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After a 46-year absence, I'm Still at Home on Bona Radio

Stephen Cocca works the board during his weekly WSBU radio program. Credits: David Andoh
Stephen Cocca checks a recording during his days behind the mike at WOFM, the predecessor to WSBU.

A timeworn idiom asserts that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.  As a retired guy, floating around in my mid-sixties, I easily qualify as an “old dog.” But since September I’ve been doing a weekly radio show on St. Bonaventure University’s radio station, WSBU FM, 88.3, the Buzz, and I’m thinking that perhaps that old negative phrase can be turned into a positive one.

Returning to the air and “working the board” after a 46-year absence has been a real blast. I’m truly thankful to have the chance to do a show again after all these years. I loved nothing more all those years ago when I spun those beautiful 33 1/3 RPM vinyl discs on the turntables during my two hour shift every Thursday night from 7-9 PM as a DJ and program director of what was then called WOFM. It’s the same feeling today; with the only difference being that the 33 R.P.M.’s are gone, replaced by CD’s and a continuous on-air computer program I lovingly call “HAL” after the character created in the movie by Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I still feel at home, but the surroundings sure have changed.

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The live broadcast studio has done a flip-flop. Previously it was located in a dedicated glassed-in room where the three “news” microphones are now situated. In that space were two turntables and a massive cassette tower to the left of the control console. To the right of the on-air personality’s chair was a rack holding stacks of 30 and 60 second cassettes. These recorded tapes contained the commercials from our local business sponsors as well as our selection of public service announcements. In the present day configuration, the board is now positioned in what was then a separate glassed-in studio, reserved primarily for newscasts.

A running log directed the on-air personality to plug the cassettes into the tower and play the spots at the scheduled time.  

I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed when presented with the task of operating the board by myself back in September. To me it looked more like a mixing booth at a concert venue than the old control board that I can remember working. After all, this new one had many sliding levers where the old one simply had two large knobs that you just had to turn right and left to mix pre-recorded sources and the live microphone. In July of 2014, when doing the first of several guest spots on his weekly WSBU show, Jandoli School of Communications Professor Rich Lee (’75) handled all the production tasks at the board while I just simply spoke into one of the three microphones when directed. I was so relieved that he was performing this task after first seeing the present-day board during those wonderful experiences.

A black and white photo, presently on display near the front door of the station, shows how the old control board was set up in those days. When compared to today’s studio lay-out, it resembles equipment that could have been used by early Neanderthal hunter-gatherers to report the location of the nearest Woolly Mammoth herd rather than a control center of a modern day radio station.

But I have prevailed over the fear of learning something new, just as I did so many years ago when I first trained to operate that old board. Like then, the “rush” of doing a show and playing the music I love so deeply runs parallel with the thrill of production.

Being able to talk about the songs I play and weave a thread connecting divergent musicians to a common theme, or just simply playing stuff that’s fun to hear, is the true joy of doing a show. The ebullience of hitting a cue right on track with nary a second of “dead air” is stuff that radio thrills are made from. A stint on the air is an experience that is in a category all by itself. In addition, it’s something that has transcended the years, bridging the long gap between the two on-air gigs past and present. I love prepping a show as much today as I did over 40 years ago when I had hair and was much thinner.

                Both in its infancy, and when I was here in the early 1970’s, the old WOFM “broadcast” used just a 5 watt transmitter that pushed the signal through wires running throughout the University along the electrical system tunnels into all the dorms, classrooms and offices of the campus. As you can imagine reception was spotty at best and decayed or compromised wires would result in a break-down of the signal. But our staff worked hard and our listenership was strong. Anyone could walk the halls of the dorms back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and hear the voices of friends and floor-mates flowing out from radios and receivers, in room or university office, any hour of the day. We also had impressive community advertising support and an aggressive news department under the leadership of current St. Bonaventure Business Professor John Stevens (’74) that worked in a collaborative and creative atmosphere fostering the writing and production of contemplative and imaginative on-air feature programs and twice an hour news reports with an extended newscast at the top of each hour.

Our award-winning and attention-grabbing on-air interviews, news specials and breaking investigative reports helped push the station’s original programing efforts to the forefront of the discussion to redefine the Journalism Department’s focus, changing the thinking at the time that print was the only true path to being a Journalist.

