Switching stations

PwC alumna Candy Capel tunes in to life on campus radio.

Radio gives you the ability to constantly create and reinvent. That’s what I love about it.

- Candy Capel

Part storyteller, reporter, civic promoter and organizer, Candy Capel buzzes with excitement when she talks about her role as station manager of WVAS. A former customer service manager for the PwC e-commerce venture e.conomy, Capel became a parttime announcer at the launch of WVAS more than 25 years ago. She has returned to the station twice in the course of her varied career, which has also included multiple stints in public service. Her combination of managerial smarts and infectious passion for radio clearly suits the job. “Radio gives you the ability to constantly create and reinvent,” she says. “That’s what I love about it.”

WVAS is, by definition, a college radio station. Licensed to Alabama State University (ASU), the nonprofit broadcaster is housed in one of the oldest buildings on campus—just down the hall from Admissions and Career Services—and receives 70% of its funding from school coffers. But there’s nothing amateur about this 80,000-watt National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate. Listeners to 90.7 in Montgomery hear professionally trained reporters and announcers delivering a signature mix of “Jazz, Blues, News and Views.” Broadcasts flow on a crystal- clear signal, the second-most powerful in the station’s 17-county listening area. In addition to carrying NPR news headlines and producing its own music, talk and legal programs, the station broadcasts eight local newscasts each day, providing the most comprehensive local coverage in the greater Montgomery region.

But the station’s accomplishments and ambitions go beyond daily broadcasts, Capel notes. In addition to covering issues of significance to Alabama’s communities of color—WVAS is designated a certified minority station by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the bulk of its staff is African American—the station serves as an information hub for “Bama State” and a laboratory for students apprenticing in the art of radio broadcasting. A qualitative worth analysis conducted in 2009 showed that WVAS programming provides the university the equivalent of $1.3 million in public relations services each year.

There’s also Bama State Radio, WVAS’s new secondary channel, programmed and operated entirely by ASU students. There’s the American Graduate program, a nationwide effort by public TV and radio stations, including WVAS, to address the problem of high school dropouts. There are the plans to develop an expanded and updated broadcast facility, in partnership with the university’s communications program, which will train students in both radio and television broadcasting. And Capel and her staff are intent on covering social, political and economic issues in and around Montgomery, ranging from state government to the rash of school closings affecting the public education system.

“We try to be extremely visible in the community,” Capel says. “We make a point of getting out there and supporting other organizations. You’ll see us at the American Red Cross blood drive, at food drives and at local schools covering different issues.”

With such a broad mission and so many constituents to please, it would seem Capel’s biggest challenge would be to find focus. But Capel boils down the complexity of her job to a simple idea: “Everything we do at WVAS is centered on customer service,” she says. “We are customer service.” Capel says her passion for serving customers is rooted in lessons she learned at PwC about the value of building strong relationships across different teams and fulfilling the needs of multiple stakeholders. Today, even though most of Capel’s customers—WVAS’s tens of thousands of listeners—are people she and her staff will never meet, she clearly cares about each one.

Back on the air

Capel’s entry into the radio broadcasting profession was serendipitous. After graduating from Tulane University in 1974, she enrolled in law school. During her first semester, on scholarship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, Capel recalls, “I did really well, but I was miserable. It wasn’t what I wanted to do.” She returned to Tuskegee, Alabama, where her parents were living, and connected with an engineering professor at Tuskegee University. “He was brilliant, just a genius,” Capel says. “He built an FM radio station, and got all the permits and a license from the FCC.” The station manager, a longtime radio professional named Tracy Larkin, invited Capel to join his staff.

Capel describes Larkin as her radio mentor. “He not only taught me the basics of radio,” she says, “he taught me how to do good radio.” Under his tutelage, Capel did everything from selling ads to serving as an announcer on her own Sunday afternoon R&B show. She was expecting her first child at the time. “My older daughter loves music, and maybe that’s why, because she certainly heard plenty of it,” Capel remarks. Because the station was new and in the process of creating itself, Capel says she had the opportunity to learn radio from the ground up.

