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Making big waves in radio: Fredonia Radio Systems crowned top collegiate station in U.S.

Noah Maciejewski, a junior Audio/Radio Production and Video Production major, is razor-focused on a radio career as an on-air personality or in management. He won the Best On-Air Personality trophy for his weekly WDVL show, which features Top 40 music sprinkled with news about artists, celebrity gossip, concert announcements and campus news.


In the vast college radio universe, Fredonia Radio Systems is a relatively small player, a low-power outlet run entirely by students. But that doesn’t mean SUNY’s oldest radio station can’t compete at the national level with larger, well-heeled collegiate broadcasters.

And be recognized, no less, as the “Best College Station in the Nation” in 2017.

Fredonia Radio Systems (FRS) won the coveted Abraham & Borst Award at the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System’s (IBS) 77th annual conference this past spring in New York City. Comprised of WDVL 89.5 and WCVF 88.9 FM, FRS went head-to-head with over 700 college and university radio stations of all sizes and came out on top based on quality of programming, service to the community, overall sound of the station, station management and operation and other criteria.

“The atmosphere in the station has pride written all over it. It’s a great feeling to finally be recognized for all of the hard work we put into this station and we can’t help but to take that in,” beamed General Manager Rebecca “Becca” D’Hilly near the end of the spring semester. “I don’t think anyone’s stopped smiling since we got back from New York City.” 

WDVL, “Fredonia’s Hit Radio Station,” plays Top 40 music exclusively through the Internet, while sister station WCVF, “The Campus and Community Voice of Fredonia,” offers varied programming heard throughout much of Chautauqua County. Both stations can be accessed on the Internet and iTunes Radio.

Just moments before winning the overall award, FRS was recognized as the “Best College Radio Station (Under 10,000 Students).” Guess there’s no better warm-up to the ultimate prize.

Ms. D’Hilly was guardedly optimistic that FRS—already flush with a stable of individual trophy winners and the under 10,000 enrollment prize—was well-positioned to be given the very highest honor among stations likewise stocked with multiple student winners.

“I experienced everything from disbelief to unbelievable joy, and it wasn’t until I called Dr. Laura Johnson, our faculty adviser, that the tears started streaming down my eyes,” the graduating senior Communication/Public Relations major from West Seneca recalled.

There was a lot of hardware to cart back to McEwen Hall. Noah Maciejewski won a pair of awards: Best On-Air Personality for his weekly program, “Noah On-Air,” and Best Use of Twitter for “@Noah_onAir.” Dan Salazar won Best Promotion Poster for his “80s Euphoria” poster. Alex Behrens won Best Use of Graphics in a Video for “Rockin’ the Commons.” The trio of Matt Pantano, Jaret Belschwinder and Jay Wilkie shared Best Hockey Play-by-Play honors.

Like the classic David vs. Goliath story, FRS was up against radio stations endowed with large staffs and deep pockets. “When you have a small, low-power station at a smaller school, you don’t think of yourself as possibly competing with major universities,” admitted Dr. Johnson, a faculty member of the Department of Communication.

But FRS did just that, and Johnson was, without a doubt, “utterly amazed and unbelievably proud of them.”

These staffers, described by Johnson as “a very hardworking cooperative,” submitted more than 100 entries in various contest categories. “At last count it was 104 entries, and they sent more in after the deadline, and I think the judges were impressed, “Johnson exclaimed. “I have to give credit to Becky D’Hilly; she is a natural leader and a wonderful team builder. Her sister, Sarah, was GM a few years ago, so there is sort of that family thing going on.”

Also named finalists were: Mr. Maciejewski, Best Celebrity Interviewer, for “Damn Daniel Interview;” Kris Harris, Best Radio Drama, “Mousepolcalypse;” Aidan Licker and Lexi Reyngoudt, Best Show Promotion, “Local Lo-down Static Promo;” Maddy Eberhardt and Maciejewski, Best Public Service, “Back to School Safety,” and Harper Fischer, Best Logo, “Fredonia Radio Systems Logo.” 

What sets FRS apart from most college stations is the operational model Communication Professor Emeritus Dan Berggren developed early in his long station adviser tenure. “The ‘Fredonia’ model for a ‘college radio station’ gives freedom and responsibility to the students, allowing them to learn from decisions that are based in the ‘real world’ of broadcasting. It is a model that is not allowed at most colleges and universities,” Johnson explained.

In fact, it was Mr. Berggren’s unique model that attracted Johnson to Fredonia. “WCVF and WDVL are a living laboratory where students learn about the business of running radio stations and how to work creatively and productively in a professional environment,” Johnson said. College administrations typically place paid personnel at some level above students.

The model has thrived at Fredonia because students are respectful of the responsibility that the administration has allowed them and they work very hard at their positions, Johnson added. They’re guided by their heritage, their adviser, other faculty and staff, and very supportive alumni.

Longtime Communication Professor Ted Schwalbe commends Berggren for creating an atmosphere and culture of professionalism which students have maintained and passed on to others. “It wasn’t just a college station to them; it was an FCC-licensed broadcast station with responsibilities to the community and the students always took that very seriously,” Dr. Schwalbe said.

