Syracuse University Magazine

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An early logo for the station is set against a photo of the original hand-built antenna atop Day Hall. 



WJPZ Radio

‘Greatest Media Classroom’ documents 40 years of student-run station’s history

By Amy Speach

As might be expected of a lively group of communications professionals who are jazzed up about radio, the alumni of WJPZ (Z89) have lots of colorful ways of talking about the student-run station that rocked their SU experience and top-40’ed their careers. Some describe the station as remarkable, legendary, and audacious. Others say it provides a sanctuary in an often hypercompetitive media world. Many remember it as the first time they found other people like themselves; the first place they felt like they belonged. And without exception, they speak of each other as valued colleagues and lifelong friends—as family. Above all, generations of WJPZ alumni express gratitude for what they consider the most comprehensive media classroom they’ve ever encountered. “People who have been or are members of WJPZ will tell you it is a life-changing experience,” says Scott MacFarlane ’98, who was a disc jockey and station news director during his years as a Newhouse student. “And that’s a strange thing to say about a radio station that’s in a small studio on a college campus. You know from the second you walk in that there is something distinctive about it. There’s a culture and energy and passion that the people have and the station fosters. It’s not just a student activity—it’s a joy.”

Now an investigative television reporter at an NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., MacFarlane recently had the pleasure of helping share and celebrate WJPZ’s legendary story as producer of Greatest Media Classroom, a documentary film chronicling the station’s history. Initiated and funded by the WJPZ Alumni Association to commemorate the station’s 40th anniversary, the project documents WJPZ’s growth, challenges, and achievements from its founding in 1973 to its recent studio expansion in Watson Hall. The film, edited by Oklahoma-based SVP Media, includes audio clips, photos, and mementos depicting the station through four decades, as well as commentary and reminisces by WJPZ alumni, so many of whom have gone on to become communications industry leaders. Also featured is footage of the station’s dynamic sports coverage and news programming, as well as video clips of campus life through the years. “What drove the documentary was the remarkable story about WJPZ’s origins and key moments along the way,” says MacFarlane, who spent two years researching, writing, editing, and producing the 30-minute film. “We got a lot of help from our alumni who foraged through their documents and photos—and from the resources in SU Archives—helping us piece together the station’s history.”

Among the film’s highlights is the story of WJPZ’s humble beginnings. Co-founded by Craig Fox ’75 and Bill Bleyle ’76 with “begged and borrowed” equipment, a hand-built antenna atop Day Hall, and a radio signal less powerful than a light bulb, WJPZ AM came into the world as a nonstop-rock commercial radio station—“serving the universe from the top, top, top of Mount Olympus,” according to one of the documentary’s audio clips. “There was a desire among us to create a real-world experience for students,” says Bleyle, now Onondaga County commissioner of emergency communications. “With Syracuse University having one of the premier communications schools and a lot of people training to go into the commercial world, we really saw a need to have an experience that reflected the mainstream of radio broadcasting at the time.”

The station’s founders called on Newhouse professor Roosevelt “Rick” Wright Jr. G’93 to serve as faculty advisor and mentor of the student-run enterprise, a role he held for most of the station’s 40 years, earning him the affection and gratitude of generations of alumni and a place of honor among the inaugural members of the WJPZ Hall of Fame. “If there is any glue that held this whole thing together over the years, it wasn’t just the belief of students wanting to make this a real-life working experience, but also Rick Wright, who knew the business and carried a lot of excitement with him,” Bleyle says. “The world we were trying to emulate—cutting-edge, commercial, and competitive—that was his world.”

Other milestones portrayed in the documentary include the station’s historic move to the FM dial in 1985—the first student-owned and -operated station to be granted a license by the FCC—and its comprehensive coverage of the December 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. One of the film’s most poignant moments features a sound clip of then general manager Scott Meach ’90 signing off the air temporarily to mark, with silence, the day’s solemnity. “Pan Am 103 was obviously a life-changing moment, and we all knew that immediately,” says Meach, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based SecondTicket, a sports and entertainment ticket marketplace, and former WJPZ Alumni Association president. “But there were a lot of individuals at the station who rose above the fear and the pure emotion and acted so professionally to help communicate information to people on campus. We became a call center with live DJs in the studio 24/7 to serve that immediate need for news in a way that wasn’t easy to do back then. We basically became a real-life Twitter.”

Throughout the station’s history, financial difficulties often arose, sometimes threatening to put a stop to the whole enterprise. But a period of astonishing prosperity in the early ’90s stands in shining contrast to those ongoing challenges. “We were a bunch of kids just trying to learn to do this for real, but we were a force to be reckoned with,” says WJPZ alumnus Matt Friedman ’94, a partner with Tanner Friedman Communications in Detroit. “We competed in the Central New York market in every way that a radio station could. We were breaking news stories, getting new music on the air first, and doing promotions that professional stations emulated—giving away cars and vacation packages. We had more than 10 percent of the audience listening to us at certain times of the day. And at the time, we were 100 percent supported by sponsorship, so we were also competitive in that way.”

Friedman hopes alumni of all interests will check out the film, which premiered in Syracuse on March 1 in conjunction with the WJPZ Alumni Association’s 29th reunion banquet and fifth hall of fame induction ceremony. “It will give everyone the opportunity to learn about something excellent at Syracuse that they probably didn’t know about before,” he says. “And I think the success of our radio station can be a real point of pride for all SU alumni.”



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Members of the WJPZ Alumni Association came together in March for their 29th reunion banquet and fifth hall of fame induction ceremony, and for the premiere screening of Greatest Media Classroom.



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