SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Pirates and music is an illegal combination just about everywhere except South Orange, where WSOU 89.5 FM, Seton Hall’s Pirate Radio, operates. These pirates are of the collegiate kind, as WSOU is the student-run radio station at Seton Hall University, whose mascot is the Pirate. WSOU has received wide acclaim for its loud rock format, its coverage of university athletics, and its ability to launch the careers of many of today’s well-known radio personalities and announcers, including Bob Ley, Christina Stoffo, Jim Hunter, Matt Loughlin and John Brickley.
The station’s signal reaches all five boroughs of New York City and much of northern and central New Jersey. In 2016, WSOU won the National Broadcasters Association’s Marconi Award for Noncommercial Station of the Year. Recently, five WSOU students earned seven awards from the Garden State Journalist Association’s 72nd annual Memorial Journalism Awards competition, including a first-place win for senior Matt Ambrose in the Broadcast – Radio Sports category.
According to WSOU general manager Mark Maben, who has been at WSOU for almost 16 years, these accomplishments only serve to highlight the accomplishments he sees from the students every day.
“With more than 125 students on staff, WSOU is one of the largest student organizations at Seton Hall, so our size has an immediate impact on the campus community,” Maben told The Villager, explaining that students and alumni all over the country tune in for music and sports coverage, utilizing the station’s website and presence on iHeartRadio. “Another important role we play is in developing Pirate pride. The entire Seton Hall community takes great pride in WSOU’s many awards over the past 71 years, including the prestigious Marconi and Peabody awards.”
WSOU’s contributions do not stop at the edge of Seton Hall’s campus.
“When it comes to the SOMA community, we are more closely tied in than most people realize. The station regularly takes interns from Columbia High School to help them learn about the radio, audio production, sports media and music industries,” Maben said. “Local resident Vartan Abdo is founder and co-host of ‘The Armenian Program’ on WSOU and he is one of several members of the SOMA community who have public affairs or music programs on the station.”
For SHU junior Jose Feliciano, it is a joy to work with community members on their programs.
“They have shows that have long since been staples on our airwaves,” Feliciano told The Villager. “It is a delight to see and I am happy that I myself help some of those community programmers through my work study on Sundays when some of those shows air.”
Senior Charlotte Slocum, WSOU’s outgoing programming director, touted the station’s support of local artists.
“When I first became a DJ, I inherited a specialty show on the station that plays only local artists and unsigned bands, called ‘Street Patrol,’” Slocum told The Villager. “WSOU has helped to break a few major bands over the years, like System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. Working with local artists, I’d like to imagine that our airtime can help them gain more recognition in the metal scene.”
In addition to entertainment, WSOU also provides necessary information to the community.
“We broadcast live from Bunny’s, BGR and other local businesses. We promote lots of local events and festivals on the air, which draws in new people to the SOMA community,” Maben said. “The station also works with the South Orange and Maplewood offices of emergency management so 89.5 FM can serve as one of the ‘first informers’ if there is a local emergency. This was particularly true during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, when we provided hyperlocal information for the residents of South Orange, Maplewood and rest of Essex County.”
Additionally, WSOU students regularly volunteer in the community, even hosting an annual food drive for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
“Each year we have a food drive where we try to donate 895 pounds of food,” senior Erin Kelly, a DJ and sportscaster, told The Villager. “It’s a small way to contribute back but it’s something that the station rallies behind. In terms of the campus, the station in recent years has expanded more into helping the university and being more involved in campus life.”
The station also has a major impact on the students who work there, many of whom return as alumni to educate their successors and remain involved. According to Maben, students get hands-on, experiential learning at the station, where they train on “industry-standard equipment at a student-run station that adheres to professional standards.” Students also gain intangible skills and values at the station.
“Alums have told me that key lessons they learned at the station include how to communicate effectively, taking responsibility for a shift, being held accountable, learning how to collaborate and accomplish goals with a diverse group of people, discovering that they could problem-solve when things suddenly go wrong, and acquiring the insight that knowledge comes through experiencing error. These experiences have a lifelong impact on the students who call WSOU home during their college years,” Maben said.
SHU senior Doug Woolever, WSOU’s production manager and an on-air DJ, agreed.
“WSOU’s most vital contribution to the community is probably that it puts college students into positions of serious responsibility that cause them to grow and adapt as a result, learning countless hard and soft skills along the way,” Woolever told The Villager. “It’s provided a central place for so many people to make friends, and it’s also helped everyone who passes through the station feel more confident in their own ability to succeed.”
Maben shared that this point was hammered home for him just last year when a station alumna visited.
“Unprompted, she told a colleague who was in my office with me that ‘WSOU was the first place that treated me like an adult,’” Maben said. “This former student was about a decade out of school and she had just crystalized so simply what WSOU is all about. In the nation’s No. 1 market, the students of WSOU have the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on radio listeners. In exchange for that opportunity, we ask them to take their responsibilities as broadcasters seriously and act professionally.”
