Radio Daze

WVUM's signal boost is pumping up the power of Miami's finest college radio station -- and the internal complaints are getting louder along with it

In the early weeks of the fall semester a ceremony unfolded within the University Center complex at UM's campus in Coral Gables. Upstairs in the Flamingo Ballroom the media circled like vultures, determined to capture this monumental moment: a celebration of the boost in power of WVUM's signal. On hand was a TV crew -- from Eye to Eye, a student-operated, cable-only program that spotlights University of Miami goings-on -- and a reporter from the Miami Hurricane student newspaper.

Several dozen proud staffers of WVUM, a handful of faculty overseers, and even a couple of veterans of semesters long past gathered to toast WVUM's power boost. With lemonade.

On its surface the event was a joyful backpatting session among the geezer administrators and the post-teen set whose tuition pays their salaries. But with anything so volatile as radio, there was also an undercurrent of tension and hard feelings.

Dr. William Butler, the student affairs administrator wearing a UM-green jacket and a UM-orange-and-green striped tie, walked to the podium and told the audience how WVUM-FM came into existence. "This started as a little extracurricular activity in the men's dorms," Butler said, recalling the station's launch in 1965 when he came to UM as vice president of student affairs, the title he still holds today. "It was ten watts and could be heard only on campus. The school never saw the potential. It's one of the great jewels for the participation of students." After nearly 30 years in existence, after two years of struggle and political battles and false starts, the Voice could finally be heard throughout Dade County.

For those sick of the retreads and background music that crowd the airwaves of commercial radio, the new power of WVUM-FM (90.5), the student-operated station at the University of Miami, provides an alternative. With that comes problems, including dissension among student participants and often heated debate over what direction the station should take in terms of content and approach.

Butler didn't mention the controversies. Instead, he explained that "this project started in 1965 as a labor of love." Former UM president Henry King Stanford had formed the nonprofit corporation about the time Butler arrived, and asked Butler to be its chairman of the board. Butler added, "I'm proud of Nikki [Tominac, the station's current student general manager] and what she's doing."

Perhaps out of blissful ignorance or simply a sense of priorities, Butler said nothing about a few students with high-status positions at VUM who've been fired since Nikki Tominac was elected general manager in April. And, if he'd really wanted to cut to the bone, Butler might've mentioned that for all WVUM's success, the station is not heard on some parts of the campus where you might expect to hear it. Walk into the Rathskeller and you hear Y-100. Hang out on the patio in University Center and you hear nothing. Little ironies perhaps -- but the fact is a majority of UM students felt strongly enough about WVUM to vote in the spring semester of 1992 to give the station more money than the student government was willing to spend.

The student-mandated monies allowed VUM to triple its broadcast power from 365 watts to 1.3 kilowatts a few weeks ago. Though 1300 watts doesn't seem like much compared to the big commercial stations and their 50,000 and 100,000 watt signals, a high-tech antenna also acquired by VUM in the power-boost process does give the student station a strong, clear signal throughout the South Florida listening area. And if you have been listening real closely during this revolutionary semester you may also have heard the sounds of the age-old struggle between authority and insubordination.

The initial boost in power from 10 watts to 365 watts took place in 1981, right around the time VUM was breaking acts in this region such as R.E.M. that would many years later become staples of commercial radio. The official push by student station managers for the latest power increase began about two years ago when station staffers petitioned the student government for the funding needed to increase signal strength. (One long-since-graduated station veteran says the desire among staffers for a boost dates back at least eight years.)

Clearly, a boost in power was not easy to come by. "Nobody has done as much for WVUM as this executive board has," Tominac says. "We worked very hard to get donations and other funding. We replaced all the equipment, got things repaired. I mean, the station never had a computer before. It never had bulletin boards. I donated my entire summer to the point where I almost failed out of school."

A referendum in the spring semester of 1992 revealed that, as in real life, the government did not necessarily represent the feelings of its constituency. The student government had resisted giving the station the needed funds. But then students organized the referendum and voted to give the station the money. The student body voted for the power boost, meaning that an additional $1.15 from each student's activity fee over four years would give WVUM the $70,000 it needed. Not exactly football team figures, but big money in the world of college radio nonetheless.

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