Berggren picked up the baton from Dr. John Malcolm, the Department of Communication’s founding father. He had worked at WCVF as a student in the 1950s, joined the faculty in 1963 and was instrumental in nurturing the radio station’s growth in its “carrier current” era.

D’Hilly says Johnson watches over the operation and gives advice from her experiences that the staff is “unbelievably grateful” to receive. “She is the reason we have been able to grow and thrive as a station. Without the opportunities she has given us, we would have not been able to push ourselves this far to be the best we can be, which is apparently the Best Station in the Nation,” D’Hilly said.

There’s a strong connection between FRS and the Department of Communication, and a majority of its members are majors in the communication field, but nearly all academic concentrations are represented in the 174-student staff. Membership is open to all.

FRS also serves as a broadcast outlet for students enrolled in COMM 451, Audio Documentaries/Soundscapes, a senior capstone class for Audio/Radio Production majors. Each student has had his/her work broadcast on “High Noon Friday,” WCVF’s hour-long public affairs program.

The IBS conference, attended annually by FRS, delivers a comprehensive examination of the industry, with breakout sessions focused on programming, on-air content, budgeting, equipment and engineering, fundraising, management and public relations. Takeaways from this year’s event also included branding, ways to expand awareness of the station on campus and surrounding areas, and increasing student involvement. Students also toured several New York stations and explored the city.

“Overall, I think we took home inspiration to try new things and the motivation to do so,” D’Hilly said.

“I’ve been to the conference twice in my time at Fredonia Radio Systems and to this day my favorite session was ‘Women in Media.’ It was very empowering and different than any other session they had that weekend,” D’Hilly noted.

Humble beginnings in Old Main

FRS traces its roots to 1948 as a radio club that met on the third floor of Old Main, the Fredonia Normal School academic building on Temple Street, and produced programs that were broadcast on WDOE-AM, Dunkirk. The group moved to the new campus and WCVF-AM was formed. A transmitter located in the basement of each residence hall made it possible for the electrical system to carry the station’s signal to any radio that was plugged into an electrical outlet. Once an extension of the Department of English and Drama, WCVF-AM became entirely student-run in 1966.

As Fredonia’s modern campus grew, the station was shuttled among buildings, including the second-floor of Fenton Hall, basement of Jewett Hall, the press box in the Dods Hall gymnasium and in Gregory Hall, before the second floor of McEwen Hall became its permanent home.

WCVF-FM 88.9 was born Sept. 25, 1978, initially with 10 watts of broadcast power. Now at 150 watts, it has a potential audience of 40,000 people in Northern Chautauqua County. WCVF-600 AM switched to WDVL Cable 89.5, and the two stations became Fredonia Radio Systems.

Low power doesn’t mean you’re off the radar

Back in 2011, Fredonia Radio Systems had top billing over stations at several highly regarded universities in a lengthy New York Times article, “College Radio Heads: Off the Dial,” that examined how college stations around the country were transforming themselves into multimedia platforms to remain relevant to tech-savvy students. The reporter wound up spending an entire day at FRS, Johnson recalled, and Jud Heussler, FRS’s general manager at the time, was quoted early, often and quite extensively.

In fact, the story began by conveying what takes place inside a FRS broadcast booth, as Mr. Heussler presides over the hour-long comedy show “The Morning Inferno” and gives a heads-up to listeners for what he’d soon be throwing up on the show’s Facebook page. Input from program directors Izzy Jay (WCVF) and Rob Neves (WDVL) also ran in the story.

Johnson attributes Fredonia’s dominant presence in the 

Times’ dissertation, in part, to Heussler’s engaging personality.

“I remember that the reporter found herself laughing at Jud’s jokes while he was on the air and she told him that he was truly funny. I think his leadership led to an outstanding result for the station. We were fortunate to be mentioned in that article, as a small, low-power station.”

Radio stations at Yale, Vanderbilt, Brown, Cornell, DePaul, Drexel and Princeton were also represented in the article.

The best yet to be heard

So will FRS staffers start to relax on their laurels? Not a chance, D’Hilly insists.

“I think our standards for everything are a little bit higher now, which is a good thing! We want to continue this growth and success of the station so we are all taking on our projects with a little more creativity and innovation. People are thinking outside the box and taking the risks that you should be taking at a college radio station, when it’s fun and experimental.”    

Groundwork for today’s accolades was set by generations of students who nurtured FRS. Many former staffers have pursued successful careers in the industry and more than 50 IBS trophies have been awarded to students over the years.

“It’s all the little details that laid the foundation for something like this to happen—for FRS to be recognized as best college station,” Berggren said. “It took years and years of dedicated students creating, revising and implementing unglamorous but necessary documents like station constitution, policies and standard operating procedures. This provides the system in which members can be creative, and the reminder to always serve listeners. The challenge is accomplishing this with forward momentum as each year new staff members join and others graduate and leave.”

What can college radio do best?

“It can be part of the liberal arts concept where learning never stops, where diversity is celebrated, and where your education doesn’t teach you all the answers, or make you think you have all the answers, but teaches you to ask the right questions,” Berggren said.

FRS staffers are also working on a documentary to commemorate the approaching 40th anniversary of WCVF-FM.

“That will be a big day,” Johnson promised.


posted @ Friday, September 15, 2017 1:44 PM by Jonathan Woolson

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