The LION 90.7 FM in Turmoil
The LION 90.7 FM, rich in tradition and reverence, is Penn State’s student radio station voice — a voice that has existed since 1953. But a recent leadership transition, and the subsequent termination of longtime advisor and host Andy Nagypal, has left the once lauded station in a power struggle that many fear will damage that voice forever. On one side stands the station’s current officers — notably President Frank Canella and Vice President Steve Valenti — and on the other its alumni, who fear that WKPS may not persevere through their reckless leadership.
“The LION King”
Andy Nagypal – also known as Andy “Nash” — had been involved with The LION since he was a student in 1995, but in 1999, he made his lasting impact on WKPS. That year, Nagypal debuted “Radio Free Penn State,” a daily hour long public affairs talk show charged with analyzing current events, and often exploring the inner-workings of Penn State. Quickly, it became the most important show in the station’s history, garnering a following to match. This past year marked Nagypal’s 17th with the station, and there is no doubt that he was the most ubiquitous character in the station’s history — an omnipresence that has earned him the nickname, “The LION King.”
In addition to hosting the show five days a week, Nagypal served an unofficial role in ensuring WKPS’s sustainability.“My main activity with the station was helping out with the training, especially since 2003,” Nagypal said. “That included being an unofficial volunteer advisor. The station desperately needed an advisor.”
Beyond that, to the staffers, he was an integral part of the LION. Most said they could not imagine the new direction of the station bereft of his guidance.
“Andy was always there for us,” said Matt Steiner, the former President and General Manager of The LION who gave way months ago for the current leadership. “Any time something broke — even in the middle of the night — Andy was there. He poured his heart and soul into this station just so it could exist.”
Indeed, Nagypal has been the rock of the LION for nearly two decades, and his continued leadership has helped the station persevere. With a high level of turnover amongst students, Penn State Student Affairs — which has some authority in overseeing station operations — can easily delay initiatives until students graduate, effectively only having to deal with student leaders for one or two years before a fresh crop of wide-eyed, inexperienced students come along to start the process over again. The presence of an experienced advisor has been crucial in making the necessary yet perplexing decisions, like requesting funding from UPAC or dealing with Penn State administrators, smoother, and more effective.
Nagypal cites three distinct incidents with new station Vice President Steve Valenti as the source of tension at the station, eventually leading to Nagypal’s termination. Valenti ran unopposed for the position this spring after only five months of involvement with the station, taking charge alongside President and General Manager Frank Cannella, who similarly ran without opposition.
The first incident Nagypal discussed occurred in January after Valenti moved the station website – theLION.fm – from its previous server to one purchased from GoDaddy.com. Previously, the LION Student Radio Alumni Interest Group – which advocates on behalf and handles financial matters for WKPS — had acquired free hosting from Dreamhost as a result of the station’s nonprofit status. Valenti acted unilaterally in moving the website to GoDaddy.com, which drew a sharp rebuke from the SRAIG, and particularly from Nagypal. Tensions ran high, resulting in an argumentative phone call between Nagypal and Valeti, and was the primary fallout between Valenti and the majority of LION alumni who felt that their hard work was ignored.
The second incident involved changes in The LION training program. Nagypal had been in charge of training and transitioning new members of the 125-person staff for more than a decade, leading a series of a half dozen or more sessions. These sessions included lectures led by Nagypal on topics ranging from technical advice to The LION history, before culminating with a final exam.
Valenti approached Nagypal in late January and said the new officers wanted to change the way incoming members were trained, proposing a system which would remove Nagypal — and other instructors — from the fold, in favor of a glorified rubber stamp. “They didn’t do any real training at all,” Nagypal said, explaining that Valenti had simply brought new members in for a quick tour of the station.
“It was a complete joke,” he said, and resulted in another confrontation between the station’s new officers and its longtime bulwark.
