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This Is Why We Exist

SUNY Geneseo's student radio station got a crash course in breaking news reporting and community service after a recent tragic event

Wadsworth Street, site of the Jan. 17 murders, is steps from the SUNY Geneseo campus and WGSU(FM).

Photo credit: Atsushi Tajima, SUNY Geneseo

It shook and saddened our quaint village and surrounding, mostly rural, community south of Rochester. It rocked our normally peaceful campus — known as much for its glorious sunsets over the Genesee Valley as for high academic standards.

Early one Sunday morning in January, a former student of the State University of New York at Geneseo killed his ex-girlfriend (a Geneseo student) and another student. The ex-student then took his own life in the same nearby off-campus house.

The murders happened steps from the Geneseo campus, where, two days later, spring-semester classes were to begin for 5,500 students. The day before, just the thought of a double-murder/suicide in Geneseo would have been unimaginable.

Geneseo (population about 8,000) is a “small town” — the kind of place where the village police chief is an alumnus of the college and the mayor is on the faculty. Wadsworth Street, where the murders happened, lies practically in the shadow of campus radio station WGSU’s antenna and tower, across University Drive and behind the library.

The following Tuesday, addressing media-writing students in class, I described the crime as the biggest local-news story in Geneseo in a quarter century or more (according to police, the village’s last murder was 23 years ago). But the unfolding story occurred when much of WGSU’s staff had not yet returned from winter break (automation was turned on). How were we to handle this jarring tragedy as the news was breaking?

Hearing that something had occurred nearby, we first took to Twitter, sharing news from credible sources, including the college and local media outlets. We live-tweeted a late-afternoon news conference (and a follow-up news conference the next day) called by Geneseo Police.

By Monday afternoon, more students were back (but with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday we still lacked a full complement). By then, basic information was widely known, so the station’s student news director and assistant news director produced a special report focusing on the victims. They invited WGSU’s hockey play-by-play announcer to share thoughts about one (a player on Geneseo’s hockey squad who he knew from covering the team).

Wednesday, the college held two moments of silence, followed by the tolling of Sturges Hall chimes. As we know, in radio “moments of silence” (typically dreaded) have a less-friendly term: Dead air. But the decision to join the campus in the observances — including airing chimes — was an easy one. So, at exactly 2:30 p.m. (for Matthew Hutchinson’s hockey jersey #23) and 3:20 p.m. (Kelsey Annese, a captain on the women’s basketball squad, wore #32), family and friends of the victims, alumni near and far, and others collectively shared the moment via WGSU’s signal and webcast. It was unconventional for a radio station, but for Geneseo’s grieving extended family it was simply the right thing to do. 

That evening, the college hosted (and WGSU carried live and will re-air) a remembrance ceremony, attended by 3,500, beginning the healing process for those in the village and town whose shared name means “Beautiful Valley.”

During the week, SUNY Buffalo sister station WBNY(FM) interviewed our assistant news director and WGSU’s hockey announcer chatted on air with morning-show hosts on WPXY(FM), Rochester. Their and other students’ emotions are still raw, but despite the profound sadness we all now feel, I suggested, one day, near or far into the future, they might reflect on covering the biggest news story to hit our community in at least 25 years — and take pride in their roles as radio broadcasters.

Nick Duran, a junior from the Bronx, shared the sentiment. “As WGSU news director, I wanted to act as a voice for the school, informing the community with accurate information and being as efficient as I could ever be,” he said. “As a student, I wanted to be with my school community in solidarity to show we are truly ‘Geneseo Strong.’ These two roles made me appreciate this community even more, and inspired me to continue to provide the college and WGSU listeners with a valuable public service.”

Facing similar unfortunate circumstances, larger-staffed commercial stations (and even some noncommercial and college outlets) — beaming bigger signals to more sizeable audiences — might dwarf our coverage. But as a SUNY Geneseo (and WGSU) alumnus also reeling from the tragedy, I’m already proud of my station’s efforts and contributions toward a news story that, undoubtedly, isn’t over.

For 15 years, I’ve written about radio’s public-interest obligation. While listening to the moving 80-minute ceremony, carried live on WGSU, I occasionally imagined (like only a radio geek could) the bouncing needles of the VU meters back in the studio (where a student was board op’ing). Moreover, I considered what they represented to our listeners. “This is true radio public service at its finest,” I thought. “This is why we exist.”