By Jose D. Duran
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By George Martinez
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."
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."
But is anyone on campus, let alone in Miami-Dade County, listening? When asked, most students at FIU were unaware that the school even had a radio station, FM or AM. Still the station's executive board is hopeful that come September and the start of the fall semester, a new wave of fresh energy (and eager DJs) will hit WRGP. A proposal is being drawn up to petition the FCC for a further power raise to 300 watts, and plans are under way to install a translator at FIU's North Campus in North Miami Beach that will enable students there to tune in to the signal. Several station members are betting that this infusion of new talent will help push the station away from the mainstream, and aid it in standing apart.
"[Going FM] is like being born again," Ricky Gomez declares. "I'd like to see DJs having more freedom with their shows. We can do whatever we want! Sure, you can give listeners a little fun, but get 'em thinking!"