The station was subsequently sold, and in 1984 Capel joined ASU’s newly formed WVAS as an announcer—her first of three stints there. For the next 15 years, her career moved between radio and public service. She worked for various government agencies, managing federal grants and performing other administrative roles in areas such as community development, homeless services and minority business enterprise before returning to WVAS from 1991 to 1995 as the station manager.

By 1998, Capel and her family were living in Los Angeles, where the older of her two daughters was developing a promising career as a child actor. It was there that Capel landed a position with PwC. Capel’s job was to manage the customer service center for e.conomy, a newly launched purchasing consortium serving PwC clients; her staff guided callers through a web portal where they purchased office furniture, supplies and other business necessities. Capel considered it an excellent opportunity to develop her professional skill set and network. “That kind of corporate environment was completely different for me,” she says. “I worked with great people, and I really enjoyed it.”

Capel stayed with PwC for two years before she and her family were pulled back to Alabama—this time to take advantage of a prepaid tuition plan that Capel had established to send her older daughter to the University of Alabama. After the move, Capel signed on to administer housing and urban development grants with the City of Montgomery, but it wasn’t long before she got a call from WVAS. The station needed a new manager, and Capel began her third stint there.

Stay tuned for the future

As station manager, Capel is responsible for “everything,” she says with a bemused laugh. A typical day starts with wading through a stack of emails, ranging from announcements of new music releases to reminders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about an upcoming test of the Emergency Alert System. Then she might move on to paying bills, conducting staff performance appraisals, reviewing FCC licensing paperwork or ensuring her production team has everything lined up to do a live broadcast of an on-campus speech from the governor. “My job is to make sure everything is running 24/7/365,” Capel says. “I carry two phones: a personal cell phone and a work cell phone. They’re never turned off.”

Neither are the phones of her full-time staff, she adds. When tornadoes slammed northern Alabama last spring and when Alabama’s tough immigration laws became a focus of national debate last fall, the WVAS news team provided up-to-the-minute, on-thescene coverage—and Capel and her production staff made sure they had the support they needed.

“Anything can happen at any time,” Capel says. One such event occurred a few years ago. WVAS convened a student panel at a local church to discuss the issue of school safety and the problem of student bullying. The event turned into a lively debate, with panelists, participants and parents sharing insights and frustrations about everything from teen sexuality to dealing with peer pressure, and WVAS broadcasted the event live. “The kids didn’t want us to shut down the microphone,” Capel recalls. “It showed that our kids know what they’re talking about. They have a voice, and they want to be able to use that voice.”

Another powerful moment: the night of November 2, 2008, when WVAS reported live on the election of Barack Obama as president. Capel recalls it as one of the standout moments in her radio career—one of special significance for WVAS “as a station on a historically black campus, and with the majority of my staff being minorities.” Indeed, WVAS had conducted one of the first radio interviews with Obama at the outset of his candidacy and had followed the campaign as it progressed. The night of the election, Capel says, the mood in the station was electric.

“When they announced the results, we were trying to remain professional and make sure we were giving the numbers and the returns, but at the same time people in the station were laughing and crying. We were calling our families and texting. It was just amazing. To be able to be on the air that night, reporting that as it happened,” Capel marvels, “that was really memorable.”

Of course, magical moments such as that one rest on a lot of hard work and preparation, and today Capel focuses her attention on making sure the station is financially and operationally positioned to continue its mission far into the future. This includes managing risks associated with university budget cuts and ongoing congressional threats to NPR funding. It also includes actively supporting Vision 2020, ASU’s strategic plan—another chance for Capel to use her PwC training, because the university’s objectives include providing customer service training for every employee.

More than anything, Capel is intent on making sure WVAS gets the facilities it needs to fully serve the educational needs and creative aspirations of ASU students. Radio, she says, is one of those Catch- 22 professions where you need experience to get a job, and need a job to get experience. Capel describes WVAS as “one of the few places in the country” where young people can get hands-on experience with all aspects of radio production in a professional environment.

“It’s a thrill to train the next generation of broadcasters,” she says. “Their tastes might be different,” she adds, acknowledging with a laugh that students consider WVAS’s jazz format to be hopelessly passé. “But the hunger is still there.”