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How Montclair Discovered the ‘Secret Sauce’ for Social Media

Burning Questions: No topic is too hot for President Jonathan Koppell in the ‘Red Hawt’ wings challenge

Posted in: Homepage News, University

A man in a suit and tie gestures to a woman, both of whom are sitting in front of plates of chicken wings.
Montclair “Red Hawt” host Ashley Petrosine interviews President Jonathan Koppell as they eat increasingly spicy chicken wings.

Line up the chicken wings and hot sauce and you’ve got the makings for a Montclair State University Hot Ones-styled talk show called Red Hawt, a newly launched YouTube video featuring President Jonathan Koppell, who talks all-things Montclair while eating increasingly spicy wings.

Produced by the University’s digital communications team, Red Hawt delivers a fresh twist on the ways social media in higher ed can share the institution’s story and engage current and prospective students on the platforms they use every day.

In New Jersey, no one does social media engagement better than Montclair. Videos produced by Paul McGroarty ’20, social media manager, and a team of student ambassadors, often get millions of views on @montclairstateu TikTok; @montclairstateu Instagram is tops among the state’s colleges and universities when ranked in followers, engagement and reels reach.

“We make it fun but there is a lot of strategy behind it,” McGroarty says. “A lot of the things we’re doing are very intentional to share the Montclair story, especially with prospective students. Research shows 73% of aspiring students use social media to explore schools.”

Since joining the University three years ago, Koppell has made being social a priority. Posts have featured him playing clarinet with the Clarinet Choir, taking the field with the Red Hawk baseball team, prepping meals during Day of Service, and with the new meet and greet Presidential Pop-ups, taking selfies – which the campus has dubbed “Koppellfies” – to encourage students to get involved in campus activities.

“I think it’s important to roll up our sleeves and join students in doing whatever it is they’re most passionate about,” Koppell says. “I find that shared experiences lead to some of the best conversations and that’s when I really hear what’s on their minds.”

A woman wearing a Red Hawk logo t-shirt, interview President Koppell over chicken wings with spicy sauces.
Ashley Petrosine, a junior Exercise Science major and Red Hawk lacrosse player, hosts the conversation with President Koppell on “burning” campus issues while eating hot wings.

The social media team behind the Red Hawt video includes McGroarty and about a dozen students, including Ashley Petrosine, a junior Exercise Science major who hosts the show. The team regularly creates content and video, mainly for TikTok, Instagram and YouTube shorts.

“We try to find that line of showcasing what’s really cool about Montclair, but also educating students, giving them information and providing entertainment that engages them and creates a stronger bond for them with the University or intrigues prospective students about Montclair,” McGroarty says.

Some of their hits with big clicks: @montclairstateu Pi Day video, which earned more than 7.5 million views on TikTok and more than a million views on Instagram. A relatable homecoming video asking parents their students’ major has been viewed 5 million times. Koppell’s first Instagram cameo – Wear a mask – promoted safe Halloweening in the age of COVID-19 with quick costume changes.

“We need to meet students where they are and engage with them in ways that build human connections. That’s an often overlooked – but critical – component if we’re truly going to set them up for their own success,” Koppell says.

Stage crew with lights and boom mics set up for the video shoot.
University Videographer Christodoulos Apostolou, left, sets up microphones for the filming of Red Hawt. Cameras were operated by students in a School of Communication and Media practicum class, from left, Ben Archer Macmillan, Eylan Tureikeh and Nick Batelli.

Last year, Montclair launched a cooking show – Cooking with Koppell – which is student-produced and streams on Hawk+, the official streaming platform of Montclair’s School of Communication and Media. On the show, Red Hawks use Montclair’s famed Red Hawk Diner to prepare a family recipe or a dish that reminds them of home. Amid the cooking and conversation, Koppell learns more about the people who make the University such a diverse, inclusive and vibrant community.

On WMSC 90.3 FM, the University’s award-winning student radio station, Koppell moonlights as “Dr. K, the Doctor of Funkology,” spinning his collection of vinyl 45s while wearing paisley bell-bottom pants and a gray fedora.

“I find it’s helpful for students to see me at times a little more relaxed,” Koppell says. “Being human makes you more approachable, which opens up dialogues to better understand what students want and need in order to succeed.”

Two young men prepare the set.
Gerard Gagliano of Gourmet Dining, left, and Paul McGroarty set up the sauces.

The Red Hawt talk show involved numerous people and departments on campus, including Broadcast and Media Operations and the president’s office. The social media team created an online poll for student questions, with Koppell answering hot-button topics from traffic and parking, expanding on-campus housing and asking about the possibility of Red Hawk athletics moving up to NCAA Division I, to the personal, “People say you look like Keanu Reeves…” – all while eating the wings prepared by Gourmet Dining, Montclair’s dining service provider.

A plate of chicken wings with spicy sauces behind them.

The sauces used in-house-created recipes, including traditional barbecue, Korean and Thai chili, all deemed (spoiler alert) not spicy enough. “Challenge accepted,” says Gerard Gagliano of Gourmet Dining. “We will definitely get hotter sauces for next time.”

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by John J. LaRosa for Montclair State University.


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