January 19, 2013
No two radio station tours are alike. More often than not I'm solo, trekking into hidden corners of campuses from early in the morning to late at night. Occasionally family, friends or radio colleagues will join me, sometimes tag teaming with me as I interview station personnel. My visit to Fordham University's music-focused NPR-affiliated public radio station WFUV on March 28 exists in a category unto itself, as the tour was arranged by the Dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill, who happens to be my husband's sister. Relatively new to Fordham, Dean Maura Mast had yet to tour WFUV, so my visit provided the perfect excuse to arrange an official visit.
After arriving at the Bronx, New York campus, my husband, daughter and I first met up with Dean Mast in her office. Soon after, we were joined by one of WFUV's many student staffers, Mary Munshower, who filled me in on the role of students at the radio station. WFUV actually drew her to Fordham University, as she wanted to take advantage of the hands-on learning opportunities that the station provides. Just wrapping up her junior year at the time of our spring visit, Munshower is a musician with dreams of working in the music industry.
At WFUV, Munshower started out as an intern and is now a paid video engineer, filming live sessions at the station and at various off-site concerts. With a strong emphasis on music, WFUV has musicians playing at the station at least once a day, with each session getting filmed and recorded. Footage is meticulously edited and then shared with WFUV listeners on both the station's website and on the public radio digital music site VuHaus.
It was nice to get Munshower's take on the station before my official tour, as it helped to shatter some of my assumptions about the role of students at university-based public radio stations. I later learned that around 80 students work at WFUV, a staggering number for a station not run by students.
My public radio visits have been limited (tour #22 to KZYX, tour #45 to KALW, tour #67 to NPR headquarters, and tour #70 to KEXP) and this was actually my first trip to see a college-based public radio station. My impression is that most public radio stations are professionally-run with limited opportunities for students, except for a few internships here and there. WFUV intentionally breaks from that mold, with student participation critical to not only keeping the station running from day to day, but also to staying on top of the latest in technology.
When we made our way to see WFUV's basement home (our group was an entourage of five, including my family, Munshower and Dean Mast), General Manager Chuck Singleton confirmed that WFUV's situation is "unique," telling me that it's unusual for a professionally-run station to have a large student staff.
With a history stretching back to 1947 (yes, it turns 70 this year!), WFUV began as a part of the school's communications department and initially served as a learning lab. Singleton said that by the late 1960s, it was broadcasting at 50,000 watts. Then part of the Student Affairs division, WFUV was run by students.
Regular rock music shows began at WFUV in 1970, which was not common for the era according to Singleton. He recounted that in the ensuing years, WFUV's mix of shows were hosted by students, alumni and community members, forming a "crazy quilt of specialty shows" ranging from classical to rock, Latin music, Italian pop, Christian music and more.
Singleton went on to explain that after WFUV's second full time General Manager retired in the mid-1980s, the university decided that it wanted to increase the public service and community impact of the radio station. Part of that mandate included reaching a more substantial audience while at the same time preserving the student training component. To help reach those goals, by the late 1980s, WFUV had become a public radio station. Today, it has a full time staff of 30, a part time staff of 15, and between 70 and 85 student workers. In 2017, students are working mostly behind the scenes, mainly in news, sports and engineering/production.
As far as programming, WFUV's emphasis is on "music discovery," with a particular focus on "adult album alternative music." The weekday schedule is made up of WFUV-hosted music shows along with the syndicated "World Cafe" (2am to 4am). Weekends feature more of a mix, including some specialty music shows (ranging from folk music to music from the 1920s and 1930s), talk shows, public affairs programming, and Catholic Mass on Sundays.
One long-running show, "Ceol na nGael," (Music of the Irish) was launched by Fordham students in 1974 and continues to be hosted by students every Sunday from noon to 4pm. In addition to airing Irish music, the program features news and sports updates from Ireland and a community bulletin board.
WFUV also has a number of show hosts who've been connected with the station for many years. During my visit, I met Darren DeVivo, who began DJing at WFUV when he was a freshman at Fordham in 1983 and "basically never left." Another long timer, DJ Paul Cavalconte, got his start at WFUV more than thirty years ago and after stints in commercial and satellite radio he returned to the station as a guest host in 2013.
Today, WFUV occupies spacious digs in the basement of Keating Hall at Fordham. Way back in the 1940s, the station started out on the 3rd floor of its building, moving down to the basement in 2005. Singleton happily shared some lore about the location, telling us that the 1929 building was featured in a "WPA Guide to New York" for its "collegiate gothic architecture."
The basement used to house a cafeteria, which moved out in the 1960s, creating a "creepy fallow space" with secret tunnels leading to a hospital morgue, according to Singleton. Adding to the mystique, a scene from the Exorcist was filmed across the hall. Post-renovation, the basement is bright and delightful, housing not only WFUV, but also the department of Visual Studies.
While making our way through the station, we saw staff offices with whimsical decor (including vintage records and audio equipment), a working news room, an air staff room, studios (including Studio A, where bands perform live), a video production work room, conference room, and a music library. Walls were dotted with awards, gold records, and displays of past CD compilations put together by WFUV, making for a lively and colorful environment at the radio station.
Thanks so much to my sister-in-law Maura Mast for arranging the visit to WFUV and to Chuck Singleton for taking the time to chat with us while leading us on a station tour. I'm also very thankful to Mary Munshower for sharing her added insights about WFUV and for leading my family on a bonus campus tour.
This is my 139th radio station field trip report, which means I'm nearly caught up on my recent visits, with just two more remaining from my New York and California travels. My most recent field trips can be found on Radio Survivor and a full list of all my station tour reports is compiled on Spinning Indie.
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