March 10th, 2014 16:02 EST
The Woman Behind the Scenes at TheSOP - Judyth Piazza
A ten-year-old girl sits in her room with a sheet of paper and a pencil. She thinks about all of the interesting things that have recently happened in her neighborhood. With her still-developing handwriting skills, she crafts the newest daily release of her independent newspaper. Being such a young kid, her concept of hard news is non-existent, but her imagination is vivid. After the paper is complete, she goes out into the neighborhood, goes up to whatever neighbors are out and about, and tries to get them to read her unique and unusual brand of journalism.
Flashforward to 25 years later, and she has founded the globally-recognized Student Operated Press, works as a Content Manager and Editor at Newsblaze.com, hosts the American Perspective Radio Show and handles the media relations, public relations, and marketing at Incredible Renovations. It`s hard to deny that Judyth Piazza has given many students the chance to work in an unbiased news environment through her internship program, and she has also shed some light on many popular figures through her radio interviews.
I had a chance to interview Judyth back in January. When put into the opposite position, she remained a very calm, down-to-earth person who expressed her passion for journalism very tranquilly and introspectively. She spoke in the same smooth, relaxed, mildly Southern voice that would be present in her radio programs.
If you were to listen to the American Perspective, you would surprised to hear how little Judyth talks in the interviews. Judyth wanted the American Perspective to stand out by having the show be about the guests rather than the interviewer in order for the show to maintain its focus on "success, news and information." She believes that too many interview shows were centered on the interviewer rather than the people they interviewed. Her only role in each of the interviews is to lead them into the questions, in which she would then, sit back and let the guests do their thing. While a lot of interviewers go the route of bantering and debating with their guests and try to inject their own opinions into the interview, Judyth asks very basic, straightforward, unloaded questions regarding their lives, careers, and whatever their current relevance.
Around 2004-2005, when Judyth was living in Florida, she was constantly looking for some freelance work. Her local papers didn`t have internship programs, so she would ask them relentlessly if there were any positions available. When she did manage to get some freelance work, it wasn`t hard news. Usually, she ended up contributing a community feature, a travel feature, or a restaurant review.
In the interview, she said that what really helped start her radio career was the hurricane season that took place in 2004-2005. At this point, Florida was hit with three consecutive hurricanes. Only one radio station was available, and it was one that gave people information on where ice and food could be located. The radio station was asking for volunteers, and Judyth, not wanting to sit around being miserable, decided to help out. Her job consisted of scanning the destruction that the hurricanes left in their wake and reporting on where the food was and what buildings had collapsed. She was so prominent on the airwaves during the crisis that she earned the nickname "Hurricane Girl" from the radio crew.
Soon, she got a gig at The College Press, a newspaper run by a University of Central Florida student with its own website. This website had a political debate show that needed a host to replace the girl who had quit. Judyth was willing to host the show, but she requested a change in format, since she wasn`t into politics.
In August 2005, she started the Student Operated Press. Judyth noticed that in order for a student to get a job in journalism, they must first have prior experience. The problem was that there wasn`t any kind of platform for students to get any meaningful experience. Her first attempt at creating that platform was to buy the College Press when the original owner was no longer active, but the price was too steep for her. She decided to start it independently, and she took online classes via WebCT to gain the skills necessary to build such a site. She eventually took [the] concept management system together to make [a] similar program, and that the shows featured are on an audio feed directs to podcasting sites and iTunes.
Meanwhile, the College Press radio show became the American Perspective. In its early days, airing programs for 12 weeks on the College Press`s website. Once the tenure was up, she approached 1400 AM for time on their channel, to which they accepted. Earning a spot on a terrestrial radio network would only be the beginning of the expansions that she would make the show. One of her strategies to gain more listeners was to compete with herself. She did this by having her show be broadcast on three local radio stations at the same time. Today, monopolizing radio time between different stations would be considered an illegal practice, but back then, it was fair game. One other factor that got her the viewers she needed was one particular guest she invited onto the show. Before this guest, Judyth had a very difficult time getting people on the show, given that it was a young program with no accolades. One of her favorite morning shows was Robin and Company on CNN, so she decided to invite Robin Meade on as a guest, and the interview was published on the Student Operated Press on January 17, 2006. In the interview, Meade recommended that aspiring journalists take on an internship to see if its the right field for them, play against their type to really see what they can do, and not to take themselves so seriously. Judyth credits Robin as the person who set the stage for her career, "and gave her a lot of encouragement early on. One of the things she remembers Robin telling her is that "Someone has to do this job, and it might as well be you." After Robin came on, it was easy for Judyth to get guests to come on.
