In this week’s issue… Cornell’s WVBR dedicates new studios – Salk out at WEEI – Noncomm group challenges MA station to share time – New Upper Valley AAA – Frequency change in NYC?
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*It’s easy to be down on radio these days. Voicetracking here, layoffs there, competition from streaming audio all over the place. There are entire trade newsletters, it seems, devoting themselves to doom-and-gloom pronouncements about the death of the medium we all love (or at least once loved.)
This week, at least, this trade publication isn’t one of those. It’s not just that a story about a radio station is the top trending item on all of Facebook as we write this on Sunday night. (That would be Univision’s KVVF/KVVZ in San Jose, where a simple stunt that’s looping Nelly’s “Hot in Herre” has the whole Bay Area chattering; more on that over at RadioInsight if you’re interested.)
What has us especially excited at the moment, though, is the time we spent over the weekend at WVBR (93.5), the commercial rock station in Ithaca, NEW YORK that’s run by Cornell University students and owned by the nonprofit Cornell Media Guild.
For 14 years now, ever since its longtime home on Linden Avenue in the Collegetown neighborhood was condemned by the city, WVBR has been squatting in “temporary” quarters lovingly known as the “Cow Palace,” sharing a cramped office building with the New York Holstein Association. Not only were those Mitchell Street digs too small and poorly laid out (business office and air studio upstairs, production room and record library down a steep flight of stairs in the basement), they were also in a semi-rural area a couple of miles away from a campus where few students own a car. Ever-creative, the WVBR business office worked out a trade with a local taxi company to haul student DJs back and forth from campus, but the Cow Palace just wasn’t a space amenable to the usual camaraderie of college radio, even so.
But here’s the thing about the Cornell Radio Guild: its board is made up of alumni, and because Cornell’s not really a broadcasting school (that would be crosstown Ithaca College), many of its alumni have a way of going into better-paying fields than radio. (Many of WVBR’s alumni do make it into broadcasting, too, in fairness, with a particular geographic clustering in and around New York City.) So when some of those alumni started working with WVBR’s current students on a capital campaign to move the station back to Collegetown, the results were little short of spectacular.
Some of the credit, of course, belongs to one particular WVBR alumnus who both went into radio (and then TV) and actually made it big. That would be Keith Olbermann ’79, who came through with the big check that bought a former campus ministry building, an old house at the edge of Collegetown that was formally dedicated Saturday as the “Olbermann-Corneliess Studio.”
We’ll feature the entire facility soon in a Site of the Week segment, but suffice it to say it’s a mammoth improvement over the old Cow Palace. Six studios, including a big new air studio and several production rooms, are outfitted with state-of-the-art Axia digital consoles and networking. There’s a big lounge area upstairs, doubling as a record library and newsroom, and it connects to a new studio for the “CornellRadio.com” freeform stream on one side and a production area on the other. Back downstairs, the huge two-story room that might once have been a chapel is now “Studio A,” lined with WVBR’s vinyl collection on two sides and a production area on the third that can control live performances or meetings in this space.
On Friday, WVBR’s engineering team (including student chief engineer Kevin Boyle and contract engineer Mark Humphrey) worked up to the last minute to get the new studio ready for the handoff from Mitchell Street. It was a group of alumni who got the honor of playing the first song from the new digs, and their pick was perfect: CSNY’s “Our House,” followed by a student selection, Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” picked by incoming WVBR GM Matt Harkins)
Saturday morning brought the start of WVBR’s annual symposium, connecting current students with alumni who can talk about the state of the industry today. (How many college stations do something like that – and how many of them should?) And then, at noontime, everyone gathered at the new building for the big event. Studio A was lined wall-to-wall with alumni, current students and Cornell VIPs, while an even bigger crowd listened from adjoining rooms and just outside on the pleasant shaded porch that looks out on Collegetown’s brick-paved streets. Amidst a group that included such well-known WVBR alumni as CNBC radio anchor Peter Schacknow (the chair of the capital campaign) and his wife Peri, as well as Coleman Insights head Warren Kurtzman and other alumni going right back to the start of WVBR on FM in 1958, about the only prominent name missing was Olbermann himself. A bad case of shingles forced him to stay home in New York and appear by telephone at the opening ceremony for the new studios. (“All these years later and I’m still doing phoners for ‘VBR,” Olbermann cracked as Schacknow put his phone call on the speakers in the room.)
