD 101.9,’ my philosophy was to promote that we were a classy in-office listening alternative. Ratings went up and I looked like a genius. I was playing 300 songs over and over. I knew the recipe to get ratings and revenue.”

Formerly a production intern at Long Island classic rocker WBAB, Mullen worked for Father Bill Ayres, who syndicated “On This Rock” to Chicago’s WCKG and Detroit’s WRIF. “Bill got me an interview at [New York City’s] WNEW AM & FM and I worked as a production intern there under program director Quincy McCoy.”

Becoming a major-market program director was Mullen’s main ambition and his entire internship was “sitting in Quincy’s office where he mentored me one-on-one. He taught me how to write memos, deal with talent, and do budgets. Four times a year, I would do [Arbitron] diary reviews [in Laurel, Maryland]. I learned about perceptual studies and call-out research.”

When WNEW was sold, Mullen heard a rumor about an opening at cross-town hot AC WPLJ. “I talked my way into the job and was essentially the assistant promotion director the year [1991] Scott Shannon returned [to New York as WPLJ’s program director/morning show host from Los Angeles’ KQLZ ‘Pirate Radio’]. From Scott, I learned how to take something and make it bigger-than-life.”

Vigilant in fulfilling dreams

With a year of working at WPLJ under his belt, Mullen then linked up with Emmis’ regional vice president programming & operations at the time, Joel Salkowitz, who brought him to WQHT. “He allowed me to go to call-out and research studies,” Mullen states. “Joel was a big influence and mentor to me. From there, my former boss – Quincy McCoy – hired me at WBLS as research director/assistant program director. I steal my management style from him [so he was] probably my biggest influence. I then worked for Steve Smith [now with Cox Media Group as vice president of programming], who was [a visionary] and the most incredible formatics guy.”

Albeit pleased with his Emmis tenure, Mullen nonetheless concedes, “I knew there had to be something more. I said to myself that I wanted to grow talent. I’d been teaching part-time at a grad program and thought I might want to do that fulltime; Hofstra became a fit. It’s funny that two decades later, the words of my mentors often run through my head.”

Owing to his position with WRHU, Mullen has crossed paths with another person greatly impacting his career – TALKERS founder/publisher Michael Harrison. “WVHC was the station upon which I first cracked the microphone as a talent and I’m proud to be part of a very long list of people who’ve shared that same experience and enjoyed meaningful careers in radio,” enthuses Harrison, who attended Hofstra as an undergraduate in the early-1970s. A charter inductee in the WRHU Hall of Fame, Harrison sits on the dean’s advisory board for Hofstra’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. “I got to work with Michael one-on-one when he brought the TALKERS seminar to Hofstra several years ago,” Mullen notes. “Michael is a huge mentor to me and I’ve learned so much from him.”

Attributing an enormous amount of credit for the station’s success to Avery, Mullen asserts that WRHU’s general manager has “created a merit-based environment. It doesn’t matter what kind of dream a student has. We allowed one student to create a talk show about game shows. Bruce fosters a culture where everyone is included and we are always looking for the next [innovative idea]. He allows me to do my crazy stuff, which is fun. Technically, I’m a fulltime administrator and I teach radio industry media management, but I get to mentor students one-on-one and grow their careers. There is nothing more fulfilling in life than watching a student grow and get fabulous career opportunities – I just love it.”

Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com

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