College Students Hit the Airwaves at WFDU
By Kenna Caprio
Photos by Matt Furman
The small studio used to be the record library. Cassettes and records still line some of the walls, forming a backdrop to the computers, electronics, mixing boards and microphones that crowd the HD3 studio — where the student voice of WFDU, one of the station’s three digital channels, flourishes.
“WFDU is a special kind of college radio station. Not many other universities can say that they have a station with the power we have,” says Kenny O’Boyle, BA’10, MA’11 (Metro), general manager of WFDU. “We have a tremendous signal, we’re in the number-one market in the world, and we run our radio station in a professional manner that’s comparable to commercial radio stations up the dial in New York City and other markets. As a student coming into our building, you’re going to get experience that you’re not going to get at your everyday college radio station.”
Just about two years ago, the station underwent a growth spurt when Ian Ranzer, an adjunct professor; Duff Sheffield, BA’74 (Metro), former general manager; and O’Boyle revitalized the radio production courses. The influx of student workers and DJs since has pumped up the station.
“It’s really important that the students have a say in what represents the University, and music is the universal language that enables us to do just that. It’s a great connector among students,” says Ranzer, faculty adviser for the student station.
“You don’t have to listen to radio live anymore. Just like we don’t have to watch TV live. All our shows are automatically recorded and go to our streaming sites. It’s all available to you.” — Ian Ranzer, WFDU-HD3 faculty adviser
“I want them to tap into diverse programming and want them to feel like the station is a place where they can feel comfortable being who they are, personally and musically.”
A format change in 2016 brought RetroRadio to the WFDU fold — with classic songs from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s on WFDU-FM (89.1) and HD1. On the HD2 channel, listeners will find eclectic sounds, and HD3 is the student voice of the University.
The station, founded in 1971, has been a hub for music junkies and radio devotees ever since and attracts volunteers from outside the University and students alike.
“What goes on in a radio station is fascinating,” says junior communication major James Laughlin, host of “The Hard Rock Dungeon with Jim Grimm” and HD3 program director. “You take it for granted as a listener that hosts play music and talk. But there’s so much more happening behind the scenes.”
A lot happens in the cozy HD3 studio — hosts need to be prepared for anything. In the introductory class, Radio Broadcast Workshop, students discover how to work the microphone and run the control board and how to develop a distinct voice and style.
“In the beginning, I was afraid of all the buttons and lights, but after a while it got easier,” says Naniyah McClain, a sophomore communication major and host of “Nee Nee’s Soul Show.”
With faders, equalizers and levels to alter tone and volume, knowing how to manipulate the board correctly is a particular art.
“It is a little intimidating at first,” agrees Laughlin. “The whole board is foreign, with a dozen different buttons and sliders that all do different things. But you get used to it and become more comfortable.”
Ultimately, doing the job well comes down to multitasking.
Radio Broadcast Workshop (RDIO 2557–21) typically attracts communication students, but anyone can take it as an elective. No experience necessary, says Ranzer. Over the course of 15 weeks, students shadow a WFDU host to learn the ins and outs of doing a show. Often they man the phones — a lot of listener requests come into RetroRadio — and play the role of producer or co-host.
Once they’re trained on the technical aspects of the job, mainly the microphone and mixing board, and write a show proposal, they’re off. By the end of the semester, they’ve hosted 10–12 one-hour shows on their own.
“Most other shows on HD3 are very hype, but my show is very calm and peaceful,” says McClain. “I’m open to the music and connecting with student listeners.”
A lot happens in the studio — students discover how to work the microphone and run the control board, how to develop a distinct voice and style.
People can find everything on HD3, from pop to soul, alternative to hard rock, chillhop to indie, hip-hop to Latin.
For DJs, “the combination of enthusiasm and preparedness is very important,” says Ranzer. “They’re expected to go back and listen to themselves and figure out ways to improve. And to listen to each other and figure out ways to improve.”
He and O’Boyle are also always listening, scouting the talent and making recommendations. “A good host can make listeners feel, even if they are broadcasting to thousands of other listeners out there, that they’re playing only for you,” says Ranzer.
Both are willing to teach more lessons in production and engineering to anyone who asks. They’ll review résumés and reach out to connections, all in an effort to benefit the radio students.
Beyond putting together a cohesive playlist and figuring out the right balance of playing music and talking to listeners, students also need to factor in time to play bumpers and sweepers (segues), jingles, station IDs and public service announcements (PSAs) on their shows. “They have to hit their top-of-the-hour IDs, they have to take breaks at 20 minutes past the hour and 50 minutes past the hour, they have to read a PSA, and they have to play a promo,” says O’Boyle. It’s important that student hosts follow a structure and include these essential program elements. Every bumper, ID, promo, jingle and PSA is recorded in-house — something else they learn how to do.
Having that technical knowledge base can be particularly attractive to future employers. Briana Hernandez, BA’18 (Metro), attributes part of her early career success at Sirius XM to having had a well-rounded experience at WFDU. She learned how to fade audio, present herself on-air, follow FCC guidelines, write copy and edit audio at HD3, all skills she uses now.
As coordinator for the Sirius XM Latin channels, Viva and Caliente, and the hip-hop station, Hip-Hop Nation, she operates the boards during interviews, keeps hosts on schedule, prepares topics for interviews and edits interviews and master audio.
“Editing and making transitions more concise is a big part of what I do now,” says Hernandez. “I also write a lot of copy for the promos we play on our station,” something she did at WFDU, too. “It’s very fast-paced, and no day is the same. You’re constantly meeting new people all the time. It was such a benefit to have that prior experience.”
The Student Radio Practicum, the advanced class usually taken by students planning to continue on in the broadcasting field, takes more of an internship approach. These students form the senior staff of HD3 and often have the responsibility of training new students on the equipment. Each has a role: program director, Instagram manager, on-campus promotional coordinator or website administrator.
All the while, they hone their voices and continue hosting their own shows.
“At the end of the day, the connection DJs have with their audience plays a role in their success and longevity,” says Moufatih Muhammad, BA’19 (Metro), who goes by the moniker Mistah Shofi on air. He has shows on both HD1 and HD3, starting back when he was still a student, a rarity. “Combine that with your content and music knowledge, and you can go pretty far.”
When a show comes together well, the goal for all WFDU hosts, “it seems very spontaneous,” says O’Boyle. “But that’s the art of good radio. It’s supposed to sound spontaneous. It’s supposed to sound easy. It’s about you and that microphone, and the fact that people are actually listening.”
“At the end of the day, the connection DJs have with their audience plays a role in their success and longevity.” — Moufatih Muhammad, BA’19 (Metro)
Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2020 edition of FDU Magazine.