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Photo: Joe Hryvniak
WBFO celebrates its 50th anniversary
Story By Barbara A. Byers
It was 50 years ago—on January 6, 1959, to be precise—when WBFO-FM 88.7 first went on the air. Initially pursued as a teaching tool for the School of Engineering, the notion of a campus radio station became a reality, thanks to the tenacity of UB engineering students and faculty, including Wilson Greatbatch, MS ’57, as well as the support of three UB chancellors.
For the first several years, the student-run operation broadcast for only three hours each weeknight, with extended music airing until 3 a.m. on Fridays. The station shut down the rest of the weekend and during school holidays. It was nonetheless a remarkable achievement, especially when one considers the $1,300 annual budget and all-volunteer staff.
“Women power” was much in evidence in WBFO’s early years. From left: Judy Treible, Judy Chunco, Terry Gross and Mona Schreder. Photo: Joe Hryvniak
As an “educational format station” (later called public radio), WBFO at first offered campus news, classical music, jazz, poetry and an occasional lecture. Contrasted with its current broadcast reach of 1.2 million people, WBFO’s early audience was restricted to those residing within a 10-mile radius of the South Campus.
Even with this limited technical capacity, however, the station’s innovative approach was apparent from the beginning. During its first year of operation, WBFO was the only local station to cover the 1960 elections from the headquarters of both political parties. It also aired English language tapes from Radio Moscow, did a regular remote broadcast from an art gallery and teamed with WNED-TV to present the first local television broadcast in stereo. Over time, WBFO became professionally managed, acquired a paid student staff and extended its programming so that it was essentially a full-time station by 1963.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, WBFO found its voice under station manager William H. Siemering, as the nation witnessed a cultural revolution that included campus protests of the Vietnam War and racial tensions in Buffalo and other cities. By opening a storefront station in the inner city, Siemering gave Buffalo’s black community a voice and a mechanism for airing their concerns. “With guidelines drawn up with local residents, they [the residents] produced 25 hours a week of programming on WBFO,” Siemering recalls. “I told them one of the key ideas in broadcasting in America is that ‘the airwaves belong to the people.’”
With UB then at the center of student protests over the war, the station, under Siemering’s direction, sought out and aired all sides of the issue. “The Buffalo newspapers and TV stations weren’t always getting the story right,” says Terry Gross, EdM ’75 & BA ’72, host of the NPR program Fresh Air and a UB student at the time. “Furthermore, no one, from students to the police to UB administration, was listening to each other. Bill’s goal was to have this kind of safe place—the radio studio—where people could come and talk to each other.”
In fact, Siemering’s concept of creating “radio by the people” developed into This is Radio, a WBFO magazine show that Gross cohosted and later used as the model for Fresh Air (which she has hosted on Philadelphia’s WHYY since leaving WBFO in 1976). David Benders, a 30-year WBFO staffer, now assistant general manager and program director, recalls Siemering’s approach to This is Radio: “He opened mikes, put participants on the air and talked to them,” Benders says. “It was the first modern-day talk show—it started something new.” Siemering went on to become an NPR founding director and the person responsible for creating All Things Considered, NPR’s first national news magazine.
Today, WBFO remains a resource for Western New Yorkers and an important component of the university community as well. “One of the tasks we take very seriously is bringing information from the university to the people of Western New York,” says Carole Smith Petro, PhD ’76 & EdM ’73, WBFO general manager and UB associate vice president. “For 50 years we have connected with the community in a way that is still quite personal. And it’s not just news and information—it’s perspective and analysis,” Petro says. “We strive to elevate the discourse in the community and to connect Western New York with the larger national reality.”
Indeed, WBFO’s success is evidenced by its growing listenership (approximately 90,000 people per week), its use of cutting-edge technology and diverse programming that continues to draw in new audiences—not just on the airwaves, but in person as well. One of the first stations in the country to be completely digitized, the station offers podcasting, downloads of audio files and a robust Web presence that streams the station’s programming 24-7.
“We knew that if we were just voices on the air we wouldn’t stand a chance,” Petro says. “There are too many other competing voices that people can attend to. We’re always trying to be ahead of technological challenges so that we have multiple modes of delivery, but we must also maintain the integrity of our primary mission to provide radio programming.” The idea, Petro says, is for WBFO to “utilize multimedia formats without losing its quality and its essence.”
