Somehow, Fordham University, my illustrious alma mater, has gotten the misguided impression that I have a lot of money. While I certainly can produce evidence from my accountant, my financial advisor, and my banker that will refute this notion, Fordham's Alumni Relations Department begged to differ. How else can I explain why I recently became a primary target of one of their representatives visiting Southern California?
They should have had my suspicion at "hello." Or whatever I said when I answered the e-mail from one enterprising young lady on their alumni development team. She was planning a tour of the Los Angeles area and wanted to know if I was available for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or high tea. She also noted that, since I was a former member of the WFUV-FM staff, she would love to update me on the latest great things to happen at New York City's number one college radio station.
Count my curiousity among the sufficiently piqued. I gleefully told her the day, time, and place we could meet for lunch. Because, as many of you know, I can ramble on incessantly about my days at WFUV-FM. And the station today. And the latter is not in a good way.
Indeed, when I think about the college education I received from good old FU, you can start and stop at those illustrious radio call letters. Forget the theology classes I had to endure from gay Jesuit priests who all seemed to be planning their own elaborate suicides. Ignore the broadcasting and communications courses that were taught by clowns who had subzero career experience in any media. For me, WFUV was college and college was WFUV. It was where life learned about me and I learned about life. It was where I made fabulous friends that are part of my daily quilt to this very day. This 50,000 watt hole-in-the-wall taught me how to speak and write and everything else that I use in my life. It was a college radio station, but so much more. It was student-run. We provided the air content. We manned the control panels. We edited the tapes. We brought in the money. We turned off the lights at night until the day came when the station went 24/7 and the lights needed to stay on.
And then, most of us went to class. We were still students. And, perhaps, that was the real glory of WFUV. Because, indeed, at WFUV, there was no adult safety net for all of us.
At WFUV, I interviewed celebrities like Paul Lynde and Tony Randall. I supervised the station's publicity. I did baseball play-by-play (badly and just once). I created, produced, and wrote three seasons of a weekly radio situation comedy. The last person to do that at WFUV was Alan Alda. The place provided me more than education or friends or entertainment. It gave me, for the very first time in my life, self-esteem.
So, when Ms. Fordham Alumni Relations Chick calls and wants to discuss with me WFUV, I am more than compliant. Especially in light of what the radio station has become over the past two decades.
I remember the beginning of the WFUV end vividly because I actually was dealing with some of the then-student staff members at the time in an internship class I would help conduct every semester. Somehow, Father Darth Vader, or whoever was running the university at the time, suddenly got wind of the fact that there was a radio station on the campus. Let's face it, they pretty much had ignored the place up till then. As a matter of fact, history shows that the college administration cut off funds in the late 60s, hoping to silence WFUV altogether. But, as money started to cascade in from student-run fund drives (most notably from the listeners of one Irish music program), the powers-that-be reacted like Bob Barker had just called them down to the front row. All of a sudden, Fordham saw WFUV as their own marketing mouthpiece. And a cash cow that could be milked like Borden's Elsie. The trick was how to get their hands on the dough without inciting the students who worked there 24/7.
The first step was to install a general manager they could control. They found the perfect foil with some skanky fossil named Ralph Jennings who eerily reminds me of that Frugal Gourmet guy who got caught groping a couple of his young male sou chefs behind a convection oven. Jennings was an ideal conduit for Fordham, despite the fact that he had a thimbleful of radio experience beyond perhaps listening to classical music while napping on his front porch. I heard at the time that Jennings was suddenly acting like Serpico in Walgren's. Raising issues with the student staff where there were none. Until, of course, came the day when one arose. Unfortunately, one student DJ had ingested some illegal stuff in either pill or liquid form. He passed out on the air and, after several minutes of some record album going zip, zip, zip, this kid and WFUV as I knew it, was over. Fordham had their smoking gun. Out went the students. In came the paid professionals. The radio station went from students playing radio to something far worse. Adults playing radio.
Now, WFUV existed and makes tons of money for Fordham University. And the radio station is revered with awards, standing as a beacon and standard bearer for innovative, non-cookie-cutter radio. But, from what I hear, WFUV sounds good merely because the rest of New York radio is so freakin' bad. While they tout all the students working behind the scenes, you cannot get around the fact that the place is run by adults who couldn't get jobs anyplace else. Or whose relevance went out with moon rocks and Jimmy Carter. WFUV became an AARP meeting place for former rock deejays from the old WNEW-FM like Pete Fornatale, Dennis Elsas, and Vin Scelsa, who all smoked so much weed in the past that they probably still have regular conversations with the dead Scott Muni. Other music programs feature hosts who clip coupons from Whole Foods and spend their idle time trolling East Village coffee houses looking for anybody that can play a folk guitar. One host, Rich Conaty, was a student when I was there and he inexplicably exists on the air merely because he owns the largest collection of scratchy Bing Crosby records in the metropolitan area. Several of these folks have their little fifedoms of fame. Some are revered in the press.