As Program Director I was responsible for auditioning the on air staff, scheduling shifts and shaping the design of the daily product and identity of the station. We featured every musical genre from symphonic classical music to top 40 playlists and back again, including the “Free Form” or “album-rock” formats then sweeping the nation’s FM airways.  The station’s mission was to encourage the on-air staff to adopt and explore these various radio styles and as a result we produced a product that was new and fresh each day.

Our successful programing efforts were featured in an article in the December-January 1972-1973 Journal of College Radio, written by Journalism major Evan McElroy (’74). After its publication, the article piqued the interest of program directors at similar 10 Watt or under campus stations at Penn State and Indiana’s Ball State University. These fellow college broadcasters contacted me for more information about our station’s creative efforts to build and keep our listenership, a common problem with college radio stations across the nation at the time.

In his article, McElroy reported how WOFM’s programing evolved based on information gathered from a 1970 survey of over 400 students on the St. Bonaventure campus. The survey respondents were asked to rate their preferences and likes when it came to radio program preferences and after analysis the responses indicated that the preferences were equally divided between what was then called “top 40,” “middle of the road,” and “progressive” formats. In his interview with me, I described how our board of directors and our station manager at the time, John Kerr (’73), decided to respond to the survey findings by providing programing that not only met all our listeners recorded preferences, but organized and promoted these format listening opportunities in such a way that our audience would always know when to find the music that they liked. We programed time-slot on-air personalities that helped students to “get up and get going” with up-tempo AM radio style shows in the morning, moving to the more mellowed-out music mixes in the afternoon when classes were done, and then presenting in the evening a progressive format featuring album sides and lesser known artists. These evening programs were often “themed” or built around a pattern with personalities who would not only play the music but would entertain the audience with well-researched details about the latest release from an artist, for example.  We also programed regular evening shows with a jazz or a classical theme. WOFM was a hit on campus and we knew it.

The station was a beehive of activity and an exciting place to be both day and night. Many students made WOFM their second home and speakers carried our sound into the hall outside the station, to the offices of the Bona Venture located down the hall from the radio station, and even into the dining hall and Rathskellar. We also knew the Friars were listening as an occasional phone call, questioning the use of a particular musical selection because of song’s lyrics, would sometimes became an agenda item at our directors meetings.

The best example of the centricity our radio station to campus life at the time manifested itself during what was called the “Merry Christmas Melody Marathon.” Carrying on a long-held November tradition, established in the mid 60’s, students, administration, faculty and friars could request songs, make pledges, and issue challenges and dares, all for a monetary contribution collected to fund a children’s Christmas party in December, just before the holiday break. During the weekend of the marathon, the station was the epicenter of campus bedlam with volunteers at the desk handling the walk-in traffic, completing the pledge forms, and passing the sheets to runners who would then deliver the pledges, requests and dares to other volunteers who would then find the song in the library, re-write the donation or dare, and deliver it to the on-air personality for reading.  Reporters “in the field” would scurry back with stories of antics by the student body in the various dorm lounges attempting to fulfil any number of challenges issued by their classmates and friends. Occasionally they would even “phone-in” a live report from the pay phones in what was then the Rob-Fal lounge which would then be broadcast over the air.   

The “old dog” in me sees a different station today, yet one that the current station management, and those that served last semester, have moved in a very positive direction. Understanding that it is a vastly different time today, with far more choices for entertainment and information available to students than were around in my day, makes today’s challenges tougher but certainly not insurmountable. Much like the challenges we faced with an “in house” broadcasting system that would short out during severe rainstorms and was always subject to a zealous mouse or two and the burgeoning musical diversity that we faced in 1972-73, WSBU can and will overcome any obstacles in the road ahead when led by an enthusiastic and creative team of student directors and on-air staff.

I sense the potential, from the colorful posters on the walls to the updated equipment. The station has a “feel” to it that shouts out for it to be listened to and identifies and defines the station as an important element of campus life. To this “old dog” The Buzz looks both lived-in and loved. I also see a station today that has a more “professional” role, much more so than the one I first started at all those years ago, because of its presence as an over-the-air broadcasting entity. A role that strives to serve the college campus of St. Bonaventure as well as responds to the needs and wants of a larger and more diversified listener base in the neighboring communities of Olean and Allegany.

So what new tricks has the “old dog” learned?

The answer is on every Tuesday at 1 PM.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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