The soundtrack to Penn State

Lauren Ingram
July 24, 2015

Steve Valenti loves working in radio — the music, the energy and even the all-nighters mixing playlists and recording promos for the Lion 90.7 FM, Penn State’s student-run radio station.

Valenti, who grew up DJing at his family’s disc jockey business, has idolized such radio personalities as Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem and Shadoe Stevens since he was a teenager. Today, as a returning adult student majoring in criminal justice through the Penn State World Campus, his passion for the industry hasn’t waned. Except, now, he’s the one on air and behind the scenes curating the tunes.  
“If I won the lottery, I would volunteer at the Lion for the rest of my life,” said Valenti, who has served as the station’s program director since he arrived at University Park campus in 2011 to attend classes (he later switched to World Campus to spend more time with his children). “As a 40-year-old, it was kind of difficult to find an extracurricular group to get involved with. But radio has always been a big part of my life, so I knocked on the station door, found somebody and kind of inserted myself.”

Today, Valenti works alongside as many as 100 students involved in the club each semester to keep listeners -- the majority of whom are digital-device-wielding students -- tuning into radio, while still preserving the legacy of the station.

Established as a senior class gift in 1953 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president (his brother Milton was Penn State’s president at the time) and a nickel could buy a Perry Como or Patti Page song on a jukebox, the student station has worked to keep up with the technology of the day, reinventing itself from year to year.

Just this summer, with support from the Office of Student Affairs, the University Park Allocation Committee and WPSU, the Lion moved into a brand new facility in the HUB.

And while the station is still home to the same knee-high stacks of vinyl records that have been around for decades, the new, glass-enclosed headquarters is like any modern studio. It’s been outfitted with such broadcasting technologies as digital audio boards and iMediaTouch software for automating playlists and shows. The Lion has also turned to online streaming and created an iOS app to make its programming accessible to listeners near and far.

With a round-up of popular talk shows like “Radio Free Penn State” and “Sports Blitz” and the freedom to play nearly any kind of music -- indie, reggae, Motown, classic and alternative rock, electronic dance and even a few pop songs are all transmitted over the Lion’s airwaves -- the station is proud to have established itself as the unofficial soundtrack to Penn State.

“Our mission is to provide students and the local community with cultural and alternative programming not typically heard on commercial stations,” said Tyler Ball, the Lion’s president and a senior studying broadcast journalism. “We’re very fortunate to have a school that cares about and supports student radio and student involvement.”

Ball says the Lion is not only an ideal organization for music enthusiasts to get involved with on campus, but a way for anyone to prepare for a career in radio or TV broadcasting. In addition to on-air personalities, there are behind-the-scenes roles for station president as well as directors of finance, technology, operations, sales and marketing, and more.

“This is a real business, so any position you would find at a regular radio station, you’ll also find here,” he said. “We’re students who are just learning radio — 99 percent of our members have never done a radio show before joining, so we try to make it as easy as possible for them by providing the equipment and technology they’ll see in any traditional station.”

For Alex Mellott, a sophomore in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and a new DJ at the station, understanding technology comes easy.

As an IT enthusiast, Mellott is not only working on updating the station’s website and app this summer, but is also hosting “#Trending,” a show that highlights his picks for up-and-coming indie artists, Top 40 hits and ’90s throwback favorites.

Though he’s often awake until 1 a.m. preparing for his four-days-per-week show, Mellott, who grew up in a military family and moved around a lot as a kid, is happy to be part of a community.

“I did a little radio work in high school, and I knew I wanted to join the Lion and be on air because that’s where I feel at home,” Mellott said.

On show days, he arrives at the station about an hour before his on-air time to finalize talking points and upload songs into the digital music catalog. He checks Penn State News, YouTube and other venues for trending and University-related stories to talk about — anything from Berkey Creamery’s new flavor to Penn State sports.

By show time, Mellott has already chosen each song he’ll play and created a log that accounts for nearly every second of his two-hour show. By using iMediaTouch, a software that automates what’s played on air, Mellott can intermix songs with pre-recorded public service announcements, ads and other content the Federal Communications Commission requires the station to broadcast. Though planning is key, anything can happen once he’s live, so Mellott relies on the digital audio board — and sometimes a seven-second delay — to captain the show from beginning to end.

To keep Penn State students interested, Mellott scours music blogs and sites like YouTube and Spotify to carefully select local and independent artists to feature each week. He takes pride in showcasing artists like Kelsea Ballerini, an up-and-coming country singer, on the Lion before they hit commercial stations. Mellott says the combination of music and technology helps the student-focused station stay relevant.

“We estimate that about 1,000 people tune in each week, and we’d like to continue to grow that number,” Ball said. “But connecting students, our target demographic, with the radio can be a challenge. Every student I know either listens to Spotify or Pandora. We don’t have radios in our apartments or dorms anymore and many of us don’t even have cars.”

But smartphones are prevalent on campus, and the Lion is using that to its advantage to reach student listeners and make it easier for community members and alumni to stay connected with the station. Throughout the fall, the station members are hoping to create an Android app and continue to update the iOS app they already have by adding podcasts, show reminders and an up-to-the-minute display of what’s playing on air.

Though technology changes, after more than 60 years, the station’s reliance on people, like Valenti, is constant.

“We’re open to everyone. There’s no policy that says you have to fit a certain something to be part of our community,” Valenti said. “If you don’t think you’ll fit in, I’ll find someplace for you and something for you to do. All you have to remember is like anything in life, what you put in, is what you’ll get out — and definitely don’t say anything on air that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to hear.”

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  • Alex Mellott at the Lion FM studio in the HUB

    Alex Mellott prepares for a show in the Lion’s on-air studio.

    IMAGE: Angela Card
  • Record players at the Lion 90.7 FM

    The station’s DJs still find use for vinyl record players.

    IMAGE: Angela Card
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Last Updated July 27, 2015