All of these jerks, who get paid for their efforts, should be ashamed of themselves. Because the baby has not only been tossed with the bathwater, they have also sold the crib, converted the child's room into a den, and e-Bayed all of the kid's unused Pampers. Yes, students are involved. But, to what degree? And, to what extent? And, how to their ultimate benefit? While my colleagues and I were entrusted to running the place, students today merely have the responsibility of keeping the adult staff hydrated.
So, I thought about all this as I walked down the block for my appointed luncheon with Ms. Fordham Alumni Relations Chick. Because, since all this went down years ago, this would be the first time I could have a direct forum with the University. Oh, I had tried to raise the issues a few years back when the last dirtbag priest/president made a whistlestop tour through LA to meet SoCal-based alums. But, I got nowhere since he was more interested in entertaining the possible donations of guys who graduated pre-1955 and all talked like Leo Gorcey. "Hey, Faddah, what's the football team gonna be like next year?" I spent the rest of the evening chatting up fellow alum Pat Harrington Jr. of "One Day at a Time."
This lunch was my second shot. And I was totally captivated by why she selected me from 1,000 or so LA-based Fordham grads as one of her companions for the week. Perhaps there had been a data sort by Fordham's IT department and my name (and job title) came up like a winner at the slot machines. Why me? That was my first question to her.
That was my fifth question to her.
That was my eleventh question to her.
As if she was reciting from Barack Obama's campaign literature, I never got an answer.
But I did hear about the 13 million dollar state-of-the-art renovation to WFUV's studios. I did hear about the many community awards won by the station over the years. And I was told about the station's 60th anniversary gala at Sotheby's in late April, where they are honoring former WFUV staffers Charles Osgood and Vin Scully and, oh, by the way, tables of 10 are available for donations of $75,000, $50,000 and $25,000 respectfully.
And then she heard everything I wrote above. I questioned her about the station's commitment to the students. I asked why WFUV focuses their entire history on somebody like Charles Osgood. I was blunt. "When Osgood is dead in five to ten years, what name replaces him on the marketing pieces?" I gave her the answer. Because students don't get the same hands-on-experience anymore, the choice of possibilities dwindles to a precious few. And I warned her not to look at some of the successful people that I worked with at WFUV. Because many of them feel the same way I do.
In the spirit of Oscar week, she gave me a WFUV swag bag. T-shirt. Bumper sticker. Mousepad. WFUV-labelled chapstick. A CD featuring the best of Rich Conaty's hiss-and-pop recordings (I couldn't shitcan that fast enough). And an order form for that gala table she wanted me to carefully reconsider. She paid for lunch, and I was glad I had only ordered an appetizer. In her defense, she did her job. She was professional and cordial and listened. But, ultimately, she knew it was for naught. Her slot machine showed three lemons.
I looked at some of the gift bag stuff when I got back to the office. Her business card and title. "MAJOR GIFTS COORDINATOR."
I looked at a timeline of WFUV's history. It oddly ends around the time I was there and only picks up when that screwball Ralph Jennings came on board. It was completely current staff-centric.
And the gala invitation that listed WFUV's current advisory board.
Edie Falco. Jackson Browne. Paul Simon. Tim Robbins.
None of them were in any of my classes. I would have remembered Edie Falco. I would have taken her to lunch at the Ramskeller.
I looked at WFUV's Executive Committee. None of the names were recognizable except for Bennett Cerf's son, who I actually met years ago. Most had a brokerage house attached.
Not a student in the bunch.
And I thought about the names not there. Students who richly contributed to the history of WFUV. People who gathered together two years ago in a spectacular (and non-Fordham-sanctioned) reunion near the Saw Mill River Parkway in Elmsford.
Djinna. Glenn. Lorraine. Andrew. The Bibster. Bob and Bob and Bob. Malcolm. Gary. Valerie. Larry. Ron. Neh-heh. Mary. Tom. Steve. And a cast of perhaps a hundred more.
All significant. All successful. All friends.
And, even more importantly, all students.
Dinner last night: Chicken salad on homemade bread with homemade tomato soup.