The breaking point, the third issue Nagypal cites, involved the dissemination of the infamous “LION Riot” audio clips, which shed light on the often contentious past between the station and the university. In 2002, several College of Communications professors ambushed the studio while a program was on the air and insisted that the station was not allowing their students ample air time. It’s actually very entertaining audio, with professors and radio personalities yelling things like “Come hit me! Hit me!” and a female professor smacking the microphone, all which was broadcast live on The LION 90.7 FM.
But beyond making for a funny clip, that incident is crucial in understanding WKPS’s history. Squeezed by the College of Communications on one side, and the Office of Student Affairs on the other — former Vice President of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey threatened to cut off all funding to the student radio station, famously saying “Radio Free Penn State will be the first to go.” — the LION stood on very shaky grounds, facing the prospect of losing its autonomy, or worse — disbandment.
Audio for the LION Riot was played every semester for new recruits, as part of a unit on station history. For recruits, it placed the station in a larger context, and allowed them to understand the privilege of fully independent student radio — perhaps best exemplified by Radio Free Penn State — which almost unflinchingly took a critical aim at university administration. However, Valenti refused to allow dissemination of the audio clip, arguing that it could reopen the rifts which have, in the past decade, been all but entirely smoothed over.
Onward State acquired an email Valenti sent to members of the SRAIG who questioned his decision to hide the evidence of the previous conflicts between Penn State and WKPS. He wrote, “The recording does not support our current goal of moving past old issues and working toward restoring our standing allocation.”
In other words, Valenti didn’t want to risk upsetting the Penn State administrators or the College of Communication, who undoubtedly were responsible for the unprofessionalism of the incident.
However, Valenti seems either to be under the false impression that the College of Communications is responsible for the station’s standing allocation — which goes through student affairs, and funding through UPAC, at least, is conferred by students — or is forgetting the very reason the station fought so hard for its independence.
A heated email exchange between alumni and officers resulted, and in one chain, Nagypal accused Valenti of attempting to whitewash the station’s history.
Valenti rebutted, writing that “The ‘history’ you’re hanging on to is the very reason you and the station have been going nowhere.”
“Out of all the work we put into that place, for [Valenti] to come in after only five months, knowing nothing, to say I’m the reason the station isn’t going anywhere — how can I not take that personally?” Nagypal said.
And then it happened.
On April 10, Andy Nagypal, the preeminent voice of The LION 90.7 FM for almost two decades, was fired.
Nagypal received an email from Cannella notifying him of the decision; it read “After reviewing the lion riot recording email thread that took place between April 3rd and April 4th, the WKPS Board of Executive Officers have voted unanimously to revoke your membership and status as Staff-head of Radio Free Penn State.” The email stated that the decision would become effective at the conclusion of the Spring semester.
Joe Paul, one of Nagypal’s partners on Radio Free Penn State, approached Cannella, requesting that Nagypal be allowed to continue with the program until its planned conclusion for the year at the end of May. Cannella granted that request.
But on May 10, the Wednesday after finals week, Nagypal came into the studio for Radio Free Penn State — as he would any weekday — and discovered that his swipe card had been deactivated. When he was let into the studio, Valenti was concluding his own show.
“You couldn’t even wait two more weeks, like we agreed on?” Nagypal asked Valenti.
Valenti then asked Nagypal to leave. “You’re not going on the air,” Valenti said.
Nagypal refused, explaining that he had been granted permission to stay on the air until the end of May. After some discussion, Valenti invited Nagypal outside the studio to talk, but rather than confront Nagypal, Valenti walked away, effectively locking Nagypal out of the studio.
Less than a minute later, Nagypal was approached by three HUB employees and informed that he was no longer permitted inside the studio or in any of The LION offices — a direct violation of the agreement he had reached with the station after his termination. Nagypal nonetheless left without argument.
In an email sent to all WKPS staff members informing them of Nagypal’s firing, Valenti wrote that Nagypal had to be removed from the studio and the HUB and was no longer permitted in the studio or offices, “despite the best efforts of the student officers to honor Andy’s time with WKPS.” Nagypal calls that claim “patently false.”
