By Jacob Katel
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In a chain of events more reminiscent of city hall politics, station manager Grocher fired Escala after he spoke out at an executive-board meeting and published two scathing columns in The Beacon, FIU's student newspaper. Escala wasn't alone in his critique of the radio station, but supportive executive board members were afraid to rise to his defense. "I was brand-new at the station and I didn't want to step on anyone's toes," de Armas recalls regretfully.
The Escala fracas highlighted the concern of a silent but concerned minority, one that thought WRGP's programming followed the lead of local commercial stations -- namely, WPOW-FM (96.5) and WEDR-FM (99.1) -- far too closely. This mockingbird mentality runs counter to many people's conception of what a college station should be. Freed from the pressures of the marketplace, college radio exists as one of the few oases left for creativity on the FM dial.
University of Miami's WVUM-FM (90.5), the city's other FM college station, has been on the air for almost twenty years, and it has felt growing pains similar to those at WRGP. But according to WVUM general manager Christine Vidales, the two stations have evolved differently. WRGP, she says, has opted for a more commercial route. "We're definitely not competing," Vidales scoffs. "The two stations are very different. FIU chose to go Top 40. We're underground, an alternative to commercial stations." Vidales believes the average WVUM listener is 18 to 34 years old and doesn't attend UM. The station's status as South Florida's altrock warhorse has created a cult of loyal listeners that spans a generation. And those who work at WVUM emerge preaching the alternative gospel.
"[New DJs] don't come in alternative," Vidales says. "We still get a lot of those high school kids who want to play Depeche Mode. But they grow out of it. As you gain experience, you start experimenting and finding new music you enjoy. I started out the same away."
Vidales recognizes a shift in South Florida's local music scene to more Latin and hip-hop flavored sounds, but WVUM isn't interested in changing their core philosophy. "As long as we stick to our roots in alternative, underground music, we'll always have our audience," she says. "We're not interested in more commercial sounds. We like [the station] the way it is."
De Armas accepts Vidales's less than positive summation of WRGP. "We did go a more commercial route. That's true," she explains. "But our station represents the FIU community.... If [they] want to hear Top 40, then that's what we'll play."
That's indeed what they play. A glance at some recent playlists reveals songs from Whitney Houston, Everclear, the Dave Matthews Band, Tom Petty, Led Zeppelin, and that ubiquitous Ricky Martin tune: hardly music on the cutting edge. Moreover it's an ominous sign of the station's future when WRGP's own advisor (its de facto university supervisor), Lou Conrad, is predominantly playing jazz that would fit better on an easy-listening outlet.
For those DJs willing to buck the current, it's an uphill fight. The bulk of WRGP's programming is based on a rotation established by a music director; it's his or her job to sift through the new music received at the station and then make the call as to whether to add a particular CD to the playlist. New DJs are forced to follow these instructions, and so far this system has added up to fare that's little different from the bulk of Miami's commercial stations. Even worse, the WRGP music library is kept locked upstairs, away from the studio; DJs have to request albums a few days in advance, hardly a recipe for of-the-moment inspiration.
These heavy-handed parameters seem to differ little from the operating procedures at commercial stations where highly paid consultants shape playlists, all in the hope of attracting mass audiences and the advertising dollars that seek them. Lost in that equation is the concept of radio as a creative medium, as something more than simply a device with which to make money.
Fears of trodding that aesthetic path are voiced by some WRGP staffers. "Our station is a voice for young adults," says Ricky Gomez, a DJ at the station. "It'll be a lot better for our station if we come up with something entirely new in terms of programming." Gomez hosts one of the station's more offbeat shows, Han Solo's Stream of Consciousness, on Wednesday mornings. On any given program, Gomez might discuss the ramifications of heavy Ecstasy use, or the penny-tax vote, with each subject given an intelligent twist. His show is so airtight (he digresses from subjects without rambling, a lesson some of his fellow DJs have yet to learn), you'd think he scripted it.
"My show is freeform," he explains. "But I touch on stuff that really interests me, something I'll read in the paper, or something I heard. But it is totally ad-libbed, which is cool because it gives [my show] a dialectic form that makes it easier for me to interact with callers."
And consider Opposing Views, a point/counterpoint political roundtable hosted by die-hard liberal Brad Bauman and hard-line conservative Matt Kough. "I always thought it would be fun to have my own talk show," Bauman says. "Just having a [political] show gives me authority. Besides, being FM gives us a greater responsibility. I have to know what I'm talking about. I gotta do my homework before spouting off on-air."