D-III SUNY Oswego Delivers First-Class Sports Productions

It’s the biggest day of the year in Oswego. SUNY Plattsburgh is in town. The SUNYAC regular-season men’s hockey game may not mean much to most outside the modest Upstate New York city on the banks of Lake Ontario; but here? It may as well be Super Bowl Sunday.

The view from WTOP's press box for a men's hockey game at Campus Center Ice Arena. WTOP will broadcast live this Friday when top-ranked Oswego battles rival Plattsburgh.

It’s still a couple of hours before the doors open at the 2,500-seat Campus Center Ice Arena, and already the line outside stretches on. Those at the front have been camped out since 10 a.m. On the blustery, cold morning, Justin Andrews, sports director at WTOP, the all-student-run TV station on the SUNY Oswego campus, is there with a camera and a couple of classmates to record it.

Later that night, Andrews and a team of up to 20 Oswego students will broadcast the game live on WTOP and Time Warner Cable channel 96 and online on the university’s athletics Website. As the crowd cheers in front of his lens, Andrews gives himself a moment to take it all in and thinks to himself, “Man, I’m glad I’m doing this!”

Despite it’s “small,” Division III status, SUNY Oswego’s School of Communication, Media, and the Arts, partnering with WTOP, offers student opportunities and high-quality live broadcasts that would be the envy of some D-I universities.

The productions have also given Oswego exposure not typically enjoyed by schools their size.

“It’s extremely important to us,” says Adele Burk, sports information director at Oswego. “There’s a lot of public institutions that can’t put on the productions that we do due to funding purposes or even student interest. We are very fortunate to have such an active communications department that is willing to take on this sort of task.”

Student Ben Amey works a hard camera during a men's hockey broadcast on WTOP.

The broadcasts and especially the live online stream have become a favorite of alums in the Oswego area and beyond and has lead to a boost in alumni donations.

“They put out a very high-quality product,” says Athletic Director Tim Hale. “They have great students who are very serious about getting into this line of work as a profession, and the faculty here has done a great job of guiding them. The product they put out there, I think, is better than 90% of what I see from other Division III schools, and our alumni have responded overwhelmingly about this.”

While other universities have strong student-run production operations, Oswego takes it to the next level with only minimal faculty involvement at WTOP, which has been an all-student station since its inception in 1978. The program has produced such noted talent as ESPN hosts Steve Levy and Linda Cohn, as well as Today show’s Al Roker, for whom the new state-of-the-art studio (which opened in 2008) was named after the popular weatherman made a large endowment to his alma mater.

Since the construction of the new studio, Oswego has emerged from the shadows of other large New York communications programs — most notably, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and Ithaca College’s Park School — by offering its students the opportunity to get hands-on experience as early as the first semester of their freshman year. And they don’t need to be communications or broadcasting majors to participate.

Students (from left to right) Brady Farkas, Josh Burchill, Caitlin Pike, and Chris Horvatits break down Oswego's opponent during a live pre-game show at the arena..

“We are probably the school that most students look to if they’re not going to go to Syracuse or Ithaca,” says Fritz Messere, dean at the School of Communications, Media, and the Arts. “But many students who come into our communications program are interested in doing producing, directing, or sports broadcasting so it’s a really big deal for us to be able to say [to prospective students] that you don’t have to wait until you’re a junior to get into a class or to start to do this.”

The combination of immediate hands-on opportunities and new state-of-the-art facilities make Oswego an ideal training ground for sports-broadcasting professionals.

“This is not what you will find in some Division I schools, where it’s more of a quasi-pro operation with professional talent and a professional producer and director,” says former NEP Broadcasting CEO Lou Borrelli, an Oswego alum who gives his time to assisting WTOP students. “These are kids. Everybody auditions. You could have the guy who does play-by-play for basketball one night running a camera at hockey the next night. It’s a great environment that offers great experience.”

Oswego takes pride in having its students leave with the abilities of a “one-man band,” and it has helped grads land jobs at ESPN, NEP, Fox Sports, and many local news affiliates throughout the state.

“It’s a tremendous help for them being able to say they’ve done two years of camera, a year of tech directing, etc.,” says Messere. “I think our students realize that they have to make their own opportunities and this is a tremendous opportunity for them.”

WTOP also strives to make sure its live sports broadcasts are as fair as possible. There is very little home-ism among the student broadcasters, and they demonstrate thorough knowledge of both teams during broadcasts. With the help of Borrelli, WTOP’s students aim for professionalism.

Back in Al Roker Studio, an all-student crew produces the game for two television channels, as well as a live online web stream

“What I help the students with is knowing the difference between covering an event and producing a show,” says Borrelli. “The nuances and intricacies of trying to make that transition can be tough, and I think they have done a great job. These kids can stand up to anybody, and it’s very impressive.”

As for Andrews, he is in the second semester of his senior year and is gearing up for his last Plattsburgh broadcast, with Oswego currently ranked No. 1 in the nation in the USCHO.com Poll. WTOP will have all the live coverage on Friday night beginning at 7 p.m., and the game will also be available via live stream at athletics.oswego.com.

As if the biggest sports game of the year on campus weren’t enough, WTOP’s student staff will also attempt to pull off the first simulcast in WTOP history when men’s basketball tips off against Buffalo State at 8 p.m. across campus at the Max Ziel Gymnasium. The basketball game will be streamed directly through the WTOP Website, www.wtop10.com.

It promises to be a wild night, but Andrews, a Brooktondale, NY, native, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I came into college with no experience in this whatsoever, and, during my four years here, I have gained so much knowledge, and I just feel really comfortable doing camera work,” he says. “It’s helped me evolve more as a broadcaster.”

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