My Alma Mater: Radio, Radio

WPGU was my learning laboratory

WPGU was my learning laboratory

headshot of Susan Santoro and a group shot of her with the WPGU crew

More than 30 years after her graduation from Illinois, Susan Santoro (front-row center) gives back to WPGU by serving on its Fundraising Committee. “We have to sustain the station for future generations,” she says. (Images courtesy of Illini Media and Susan Santoro)

During my time at Illinois, the basement of Weston Hall was a magical place called WPGU—a radio station that was operated by and for students.

My involvement with the station started by happenstance, after I was cast in a fraternity/sorority skit with WPGU’s head of production, Bill Schumacher, ’91 ED. While running our lines, he discovered that I could do different accents, so he recruited me as a commercial voice talent.

I’ll never forget my first day on the job: It was the day when I finally learned how to say “W.” It sounds silly, but once you learn it, you cannot un-hear it. You have to very clearly annunciate: DOUBLE. YOU. Because if you don’t, it ends up sounding like dubbah-ya. Little did I know that the first commercial I ever recorded, a campaign for Papa Del’s Pizza, would run for over five years.

I worked on commercials for only a short time and then moved on to other jobs, such as helping with the station’s format change from Rock 107 to The Planet.

The most valuable part of my experience at WPGU was the daily opportunity I got to use my creativity, often to come up with crazy ideas—like the Turkey Drop.

Inspired by one of my favorite TV shows, WKRP in Cincinnati, the Turkey Drop was a Thanksgiving promotion that our station hosted one chilly November morning in a Schnucks grocery store parking lot. Our sales department, led by Illini Media Hall of Fame inductee Brad Fuhr, talked Schnucks into renting a helicopter and giving away coupons and gift certificates for turkeys. A local first-grade class decorated paper lunch bags with hand-drawn turkeys, which were then “stuffed” with prizes. During our broadcast, we used “theater of the mind” techniques to recreate the stunt from WKRP, tossing “turkeys” out of the helicopter while dozens of contestants bolted across the parking lot.

Another memorable experience was the day our general manager got a call from the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD), telling us that our bus board ads were “inappropriate.” We didn’t have the time or money to redesign them, so we put a large CENSORED sticker over the offending word, making it read, “Either you rock or you CENSORED.” We got some local press coverage and embraced being censored by the MTD as part of our rebellious rock and roll brand.

WPGU was the best learning laboratory I could have asked for: a place where I could apply what I learned in the classroom in real time. I also learned how to get things done with little or no resources; how to organize, prioritize, and manage competing projects on time and within budget; and how to work with and motivate many different kinds of people—all this, while carrying a full class load.

Learning how to master those skills has served me well in my professional and personal lives. I’ll always have WPGU to thank for that—and for teaching me how to say “W.”

Susan Santoro lives and works in Chicago as a marketing communications professional.

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