It was an emotional ceremony, in no small part because the new building’s namesakes weren’t able to be there. The “Olbermann” in the name isn’t Keith but his father, Ted, who died in 2010; the “Corneliess” is Keith’s classmate Glenn Corneliess, who was WVBR’s program director in the late 1970s when it rounded the corner from progressive freeform to album rock and who died in 1996 at age 39, leaving three young children. Two of them were on hand for the ceremony, as was Corneliess’ widow, Kathy, who spoke of her husband’s passionate love of radio from childhood. By phone, Olbermann shared more stories of Corneliess and of his father; he also explained that the order of the names has less to do with ego and more to do with his desire to ensure “that nobody ever thinks there was once a man named Corneliess Olbermann.”
(Watch a video of Olbermann’s address to the crowd, below)
As of Sunday, the capital campaign still had some work to do: of a $935,000 goal, it’s raised just under $687,000 from 273 donors. But the takeaway here is less about money than about enthusiasm: for all the passion WVBR’s alumni brought to bear on the project (including many who returned to do “alumni takeover” shows on the 93.5 airwaves while in town), the people who made all the work happen locally were current WVBR students.
It’s a pleasure, then, to be able to report that today’s WVBR student staff and management, led by president Drew Endick ’14, is every bit as enthusiastic about good old college radio as so many of us were decades ago. True, the former “Cornell Radio Guild” has morphed into today’s “Cornell Media Guild,” charged not only with broadcasting but with streaming, podcasting and producing video – but the impressive crew of neatly-dressed students who guided visitors around their new digs at 604 East Buffalo Street had no lack of enthusiasm for the continued potential of the radio medium.
Here’s hoping they’re not alone, and that they have many good years ahead in their new digs. (And, perhaps, that you can now start your week just a little more upbeat about the future of radio!)
*Back to the world of big-ticket radio: In New York City, Ebro Darden is just two weeks away from reality-TV stardom, with the debut of VH1’s new show about his station, WQHT (Hot 97). But with all his responsibilities as morning host at the Emmis station, Darden is giving up his duties as PD. That means a search is underway for that prominent post. Whoever gets the job will be working with Hot’s new management team, led by former YMF market chief Deon Levingston, who’s now overseeing the merged Emmis/YMF cluster in New York.
Who’s overseeing WBAI (99.5) parent Pacifica? Not Summer Reese – after five troubled months at the helm of the national Pacifica Foundation, Reese was ousted last week by board members amidst the usual internal squabbles that have become, sadly, entirely par for the course at Pacifica. Reese’s dismissal as executive director came in a conference call, with no indication of what will become of the three-year contract she signed in November or the more than $300,000 she’s apparently still owed. Locally in New York, WBAI says it’s now fulfilled its commitment to make severance payments to the 19 employees who were let go as the station tried to balance its books last year.
Reese’s ouster isn’t going to help Pacifica make its case for the kind of funding it needs (from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and elsewhere) to stabilize not only WBAI but also Washington’s WPFW and Los Angeles’ KPFK. Reese, for her part, tells the Times, “A unique, progressive and radical outlet for information is being undermined and damaged by people who are making decisions for its destruction without any legitimate reason or stated purpose,” which sounds like a decent one-sentence summary of the last couple of decades at WBAI and Pacifica at this point.
*After vacating its expensive rented studio space on Wall Street last year, WBAI took up temporary residence way uptown at City College of New York in Harlem, borrowing studios from WHCR (90.3). That little station may soon be on the move itself, if it gets its way – not physically, but a few notches up the dial. After squeezing its way on to the dial in the early 1980s as one of the last new class D signals ever licensed, WHCR has been beset by incoming interference from other co-channel stations, most notably WHPC (90.3 Garden City) from Nassau Community College.