Several WSOU student workers told The Villager how WSOU has helped shape their new lives as adults and helped them decide who they are.
“Working at WSOU has allowed me to discover new passions and it has provided me with a community of like-minded people to work with every day,” sophomore Faith Kessler, the station’s social media manager, said. “I can’t imagine what my experience at Seton Hall would be like if I hadn’t joined WSOU. The station has given me so many opportunities that I never imagined I would get as a college student, and it has provided me with a starting point for my career aspirations.”
For Kelly, WSOU has given her more than aspirations — it has given her a career boost.
“I have been able to learn skills that have benefited me in getting internships and will help me in my job hunt,” Kelly said. “Being WSOU’s social media manager for 2017-2018 also impacted me academically. In fact, if it wasn’t for WSOU, I never would have had my dream internship of interning for Sirius XM’s NBA Radio.”
To these students, WSOU is more than an activity or a job — it is a family.
“WSOU has been the most impactful thing in my collegiate life,” sophomore Wilnir Louis, who will be next year’s station manager, said. “I have met friends who now feel like family to me. I have been places that I have never been to before and I have discovered a new passion in my life. Before working at WSOU, I never considered media as an avenue for what I want to do after college. Now, two years removed from when I first joined, media seems like the perfect fit for me.”
For many of the WSOU students, the station has provided experiences they will remember for the rest of their lives.
“Running my one radio show, ‘Under the Stars,’ we play emo/screamo/pop-punk, and it’s not always the happiest music, but it’s often music about getting through hard times and dealing with your own emotions. We get a lot of mail from the local penitentiary from people who listen to our show weekly, and just this past week I got a letter from one of our regulars,” senior Alicia Campos, who has been station manager for the past two years, told The Villager. “In the letter, he was thanking us for doing the show, and saying goodbye because he was being transferred to a rehab to help with his addiction. He recalled my first few shows, and told us how much our show gave him something to look forward to.
“And it really shook me to the core that we had such an effect on someone,” Campos continued. “He even got a tattoo on his knuckle with an umbrella and ‘UTS’ on the inside for the show. That’s the beauty of WSOU; we are so young but we get to have an impact, and that means the world to me to have a good impact on someone.”
Kessler also got to see the impact she has made through WSOU.
“One of my favorite things to do at WSOU is working the table at our presents shows, because it gives us a chance to interact with some of our listeners in person,” Kessler said. “When we presented Corrosion of Conformity at The Gramercy Theater in February, I had a listener come up to me and tell me that he recognized my voice from my morning DJ shift and he was even able to list off some of the bands that I had played. This moment is significant to me because it was the first time that a listener had recognized me, and it really opened my eyes to the way that we directly reach our listeners.”
Woolever has also been treated to star status thanks to his work at WSOU.
“Since I am a DJ on the air at WSOU, I’ve come to be known by the moniker ‘The Hurricane’ and over the last few years I’ve built up a bit of a personality with the way I talk and the music I play,” Woolever said. “One time while waiting in line to pick up tickets at a show, I heard someone mention WSOU in front of me. I asked if they knew ‘The Hurricane’ and it turned out that the guy was actually a big fan of mine and he had won tickets to that very show during a giveaway on WSOU. He immediately hugged me and asked if he could take a picture with me.”
According to Maben, WSOU has been able to make this impact because of the hard work put in by the students and the fact that radio is popular right now.
“Interest in radio and audio has been experiencing a renaissance on a number of campuses in recent years, and that has certainly been true here at Seton Hall. When I first started at WSOU, the size of the student staff averaged around 75. For the past five years, the number of students active at WSOU has ranged between 125 and 145. That growth mirrors the increase in audio consumption that we have seen across the U.S.,” Maben said. “While WSOU has long been known for the music that we play, our sports and news departments have greatly expanded in size and activity. Our sports staff covers more sports teams, both on and off campus, than ever before and the news department provides newscasts twice an hour between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., along with original reporting during station-produced news and public affairs programs. Finally, we’ve expanded into the podcasting sphere as well. Seton Hall students — and young people in general — have a renewed passion for audio and radio.”
It isn’t hard for WSOU’s student workers to have passion for the station when they are able to look back at 71 years of radio excellence and know they are continuing that legacy.
“WSOU has brought in accolades, history and more importantly showcased good people in our community. Things at WSOU have a way at weeding out who doesn’t have the heart for it, and since it is volunteer-based, you get left with those who truly care. These are the right people to hand-select the best guests, stories and events to showcase,” Campos said. “The kind community at WSOU is there to lift up our community and foster a strong platform for it. As students we are not professionally experienced yet, but it’s the faith the community and university has in us to run 89.5 FM that has guided our decisions and initiatives throughout our 70-plus years. This is a stronger force than any monetized radio station can be fueled by.”