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School board recognizes WMSS as it marks its 40th anniversary

Posted 11/28/18

By Dan Miller

and Mitch Carson

Special to the Press & Journal

Middletown Area School Board took time out from its Nov. 20 meeting to recognize WMSS 91.1 …

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School board recognizes WMSS as it marks its 40th anniversary


By Dan Miller

and Mitch Carson

Special to the Press & Journal

Middletown Area School Board took time out from its Nov. 20 meeting to recognize WMSS 91.1 staff and students on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the school district radio station.

Members of the station, led by General Manager John Wilsbach, were called up from the audience to accept congratulations from board members and from Superintendent Lori Suski and chief financial officer David Franklin.

Wilsbach was an eighth-grader at Middletown when the station first went on the air in 1978.

“It’s like slow motion because it’s hard to believe the station is 40 years old and I have been with the station every year,” he said. “WMSS is all about family because we have invested in a lot of students at the station, and I’m proud that the investment has paid off to good memories and good experiences by graduates.”

The school board took “a leap of faith” to support creating a radio station in 1977, based on little more than an article that Feaser Junior High School teachers John Cooper and Jeff Johnson brought in about a high school “somewhere in the country that had a radio station,” Wilsbach told the board Nov. 20.

Many of those who got involved in WMSS as Middletown students have gone on to careers in radio or in media, such as Sweeny Murti, a 1988 Middletown Area High School graduate who covers the New York Yankees for Sports Radio 66 WFAN.

“As I started doing it [sports at WMSS], I started to think about it more in terms of wow, this is a real career. … It was an option. As I started to do it and enjoy it more and got more positive feedback on what I was doing, I really got into this idea because I did love sports so much,” Murti told the Press & Journal for a story in 2017. “I love calling the football and basketball games. Baseball was always my favorite sport. This idea crystalized for me at this point. This wasn’t just a club at school. This was an actual job.”

Other WMSS alumni became musicians, teachers or mail carriers for the U.S. Postal Service, Wilsbach said.

Wilsbach is a 1983 graduate of MAHS. He became the assistant general manager in 1986 and then general manager in 1992, replacing the original general manager, Cooper.

To Wilsbach, the common thread is that all the students have benefitted from their time at WMSS.

“We’ve had all types of kids, from the freaks to the geeks to the jocks to the super smart to the not so bright, but they all developed in our program,” Wilsbach said.

For some students, WMSS “got them out of their shell in school,” he added. “I used to have teachers say, ‘Was that so-and-so on the air yesterday? We can’t get a word out of him in class, but I heard him talking on the air.’”

WMSS is “about 75 percent to 80 percent self-sustaining” through advertising and money the station gets from sponsors to broadcast not just Blue Raider football games and sporting events, but football games and other sporting events of other high schools and colleges throughout the region, Wilsbach previously told the Press & Journal. The station is on the air almost 365 days a year — except for major holidays such as Christmas and Easter — and the students are part of that year-round. WMSS is one of just a handful of FM radio stations run by school districts in Pennsylvania.

Today, WMSS consistently averages 30 to 35 students participating each year from grades 7 through 12, including three to eight members of the senior class, Wilsbach told the board.

He thanked the current board and district administration for supporting the station’s recently completed tower expansion project.

The project is helping to guarantee the station’s future, by boosting the WMSS signal and by preventing other radio stations from encroaching on the signal, Wilsbach said.

WMSS first came on the air in 1978 at Feaser Middle School.

Purchase and installation of a new antenna and transmitter to boost WMSS was approved by the school board last May.

WMSS was powered by a 100-foot-tall tower at Middletown Area Middle School that sends out a 475-watt signal to a radius of 20 to 30 miles. The expansion grew the tower by 10 feet and allows WMSS to boost its signal in almost all directions by up to 4,500 watts or more.

“I look forward to 10 years from now when we have the 50th anniversary,” Wilsbach said. “Middletown has been fortunate to have its own airport, train station, river, pools, newspaper, and its own radio station.”

On Saturday, Oct. 13, WMSS held a 40th anniversary reunion at Middletown Area Middle School, where the station is now located.

About 30 alumni spent two hours trading stories and sharing experiences. Memories were shared from big game coverage, station improvements, community broadcasts, the chicken barbecues and friendships made.

Those in attendance included Wilsbach, Dan Magaro and Maureen Denis.

Magaro, Class of 2001, has been involved with the station for 22 years, starting as a member in high school then becoming the assistant manager and production manager.

Denis was an original 1978 member of WMSS and was in charge of public relations. She is a former MASD teacher who still enjoys coming back and helping with the station, and she described WMSS as being innovative.