WSUA launched so many careers
By MARK McGUIRE, Staff writer
First published: Friday, October 24, 2003

WSUA, now WCBD, signed on four decades ago as an 8-watt radio station on the campus of what was then Albany State. Eight watts: That's an E-Z Bake Oven. That's only a little bit better than leaving the studio's door open and having Garrett Morris yell OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT ...

In the early days, you actually had to plug into your dorm room to get the station, since it was only broadcast over electrical lines. What we're saying is, this is no WABC.

But as several generations of radio alumni gather in Albany this weekend for a reunion marking the 40th anniversary of the campus station (and the 25th anniversary of its FM outlet), it's startling to contemplate how many high-powered careers began on such low-powered equipment.

"A lot of people majored in radio at the campus radio station, and minored in classes," said Marc Gronich, the reunion's organizer and a former radio news reporter; he's now a local fund-raising consultant. "You had practically unfettered creativity here. It was a drive everyone had."

Record company executives. Television anchors. Big-market radio personalities. Newspaper columnists.

Oh, and then there's that delicious (albeit debatable) slice of rock 'n' roll history.

About 250 veterans of the college station WSUA (640 AM) and progeny WCDB (90.9 FM), are expected to attend. Remember, this is a station that has mushroomed to only 100 watts, about one-10th the power of the smallest commercial stations.

Yet the roster of alumni impresses: WTEN anchor Tracy Egan; WAMC Northeast Public radio executive David Galletly; WFAN (660 AM) host Jody McDonald; MSG sports anchor Bill Daughtry; Universal Records President Monte Lipman; WNYC (820 AM/93.9 FM) host Brian Lehrer; film director Kristen Coury; CNN senior director Eve Kofsky; Bill Polchinski (aka Broadway Blotto) of the band Blotto, and many others in communications and related fields.

WSUA signed on Feb. 22, 1963, the same academic year the school changed its name from the State College for Teachers to the State University of New York at Albany. In 1976, WSUA apparently became the first college station to broadcast a professional sporting event, airing a host of New York Islander games from Uniondale, Nassau County. On March 1, 1978, WCDB-FM signed on. (First song: Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run.") Four and a half years later, the station boosted its power to its current 100 watts.

Unlike most fields, the majority of media jobs -- even entry-level ones -- require experience. (The old you-need-experience-to-get-experience gambit.) College stations like WCDB serve as that essential training ground.

"I knew that's what I wanted to do," said Egan, who worked at WSUA for two years in the 1970s before transferring. "At some point, I had spoken to (then-WRGB Ch. 6 News Director) Don Decker, and he said he didn't care where his people had experience, as long as they had experience in front of a mike."

A lot of people got that experience at WSUA/WCDB, even if not that many were -- or could -- listen.

Oh, that slice of rock 'n' roll history: In 1963, WSUA featured news and sports, as well as music that emphasized folk and jazz, bluegrass, pop, classical and swing, plus movie and show tunes. (Dudes, you rocked.)

The story goes a student -- whose identity is subject to debate -- brought back a bootleg recording from Europe of a band he had heard in a West German pub, and played it on the Albany station. The student -- some say it was future WTEN reporter Bob Lawson, although Lawson says it wasn't him ("I've never been in Germany") -- was promptly fired for breaking format.

But in the process, the station could claim to be the first in America to play a Beatles song on the air.

A pact -- and a warning

The WNYT union membership ratified a new four-year contract Monday night, ending months of contentious negotiations. But the tenor of the talks, and widespread concessions sought by management (mostly unfulfilled), says something about the future of the business.

Cable is taking a larger chunk of the ratings pie and the advertising dollar. The looming digital era poses challenges both foreseen (technical upgrades with price tags in the millions) and unknown. The relationship between networks and affiliates is changing: Networks that pay a local station to run programming may be a thing of the past by the end of the decade. All this leads to nervousness on the local level, even as dollars flow in today.

"We are doing well, (but) we see trends we have to deal with," WNYT General Manager Steve Baboulis said. "The whole business is fraught with questions. We want to be in the strongest possible position."

Even the WNYT's union head acknowledges that money worries are real: "It certainly says they have major concerns to remaining profitable five, 10 years down the road," local union president Bill Lambdin said. As the negotiations, came close to brinksmanship, "The No. 1 station (in the market) was willing to risk some really damaging publicity."

Fox update

WXXA Ch. 23 has tuned up its 5 and 10 p.m. newscasts, just in time for the November sweeps, which begin Thursday.

Like WRGB Ch. 6, Fox 23 has redesigned its set, trading in the industrial warehouse studio for a setup with vivid reds and blues. The graphics, as well, are sharper and the new slogan "Right to the Point" -- touting an opening salvo of 10 minutes of uninterrupted news -- is on target.

But don't call it a complete overhaul: On Monday night, all of the first 10 stories (save for a glance at the weather) dealt with crime and/or death from both the Capital Region and elsewhere. Well, red is the color of blood and guts.

Utley utters

Veteran television correspondent Garrick Utley, for decades a foreign-affairs presence on NBC and later a correspondent for ABC and CNN, delivers the lecture "Vietnam to Iraq: Reporting Goes High Tech" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at The Egg at the Empire State Plaza.

The event is free. The lecture is part of the "Archives at 25" series, which is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the New York State Archives.

Mark McGuire is the Times Union TV/radio writer. Call him at 454-5467 or send e-mail to


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