This weekend I'll speak to the 50th anniversary class of KYW Newsradio's Newstudies program, of which I am an alumnus, at the Temple Klein College of Media & Communication. Newstudies was created by Group W founders as a public service to enable local area high school students to get a taste of broadcast journalism at a major market radio and TV station. Close to 6,000 students have participated in the program, the highlight of which allows students to deliver a short report on a news event in their hometown.
Initially I figured my invitation was in recognition of my radio work at SiriusXM, my TV work at CNN, and my weekly Inquirer column. But then I was told the organizers wanted to play my air-check from 38 years ago. Now I'm wondering if Entercom's Philadelphia market manager, David Yadgaroff, invited me as an inspirational tale, as in, "If this guy can be this bad when he was in school and still earn a living in media, there is hope for you, too!"
"I'm Mike Smerconish of Central Bucks High School in Doylestown," my voice squeaks at the conclusion of my one-minute report on the adult education program then taking place at the Bucks County Prison in Doylestown.
Back then my mother worked as a Realtor and my father was a guidance counselor for the Central Bucks public schools who, at night, ran the educational program at the prison. When we were told to highlight something in our local communities, I focused on 318 inmates who'd gotten their GEDs while behind bars.
My pitch was high, my delivery monotone, and my content a bit boring. Nothing in the recording would have suggested a career path in broadcast journalism. Yet Newstudies was not the first time my voice was heard on radio. That was in elementary school when a local company, Sylvan Pools, needed kids to record a new jingle for airing on a tiny station called WBUX. My neighborhood was recruited. I can still hum the jingle without notes:
Before you take the plunge, be sure you talk to Sylvan.
Before you take the plunge, be sure you get the facts.
Family engineered for fun and recreation,
Sylvan has the pool to keep you all relaxed.
I used to carpool to Newstudies with my childhood friend Chris Strand. He did his report on a rash of suspicious fires in our town and the expensive new fire truck that was purchased as a result. Strand graduated from Temple in 1984 before building his own television production company in New York City, another Newstudies success. "I remember Mort Crim meeting with us at the station talking about 'the big blue marble.' It took me a week to realize he was talking about the Earth," he recalled.
A few towns away from us in Central Bucks, Steve Capus was another radio geek. The man who today is the executive producer for CBS Evening News began working at a small radio station, WCSD-FM (89.3), in Warminster in ninth grade. With his FCC third-class radio operator's license in hand, he would DJ, do news reports and high school hockey, football, and basketball play-by-play. In 1981, Capus represented William Tennent High School in the Newstudies program.
"KYW was the elite of the elite. It earned a presence in the Philadelphia community unlike any other broadcasting outlet," he remembers. "People sang the jingle, "KY-Double-U … News Radioooo. Ten-Sixtyyyy." Catchphrases read every 20 minutes or so by the KYW anchors were seared into the minds of everyone. "All news, all the time. … You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world. …"
Capus' story for Newstudies was a profile of an Ironman triathlete from Willow Grove who was training to compete in the world championships in Hawaii.
"Although I had spent plenty of time in radio studios for years, it was intimidating to record the story on KYW," he recalled. "I remember sheepishly giving my copy to an editor for review, hoping they didn't hate it. The recording session went well and KYW broadcast my story at something like 10:24 p.m. on a school night. My cassette tape recording of it sits somewhere in a cardboard box somewhere. … I'd love to hear it again."
I'm hoping we can find and play Capus' tape instead of my own.
Beyond the "you too can make it " pitch, I'm looking forward to telling the students about the changes in the business since I was in their position. Sadly, a polarized media has arisen and plays a critical role in driving our national discourse into a ditch. My hope for future journalists is that they aspire not to be among the provocative personalities but rather to spur a return to more independent thinking and reporting with an eye toward problem-solving instead of using the sensational to drive eyes to cable shows, ears to radio talkers, and mouse clicks to websites.
There's one more thing I'll need to say. This year there are 109 students in the Newstudies program from 40 area high schools. After looking at the names of the participants I have a special message for John Armentani, Johanna Baronowitz, Delia Campos-Ferreira, Justin Pavonarious, Vik Raghupathi, Ummulkhayer Sameha, and Jessica Yakubovsky.
Don't change your name.
Growing up, if my parents needed to make a reservation we were always the "Walters" party of four, a play on my father's first name. Spelling S-m-e-r-c-o-n-i-s-h for a stranger was too cumbersome. Then a few years ago, I appeared as a guest on The View. In the green room, Barbara Walters introduced herself and I had to laugh when she asked me: "You're a radio guy. Why didn't you ever change you name?" I didn't tell her that growing up we'd used hers. I was willing to do it for a dinner reservation but not for a career. It's important to keep your identity.