Meanwhile, alternative programming is driving WBFO in new directions and attracting younger audiences. Buffalo Avenues, reviews and interviews of local bands, along with Wednesday Night Concerts—a weekly live concert featuring local acts—are attracting an entirely new demographic. "WBFO’s new HD-2 digital signal offers music and programming not found anywhere in Buffalo, and fits well with the core values of the typical public radio listener: curious, lifelong learners looking for the authentic and inspired about public life,” says Benders. “It’s really a democratic spirit.”
Another innovative program, Nighttime on the Border, harkens back to the station’s roots with volunteer announcers who bring the music of local indie bands to the airwaves on weeknights. Collaborations with other cultural and community organizations—such as WBFO’s Meet the Author series, hosted in conjunction with Buffalo’s independent bookstore Talking Leaves—also demonstrate the station’s ability to reinvent itself and to better serve the community.
As in the early days, one of WBFO’s continuous challenges remains funding. A full two-thirds of its annual operating revenue comes from members and underwriters. “The challenge is to support the day-to-day programming and the staff who implement that programming,” Petro points out. “In that regard, we’re holding our own.” She adds that UB’s financial support, both direct and indirect, “has been crucial to the station’s viability and progress.”
Dramatically propelling progress—both technically and financially—is the station’s new tower, which was installed in April 2008 and made possible through government and private grant money. “We received the largest federal grant we’ve ever received from the [U.S.] Department of Commerce, as well as the largest matching grant, from the [Margaret L.] Wendt Foundation,” Petro explains. “I consider it a major achievement because it [the tower] will be there for at least a half a century.”
Indeed, the new tower has set WBFO on course to continue providing the best of UB’s cultural and intellectual resources throughout the community—for at least the next 50 years. Visit WBFO online.
Barbara A. Byers is associate director of alumni relations at UB.
WBFO staffers, past and present, offer testimonials
Names in WBFO’s history are significant and include Marcia Alvar, Dave Benders, Jim Campbell, Terry Gross and William Siemering. Following are their reflections on the station’s golden anniversary:
William H. Siemering, who served as UB’s associate coordinator of student affairs and faculty manager for WBFO, later cofounded National Public Radio and brought its first national news magazine, All Things Considered, to the air. In fact, All Things Considered was based on Siemering’s This is Radio, which he developed in Buffalo.
“My experience at WBFO was very influential to me when I wrote the original mission for NPR and then was hired to implement it as the first director of programming,” he says. “In addition to my work at NPR, I worked for Minnesota Public Radio and was vice president for radio at WHYY-FM in Philadelphia, where I developed Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and took it from a local to a national program.”
Siemering hasn’t stopped making his impact on radio. “I’m now founder and president of Developing Radio Partners in Washington, DC, which improves the flow of information to those who need it most in developing countries, where radio is the most important medium.
“Congratulations to the WBFO staff and listeners on your remarkable 50th anniversary!”
Host of NPR’s Fresh Air, the Peabody Award–winning weekday magazine of contemporary arts and issues. Cohost of WBFO’s This is Radio during her college years, she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from UB in 2007.
“I owe my career to WBFO and the people there who taught me and gave me my start.”
WBFO program director, 1973 to 1976; now manager, station-based projects, for NPR’s Local News Initiative
“WBFO was an extraordinary place in terms of sheer creativity and the excitement people brought to the work they were doing—it opened doors for so many people. WBFO is a special station in public radio and I’m very proud to have spent time there. I wish WBFO well—it’s an important part of my professional and personal history, and I feel like I’m part of a family.”
WBFO administrative director and general manager, 1971 to 1974 and today a communications consultant
“Nobody really knows the full etymology of the word ‘community.’ But some people say, at some point, it meant ‘to be in service with.’ And in that sense I think that WBFO was, in my time, and probably still is, community … both a community within itself and a service to the larger community of which it is a part. I personally think that’s a terrific thing for a media organization to be.”
WBFO assistant general manager/program director, current
“[WBFO’s longevity has] got to be the people. It’s always been a fabulous, terrific group of very interesting, very committed, likeable individuals that I work with. Evidence of that is found in those who have left the [Buffalo] market as well, such as Terry Gross, Ira Flatow, Madeline Brand and many others who work behind the scenes, too.”