“You know, I talk to about 3 people from college. I never understood why you were always in contact with so many Syracuse people. Now that I’ve come to Banquet Weekend, I get it. What you have here is so special. It’s a big family, and they welcomed me right in.”
That’s what my then-girlfriend and now-wife Ellen told me when I brought her to Syracuse three years ago for the annual reunion banquet of WJPZ, my old college radio station. For those who aren’t familiar, “college radio station” is an accurate representation of who’s in charge, but not how it’s run or what it sounds like.
Z89 is a Top 40 Radio Station that competes in the Syracuse market, and is completely run by Syracuse University students. It’s been called “The Greatest Media Classroom,” and I learned more in my time there than I ever did in a lecture hall. I learned radio, management and people skills, and I went from being a homesick freshman in 1998 to having to be dragged off campus teary-eyed in 2002. 75% of the friends I made in Syracuse I made at that radio station. 5 of the 7 people in this picture from 2001-2002 came back this weekend.
Anyone who went to Syracuse or spent any time in Upstate/Central New York knows how dicey the weather can be. And Banquet 2018 turned out to be an all-timer.
I was originally scheduled to fly to the great white north from Detroit on Friday afternoon, but as fate would have it, I was laid off on Monday. This gave me some flexibility in my travel plans. With a big storm hitting Michigan Thursday afternoon, and a FOOT of the heavy wet stuff hitting the ‘Cuse on Friday, I was able to hop in the car and embark on my 415 mile international drive – departing Metro Detroit Thursday at 10am, thankfully.
When I crossed the Canadian border back into New York, I got a funny look from the Customs and Border Patrol agent. Apparently the combination of Patriots front license plate, Syracuse shirt, and Michigan rear plate had him befuddled, until he ran my passport and discovered I was born in Massachusetts. He then proceeded (remember this is Buffalo Bills country) to tell me how awful Patriots fans are, how we are cheaters, and how Tom Brady is NOT the greatest quarterback ever.
Rather than reveal my internal monologue of “Are you bleeping kicking me right now? Let me into my own country!” I smiled wryly and said, “I know better than to argue with you. You have a badge.”
Some friendly debated ensued, as I realized I was only at mile 240 of 415. Finally I said, “You know, this is like politics. I’m not gonna convince you, and you’re not gonna convince me.” He laughed, I told him I’d learned the valuable lesson to take the Patriots plate off my car the next time I cross in Buffalo, and I was on my way.
While my five minutes of annoyance became a funny story, several compatriots dealt with travel nightmares. A fellow Detroit alumnus was lied to by Delta, and put on 3 flights before being ultimately cancelled and having to go home after sleeping (or not sleeping) on the floor at Detroit Metro Airport. Ironically, the final flight he was booked on was my original Friday departure – that was cancelled.
Meanwhile another distinguished alum was traveling in with her daughter from Houston. A different alum did a better job of rerouting her than Delta, and got her through Minneapolis, although her two bags went from Minny to New York and Atlanta respectively. But her determination to get to the 315 speaks to just how important this weekend is to all of us.
This was the first time I’d made the early Thursday arrival, and it made for a cozy night at Faegan’s Pub with a small but wonderful group.
Friday got off to a shocking start. Syracuse cancelled classes and all on campus activities, following an overnight of heavy, weight snow. This is a school that cancelled classes once from 1870-1993. In my time there from 1998-2002, we cancelled once for a microburst (Welcome Freshmen!) and classes were optional as the horrific events of September 11, 2001 unfolded.
Unfortunately, the cancellation of non-essential campus activities meant the same fate for the seminars we’d prepared for the students. This included one I’d worked on with fellow alumnus Lauren Levine on “The Do’s and Don’t s of Podcasting.” Students were also disappointed, so we made the presentation available by email.
The silver lining through the snowstorm meant a free afternoon and a 3.5 hour nap for my old bones, which ended up being a key factor in surviving the rest of the weekend. Friday night was the typical trip to Varsity Pizza, where I got to hear, “Jag, your wings are ready.”
Due to the snow, Varsity closed at 7:30, which meant an early arrival at Faegan’s. We continued our weekend tour of beers, though nothing can match getting your name on a plaque for completing all 45 libations over the course of Tuesdays in a semester.
Our weekend as spectators continued, as we watched the participants of a private party attempt at “Orange Crate Brewing Company” across the street try to navigate the accumulated snow in heels that were longer than their dresses. It was a night of networking, reminiscing, and laughs.
Saturday morning started with our annual alumni meeting, and some inspiring words from the station’s current student general manager, Kerri McAneney. The station is in great shape, now broadcasting at 1,000 watts (it was competitive at 100 watts), and poised for a great future.
Next up was the home basketball game against Clemson, with the Orange needing a win and a run in next week’s ACC Tournament to have a shot at March Madness. The game featured a painful first half, but an epic finish:
Next was the event itself, Banquet 33. It featured an inspiringly honest speech from Jubal Flagg, host of the syndicated Brooke and Jubal morning show. He concluded with a confession that he always wanted to go to Syracuse but couldn’t get in. So he made himself an honorary diploma.
As always, it was a night of radio, laughter, and family. One of my mentors at the station, Miami’s Mike Kruz, was able to return for the first time in many years.
We knew going in that it would be a smaller-than-usual group this year. We also knew, however, that would mean more interaction among alumni and more networking for the students. It did. And I speak for all alumni when I say that I hope the students reach out and ask for our help in any way possible.
If you’ve heard Mike in Miami, or Ralphie Aversa in New York City, or Rich Davis on SiriusXM (including afternoons on Pop 2K, one of my favorites), or seen Scott MacFarlane on NBC Washington DC…know that they (among many, many others) all started at WJPZ.
Oh, one final thing. We started a new tradition this year. Given that Syracuse’s colors are Orange and BLUE, this seemed appropriate.