Alumni skeptical of WERS' pro hire

by Jackie Tempera / Beacon Staff • April 11, 2013

Wers verrill
Alumni said they are concerned the station is heading in the wrong direction.
Alumni said they are concerned the station is heading in the wrong direction.

WERS, Emerson’s student-run public radio station, has operated for 67 years without the on-air assistance of a professional employee during peak hours. But after the college announced it was seeking to hire a professional to work with students during the weekday morning shift, alumni have voiced their concerns and threatened to stop donating to the college. 

In comments on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, many former students of the program stated their opposition to the idea of the new host. According to the job description posted on Emerson’s website, the employee would work alongside students for the most listened-to hours of programming. No professional has been consistently on air during this time slot in the station’s history, according to Jack Casey, the station’s general manager. 

Alan Carvalho, an Emerson graduate of 1978 who has never worked for WERS, said he has been in touch with over 100 other alumni who will not donate to the school this year in response to the station’s decision. He said he thinks adding a professional will take away from a learning environment.

“If we can all get together and decide that this is an outrage and stop donations, maybe money will speak,” he said. “If we can tell them that the revenue they are getting from alumni would be diffused, maybe they would stop.”

Jeff Schoenherr, the vice president for development and alumni relations, said this action would affect the college overall, not WERS specifically. Currently, someone seeking to donate to Emerson can specify whether the money will go toward a distinct organization or the college as a whole. Most donors choose to give to the college’s annual fund, said Schoenherr, which is used for financial aid and support for faculty programs. 

“If alumni decide to not support their alma mater, it negatively affects the institution,” said Schoenherr. “I wouldn’t want even one person to stop [giving].”

This halt in donations would come at a bad time, he said, as the college is in the middle of a campaign to raise money for construction of Emerson’s upcoming Los Angeles campus. A loss of this many donations would take a significant toll on the fundraiser, he said. 

Currently, WERS has a $1 million annual budget, said Casey, half of which comes from the college. The remainder is from advertising and donations, provided by students, listeners, and a very small percentage of alumni, said Casey. According to Schoenherr, last year the station raised $221,663 in donations. Ninety-one percent of this came from “Friends of WERS,” whom he identified as listeners from the Boston community. Nine percent came from alumni and parents. 

Concerns about a professional host taking away from student experience were common among alumni.

Marc Allan, a former WERS DJ who graduated from Emerson in 1980, said he thinks bringing in a professional is a mistake. 

“Students should be in school to learn how to do things,” he said. “You are in the position [as a WERS employee] to make mistakes. You should be allowed a wide leeway to make mistakes.”

Allan, who now works as the associate director of public relations at Butler University in Indiana, suggested the college instead hire a professional to critique students once they are off the air.  

Mary Kennedy, from the Emerson class of 1994, said she also felt the decision would take away from students.

Kennedy now works as a host on LA Talk Radio’s “Oh Mary” show. She said putting a professional in the booth with students would diminish some of the stress she said is necessary to become a proficient host. As a student, she didn’t work at WERS, but was a host for WECB, another on-campus radio outlet.

“Shadowing a professional is okay, but this way, the kids wouldn’t get the real feeling of starting a whole show,” she said. “You need to feel that pressure. If I didn’t have it [when she first started with LA Talk Radio], I wouldn’t be as good of a host now.” 

Kennedy said she does not donate to the college because of financial restrictions, but said if she could, this new hire would stop her from doing so.

Casey said the move to hire a professional will help students, not take away their airtime. 

“If you can’t earn a living with what you came to study, you are left with a very expensive hobby,” said Casey. 

Casey said the new hire is part of WERS’ development, and will help the station stick to its goals.

“Our mission is to train future leaders of the media industry,” said Casey. “It is also to produce a competitive viable radio product for the Greater Boston community and the internet to reflect the quality of Emerson.”

David Frisch, an Emerson graduate of 1981 and former WERS host, disagreed with Casey’s reasoning. 

“That sounds like something you say to someone when you are giving them news they won’t like,” said Frisch. “There may be a problem, but this is not the solution.”

Casey said a number of alumni have reached out to him since the announcement, including Andre Archimbaud, an Emerson graduate of 1994 and former WERS sound mixer.

“Once I explained the big picture, he understood,” said Casey.

Archimbaud said in an interview that he feels the visual and media arts department’s decision to stop offering the radio major brought about the decision to hire the new host.

Last spring, the school ended the radio concentration in the visual and media arts major, and it became a minor in school of communication. At the time, Jonathan Wacks, chair of the visual and media arts department, said this was because of diminishing applicants to the program.

Archimbaud said the department should have revamped the major, adding more exciting elements that would attract student interest. 

“The idea that the school would say there is no future in radio is a little insane,” he said. “That is the greatest mouthpiece to anyone around the world.” 

Casey said alumni need to understand the changing radio market and lack of student interest.

“What they need to realize is that, for most of today's students, radio does not hold the same attraction, either as a cultural connection or as a career path,” said Casey. 

Archimbaud, who said he worked in radio for the Christian Science Monitor Network and CBS after graduation, said without the major, dwindling student participation in the station is natural, and that he is concerned about who will apply for this position. 

“No serious on-air person, unless it’s a retirement job, will take this job,” he said.

Archimbaud said he doesn’t believe students will ever be entirely replaced by professionals at WERS, because Casey attended Emerson and worked at WERS himself.

“I really believe Jack [Casey] wants to keep it predominantly student-run,” he said. “He is a product of itwhy would he want to change it?”