Helene Blieberg, B.A. '77
Billy Altman, B.A. '73
David Spiro, B.A. '85
she's makin' waves
Helene Blieberg, '77, traveled the wavelength from WBFO to CBS Radio
It was back to roots radio for Helene Blieberg, with a twist. She was seated in the WBFO studios but this time she was the one being interviewed.
A 1977 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UB, Blieberg has since gone from one station in Buffalo to involvement with about 6,000 radio stations nationally via CBS radio and its managing partner, Westwood One. Now she was back on campus for the first time in 20 years as a new member of the Alumni Board.
Helene Blieberg, at WCBS Radio in New York City, found UB's WBFO an ideal springboard for her broadcasting career.
(Click to view larger image.)
Photo: Doug Levere
"It really is wonderful to be back, to see all the changes and really to remember again the impact that UB had on my life," Blieberg told UB Today during an October visit to campus. "If you look at where I am, you can easily see how [those influences] got me here."
Ever since Helene Blieberg was in high school, broadcasting has transmitted a strong signal to her career inclinations. "At the time, I was looking to be a documentary/public affairs producer," she recalls. "I kind of strayed from that but stayed in the business."
Attracted to the alternative colleges and customized course structure at UB in the 1970s, she came to the university to pursue a double ad hoc major in what became broadcast marketing and English.
Her initial challenge was dealing with the size of the campus. Coming from a small town on Long Island with a high school graduating class of 200, she was overwhelmed at first by the expanse of UB, from the early development of the North Campus to a student housing shortage that involved tripling up in the dorm rooms of Clement Hall.
To help make the university a more personal place for them, Blieberg and Pam Benson, B.A. '76, who became friends in a communication class, decided to volunteer at WBFO in the public affairs department.
"It was a terrific experience," she says. "The station was then, as it is now, a terrific place to be lots of good, intelligent, energetic people who wanted to do great broadcasts, and we had the opportunity to assist in that process. To know that your words were being heard in the community, not just on campus, was a wonderful experience for someone who was interested in broadcasting."
Blieberg's experience at WBFO shaped the direction of her career. In addition to working at the station, she also did volunteer work at the university's information services office, where she produced, wrote and hosted a public affairs series called Within the University that was broadcast on commercial radio stations in the Buffalo area.
"Because [UB] was such a big school, you had to make your own way, and I supplemented my coursework with internships," she relates. "I did at least one every semester. I had to go out and find the places that would fill some gaps for me as far as the curriculum was concerned. In that way, it prepared me for being able to go out and see what's out there and incorporate it into my life."
Her faculty influences at UB included the late history professor Milton Plesur, "who introduced me to the discipline of popular cultural history, which is a very widely used measure today in the effectiveness and viability of a lot of things." Mary Cassata, associate professor of communication, "was another fantastic influence," Blieberg says. "We have recently been back in touch. I'm glad to hear that a lot of the work she's doing now coincides with my current company, CBS."
Cassata, who also acted as her advisor, refers to Blieberg as "the student I never forgot. She was so determined and focused. She knew exactly what she wanted to do."
"From the time I was a student working in radio, I fell in love with what this medium can offer people and with the creative opportunity you just can't get anywhere else."
Blieberg's old friend Benson who is now CNN executive producer of the White House unit, where she's reunited with another UB grad, CNN senior White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer, B.A. '70 recalled when she and Blieberg started doing volunteer work at WBFO in public affairs. "It's there that our friendship really grew," she says. "We did a study-abroad program together in international broadcasting in London and shared an apartment there. We had a lot of interests in common, which is always valuable in a friendship."
After graduation, Blieberg worked briefly in a public-relations agency and then joined a resort hotel, where she did everything from public relations to sales to marketing. In 1982 she landed at CBS, an experience she describes as working in the best of both worlds communications and broadcasting. "It was a direct result of having those dual experiences at UB. That is what led me eventually to do the same at CBS.
"When I started at CBS, it was primarily a television company, even though it had its roots in radio. They almost functioned as parallel businesses. Being in radio was a completely different experience than being in television. We were fairly autonomous. We probably functioned a bit less formally than our television counterparts. And quite frankly, the stakes weren't as high. And that had a lot of positives: You had more flexibility; you could be more experimental. You had the opportunity to use whatever your job was as a springboard to get involved in related activities."
In her 15-year career at CBS Radio, Blieberg has held management positions in communications, media relations, sales development and promotion. She also played an integral role in the network's recent mergers with Group W Radio and Infinity Broadcasting.
"I worked with a lot of the radio stations as a consultant so they would be able to maintain their autonomy in their markets but also have the benefit of the corporate parent to rely on for advice and counsel. Also, I was the liaison for radio with the rest of the company when it came to communications matters. I really have had a front-row seat to the changes in American business. We were acquired in 1995 and we, in turn, acquired another radio company in 1996. I was one of the people who worked with our attorneys in going through the whole regulatory process to gain approval for that merger."
Blieberg's most recent appointment is as vice president and executive director of the CBS Foundation. The foundation was established in the 1950s by William Paley and Frank Stanton. Its mission has traditionally been to create grants in the areas of art and culture, education and community service.
"We're much more of a national company now than we were before," Blieberg explains. "We want to be able to do more than just write checks in support of organizations. We're also looking at creating a number of signature programs that will be ours and will have great visibility and impact across the country primarily in the markets in which we do business, but also on a national basis."
The Manhattan resident admits that her postuniversity years did not develop by any grand design. "I was always open to whatever possibilities came before me. The underlying aspect, however, has always been the medium.
"From the time I was a student working in radio, I fell in love with what this medium can offer people and with the creative opportunity you just can't get anywhere else. I've spoken with a lot of broadcasters and, given the choice, they'd rather work in radio. It's more than the relative informality of the medium: It's the ability to convey a picture, an idea, a thought."
Benson recently engineered Blieberg's return to the place where a spark of interest ignited both their careers. "In the 1970s, Pam asked me to join her as a freshman orientation aide," Blieberg says. "That was a wonderful experience. Now, 20 years later, she has done it again. A member of the UB Alumni Association's national board of directors, she asked me to join, as well. I think it's a great time to be a part of it. I believe that the board must reflect the alumni population in as many ways as possible, and that it must provide services that will be meaningful to them.
"There are so many resources here, and there is so much interesting and cutting-edge work being done," she summarizes, "but sometimes students don't realize that until after they've graduated. It's a tremendous facility and there aren't many like it."
Jim Bisco is a Buffalo-area writer.