WSHU fills the air with news and the seats for a conversation
Some of the best programs on American radio ride the airwaves from a cottage-sized studio on the campus of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year as a member of the National Public Radio family of stations, WSHU has expanded its broadcasting range of popular NPR shows, such as “Prairie Home Companion,” “All things Considered” and “Marketplace” and is getting praise and awards for its own local news show.
What began fifty years ago as a casual, two-person, student-run station turned serious in 1982 when the university hired George Lombardi to make the station more professional and offer students training in broadcasting. Over the next two years, he raised money, hired programmers, increased the staff and qualified the station for NPR membership. He also oversaw the expansion of the studio—a former home nestled among campus buildings on Park Avenue—into a 2,800-square-foot facility with a satellite dish nearly as large and microwave transmitters that send signals to five affiliate stations in Westport, Norwalk, Stamford, Sharon and parts of Suffolk and Dutchess counties in New York.
Today, thirty-two full-time and six part-time staffers, plus four student interns, run the station and news shows, which have won three prestigious Edward R. Murrow awards, including one for senior reporter Craig LeMoult’s coverage last year of the Sandy Hook school shootings. The news has helped create a loyal following of over 18,000 WSHU members and an estimated two or three times that number of listeners over the tri-state area.
“We’ve really put energy into building a regional news source,” says Lombardi, who serves as the station’s general manager. “We raise $5 million a year to cover staffing and operations and try to have as many reporters out there as we can.”
Partnering with WSHU is the university’s “Join the Conversation” series of live interviews with celebrity authors and media stars, started in 2007 by station director Gillian Anderson, which also serves Sacred Heart’s mission to serve as a community resource.
“We know our listeners and know that they love books, love authors and love to explore new things,” says Anderson, who’s been at SHU for twenty-four years. “The series is really about connecting with the community. I had this vision of bringing in Frank Deford for a talk and book signing—we knew our audience loves him—and the series just grew larger.”
An award-winning sports writer, novelist, NPR commentator and former long-time Westport resident (he moved to New York City last year), Deford was the first guest author in the series, which combines talk, Q&As with the audience and book signings in the 700-seat Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts on campus. “It was a very pleasant experience because you were talking in front of people who were there because they knew you through the radio,” Deford recalls. “Often when you give speeches, you’re on the road and you’re the away team, but here I was very much the home team so it was very satisfying.”
Over the past seven years, the roster of guest authors has included literary luminaries the likes of Anna Quindlen, Khaled Hosseini, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sue Monk Kidd and Wally Lamb, author of The New York Times’ best-selling novels She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. He appeared on the SHU campus last October, in support of his latest work, Wishin’ and Hopin’, to lines of audience members waiting to ask questions and have him sign books.
“I’d done a number of live appearances on tours but this one really sticks out in my memory because it was a really fun, animated audience that asked a lot of very interesting questions,” Lamb says from his home in Connecticut. “Hopefully the series lures people in and creates a wider readership, not just for me but in terms of a literate society.”
In May of this year, Good Morning America co-anchor and breast-cancer survivor Robin Roberts appeared to a standing ovation before sitting down to talk about her newly published memoir, Everybody’s Got Something. with friend and CTNH-TV News 8 anchor Ann Nyberg. The event was co-presented by R.J. Julia Booksellers, the nationally recognized independent bookstore in Madison (a webcast of Ms. Roberts’ conversation can be found on wshu.org/topic/join-conversation-again).
The event coincided with WSHU’s annual fundraiser and was preceded by a cocktail reception for supporting members. Volunteering as event photographer was Jens Haulund, a member of the Leadership Circle, the highest tier of WSHU supporters. A native of Denmark, Mr. Haulund lives in Trumbull with his wife and children and works as an engineer at Pitney Bowes, which matches his contributions to the station. “Craig LaMoult’s coverage of the Sandy Hook killings was absolutely stunning,” he said. “It wasn’t a soundbite. There was no rush to make it a homogenous segment that would fit within commercial breaks or fill a pre-assigned time slot, and that’s really what I enjoy the most. The station gives me total quality information that starts at 5 in the morning and ends at 8 at night.
“I used to listen to classic rock stations but it just got too monotonous,” he adds. “This radio station has a big focus on classical music, and I’m not really a classical music fan, but classical music is something that needs to be preserved and I love to support them.”