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While driving to work, you suddenly realize you left your CDs at home. As you flip indifferently through the local stations, ignoring Ricky Martin, Mega 103.5's disco, and Orgy's cover of "Blue Monday," you're reminded of why radio sucks. So you decide to give Florida International University's new FM station, WRGP "Radiate" 88.1, a shot. You turn the dial eagerly. A wave of static, and then ... blues? folk? punk? reggae? Anything even vaguely provocative in the college-radio tradition? No, it's Ricky Martin. Following this comes a tune from early-Eighties fop-haired darlings the Thompson Twins.
Do you give WRGP another try? That's the dilemma listeners face. In a market saturated with chart-driven clones, FIU's fledgling radio station suffers an identity crisis: compete for the listeners of the city's top-rated hit factories (such as WEDR-FM 99.1 or WHYI-FM 100.7) or play more adventurous fare -- the de rigueur course for college stations nationwide.
Mari de Armas has heard all these complaints. As WRGP's programming director, it's her job to schedule DJs and decide the format from semester to semester. She resists claims that WRGP follows a predetermined format. "The misconception is that we're selling out," de Armas says firmly. "We're not selling out. WRGP is catering to the community."
Defining listener tastes -- and delineating just who the "community" actually is -- are just some of the obstacles WRGP has had to face since it first began its quest for an FM license ten years ago. Two months back hardly anyone was listening; WRGP was WUFI-AM 540, and the average FIU student couldn't hear the station beyond university parking lots.
"I can't tell you how many times we said we were going [FM], only to get more setbacks," says Lou Conrad, FIU's assistant director of student affairs in charge of student media and WRGP's advisor. "The rise and fall of expectations fluctuated each year. There was a lot of doubt [FM status] was ever going to happen."
WUFI was first set to go FM at the beginning of the Nineties, but that was sidetracked by a Byzantine game of paper tag with television station WTVJ (Channel 6), the station that leases FIU space on its own broadcast tower for WRGP's antenna. A settlement between the two parties was reached in November 1998, and this past June WRGP went on the air with a 165-watt signal, strong enough to be received (with a decent antenna) throughout South Miami-Dade and the bottom half of Miami Beach.
"We always thought an FM station would serve as an excellent tool to promote the university in the community," says an enthusiastic Larry Lunsford, FIU's ombudsman. "As a training ground for potential broadcast majors, it's got an unlimited potential."
Accordingly the FIU administration's eyes, WRGP's main function is simply to broadcast FIU news, as well as basketball and soccer games. In fact the words that come up most often in connection with WRGP are "service" and "tool." Some confusion exists as to whether WRGP exists as a vehicle to disseminate FIU propaganda or to actually feature adventurous programming.
Conrad, who also hosts his own light-jazz show called Swingin' Sounds! Thursday mornings on WRGP, sees both routes as viable. "The station will promote FIU's image," he explains. "It will provide a tie to the rest of the community while featuring diverse programming."
Ian Grocher, WRGP's general manager from 1997 to 1999, worked as liaison between the FIU administration and students. Although WRGP went FM mere weeks after he left office, the final negotiations took place under his watch. While the station hung in its seemingly perpetual state of limbo, Grocher made sure executive board members, staff, and DJs were ready for FM.
"My goal when I took over was to build a strong AM station with an FM mindset," Grocher says. "[FM] was the big leagues. Everyone on staff had to learn protocol, the FCC responsibilities and obligations that come with being FM. We wanted to create a forum for students to get an understanding of the radio business." Grocher, who also served as student government vice president, has an infectious charm that went a long way toward smoothing the frustration station members experienced during the continual delays in putting WRGP on the air throughout the Nineties. But all the charm in the world couldn't prevent one DJ from venting his rage.
Jorge Escala saw WRGP's potential when he joined in 1995. He eventually became the host of Bleeding Heart, a specialty show playing Christian rock. He also became Mari de Armas's programming assistant. He even originated the station's "Radiate 88" FM slogan. Escala, however, grew tired of the pep-rally homilies, false promises of impending FM status, and -- most important -- the music the station aired in its AM incarnation.
"We were all pretty frustrated," Escala says. "It felt like we were preparing for something that wasn't going to happen. It was like a pantomime. And I didn't care for the stuff we were playing. WRGP should play stuff you can't pick up on other stations. Why would you want to hear Ricky Martin through static and fuzz? You're going to listen to him on a station that plays him without static."