Since then, she has interviewed a wide variety of people from all trades and backgrounds. She feels like a "part of history" when she does these interviews, especially since she`s interviewed notable historic figures such as the late Maya Angelou and Judyth Barker, the mistress of Lee Harvey Oswald. Aside from Robin, one of her most interesting guests was the late motivational speaker and guru, Zig Ziglar. Judyth found him to be "very genuine" and she was intrigued by his overall message, The more people that you help, the closer you`ll be where you want to be, because of all the people you helped along the way." She also found baseball hall-of-famer, Tommy Lasorda, to be a significant guest, since she was able to share a bond with him through both their mutual Italian backgrounds and their mutual Florida upbringing. The most fun people to interview for her are musicians, since they just seem to be very outgoing and easy to talk to and all have very good personalities. She`s also interviewed many high-profile celebrities at red carpet shows. One thing she notices when she interviews celebrities who come to these shows is that a lot of them come either drunk or high, and it`s weird to interview them in that state. Some people are simply " too drunk to be interviewed," and that out of a 15 minute interview, "there would be only 5 when it made sense."
Probably Piazza`s greatest character trait is her dedication to journalistic integrity. During our interview, she said that her biggest criticism of mainstream news stations was that they have thrown away the desire to report hard news in favor of reporting opinionated news. People are getting the wrong impression and the wrong facts, because they don`t realize that "it`s opinion," Piazza stated, " If they don`t know the difference, then it`s sending the wrong message." Online news allows for news without the fear of opinion morphing the stories into something else. Judyth believes that mainstream news networks have a hard time accepting this fact, and as a result, they`ve been fighting back against it. In terms of the mainstream, Judyth wanted to know " Where`s the hard news, who`s covering it, and why aren`t they covering it anymore?" When I asked her which news network came the closest to delivering the hard news that she wanted, "she couldn`t give an immediate answer and then said [she] had to think about it."
She has experienced the opinionated structure of mainstream news firsthand when she worked as an anchor for a local news station. She got the job when the station did a report on the College Press and liked the way Judyth appeared on camera. There was an instance in which she covered some shady politics involving the local mayor, and the package got rejected because it went against the network`s positive stance on the mayor. She said that there would be changes to the stories she gave the network, and that when it comes to working that environment, you will be silenced...and you will be frustrated.
Keeping that integrity means making sacrifices on a personal level. Many of the writers who have worked at the Student Operated Press have gone on to make their own papers and even work for big news organizations. Those who take the latter path have to partake in something that pains Judyth to do. The stations that take these students ask them to take down the footprint of that writer, everything they did prior to getting that job, which, of course, includes all of their SOP material. Judyth has had many cases in which she had to take down the SOP portfolios of many of her prior writers so that they can have that big media job, and ultimately, it`s [her] who suffers. She finds this practice to be ridiculous because she feels as though it`s erasing history, and that no one would go back and ruin every newspaper with that student`s name on it. These conditions apply to her as well, and it primarily conflicts with her dream to get a big media job herself. If she was offered a job, it is highly probable that she would have to give up the SOP, and it`s a decision [she doesn`t] want to make yet.
Though donating her time to all of these jobs does eat up a lot of her schedule, she does spend what little spare time she has going shopping and visiting the various museums in Houston, including [the] National Science Center, Fine Arts Museum, Holocaust Museum, and Children`s Museum. She also eats a lot of food from different cultures, and she also comments on the massive amount of nationalities that reside in Houston, which completely go against most people`s mental image of Texas. In fact, when she was first moving to Houston, she imagined that she would see a lot of cowboys. So far, she hasn`t seen any cowboys, but she has seen Lebanese, Asians, Mexicans, [and] all these different nationalities when she walks down the street.
With her impressive resume and undying passion for respectable journalism, it`s hard for things to go anywhere but up for Judyth Piazza. She concluded the interview with words she once heard from someone, " Always leave them wanting more."
http://www.care2.com/c2c/people/profile.html?view=contact&pid=769310235 (for age confirmation)
http://thesop.org/story/20110608/a-profile-of-perfection-judyth-piazza-and-the-sop-news-network.html - a 2011 profile written by former SOP contributor and my good friend Michael Weidenhamer.