The reaction to the termination was immediate and negative, from both inside the station and from those on the outside. Nagypal responded to the email, arguing that the story had been fabricated, and that he left the studio unescorted on his own will, which prompted a firestorm of responses from current and former LION members.
Another email acquired by Onward State was sent to current LION officers by former President and General Manager Mike Walsh, who expressed his disapproval of the termination and accused current Vice President Steve Valenti of being mentally unstable for his part in the decision. Walsh wrote that it would be a “miracle” if the station survived under this leadership.
Former President and General Manager Matt Steiner also noted his disapproval, saying in an phone conversation, “It’s just unfathomable to get rid of Andy. I don’t think getting rid of Andy is justified.”
The conflict reached its climax on May 22, when a series of five Tweets were sent over the official @TheLION907fm Twitter account. The Tweets, found below, were deleted the next morning.
The LION’s officers acknowledged that the Tweets came from a current or former member who had access to the station’s social media. Similar messages were also posted on the LION’s Facebook page. Steiner, who had in the past been tasked with handling social media for the station, denied that he had sent those messages, but added, “I don’t know who is responsible for the Tweets. But I do know that the alumni are very unhappy with how Steve and Frank acted last semester, specifically with Andy.”
The LION “Responds”
The most alarming aspect of this situation — and perhaps the most pervasive evidence of trouble with the station — lies in The LION’s response. Multiple station officers refused to answer questions about the situation, deciding instead to issue a hollow statement which provided no sense of finality.
“We would like it to be known that the students, volunteers and staff of The LION 90.7fm, dedicate long hours and effort to the station; together, we are, and always will be, the ‘face’ of The LION. As for the incident that took place involving Andy Nagypal, we do not wish to comment because it has no bearing on The LION’s current direction and goal of continuing our independent programming while we also update the station’s operations. The LION will continue its mission to serve the student body, the university and the local community in accordance with the WKPS’s founding purpose and our FCC (Federal Communications Commission) licensure..”
Rather than attempt to justify a high-profile decision which has created a significant cleavage between LION members past and present, which has balkanized the current staff, and which has displayed a terrifying lack of foresight, respect, and understanding of the station’s contentious history, Valenti and Cannella chose to hide behind a non-statement.
The LION has made its hallmark criticism of the Penn State administration’s lack of transparency — even before the events of last November. Graham Spanier and his ilk were often the targets in Nagypal’s crosshairs. Now, the current officers are echoing that cowardice, displaying that same level of systematic corruption and dishonesty — but they’ve got no watchdog to point out the hypocrisy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.
“I’m not bitter,” Nagypal said. “I don’t believe I’m owed anything. No one is owed air time. It was my privilege to be able to do what I have done — to be able to work with students on and off the air, and watch them grow. I don’t regret anything I’ve done or the time I’ve spent doing it. I’m just disappointed that future and present students won’t get the benefit of an advisor type leadership.”
At the end of the day, Penn State needs The LION, just a little bit more than the LION needs Andy Nagypal. But they don’t need a LION that kowtows to administration pressure, that holds off in its criticism for fear of rebuke. They don’t need a LION whose thin-skinned leaders will silence dissention within the ranks. They don’t need a LION which will become yet another patsy for the university, that will so greatly distort its original mission that it more closely resembles a parody than the real thing.
When former Vice President for Student Affairs — and generally wicked person – Vicky Triponey tried to take control of the station and strip it of its funding in 2004, the LION — and specifically Andy Nagypal — fought back and won. Sunshine, they say, is the best disinfectant, and for almost 20 years, Andy Nagypal was the preeminent voice casting a critical eye on the Penn State administration, calling for reform well before it became a rallying cry for Penn Staters everywhere. His leadership kept the LION in business, and his outspoken opinions proved the need for an independent and autonomous student radio station.
It’s now imperative that members and listeners of The LION not stand idly by as a set of power-hungry officer despots destroy the station that has come to define free speech for students for over 59 years.
Anything less would be a tragedy.