WVUM-FM (90.5) is easy to overlook. Housed on the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus, the only sign that it is broadcasting from its windowless building that looks like a barracks are the discordant sounds -- organ drones, off-key melodies -- that waft from behind a locked door.
Inside the studio, months-old playlists are piled on top of new releases from labels such as Sub Pop, Barsuk, Saddle Creek, and Morr Music. Lately, a band that you may or may not have heard of called Styrofoam has been getting considerable airplay, and its album Nothing Is Lost is at the top of WVUM's Top 40 chart. So are new releases by Black Mountain, Sigur Rós, Bright Eyes, The Fiery Furnaces, and M83, all of which have received reams of national critical acclaim.
WVUM's staple shows play audience favorites from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. The evening shows concentrate on new and unreleased works by artists such as M. Ward, whose melodramatic Transistor Radio (which hits stores February 21) contrasts sharply against the post-punk sounds of The Futureheads.
There are also specialty shows each night at 10:00 devoted to metal, hip-hop, blues, electronic, and even Bollywood. For example, Chris Bennett, the station's general manager and a senior who studies audio engineering, hosts Jazz in the Present Tense at 10:00 p.m. on Sundays. It's one of the only places on the dial where you'll hear Ornette Coleman and other freeform jazz kings.
Amira Masoud, a DJ and promoter, has hosted the electro-oriented The Underground at 10:00 p.m. Fridays for three years. Masoud's program reaches out to area and international artists. Local and foreign artists, from the UK's Bitstream to Miami's Phoenecia, send in tracks for her to play. "Most of the music I get is from artists firsthand, and now artists are starting to send me stuff from overseas," she says.
Though forward-thinking, WVUM is a humble operation by typical commercial broadcasting standards. Its transmitter has only 15,000 watts of power, just enough to reach the outskirts of Miami-Dade County. And Bennett says that the station may soon run out of the anonymous $1500 donation it received last year to stream a live feed at www.wvum.org. Getting by is one of the station's mantras: Its staff is entirely made up of UM students. "We'll take anybody who wants to put in the effort," he says.
Still, WVUM has managed to make an impact. Because it's the preeminent college station in Miami-Dade County, the music magazine College Music Journal, which tracks college radio markets, counts a song played on WVUM's airwaves six times as heavily in its charts as other similar-sized stations. Local clubs such as I/O benefit from its eclectic programming, and often pair with the station for ticket giveaways and to raise awareness about the city's growing indie culture.
"There's no question we're part of the reason the Miami indie scene has taken off," says WVUM music director Alejandro Piraquive, who is in charge of scheduling shows and sifting through the discs record labels send to the station. He receives upward of 500 CDs per month, only twenty percent of which will actually make it on the air. "Take Poplife, take Revolver -- they wouldn't be what they are without us," he says. "More than half the music they play is independent. Without the exposure, a lot of the people wouldn't go. Several DJs [including Alejandro, who spins at Poplife] at the station spin there, so the station becomes very prominent at these events."
Although WVUM has to broadcast university sporting events such as football, basketball, and baseball games throughout the year, school administrators mostly take a hands-off approach. The upside is that this arrangement allows WVUM to maintain creative control; unfortunately, it also means that WVUM doesn't get much financial or organizational support.
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According to Bennett, two-thirds of its funding comes via donations and underwriting from corporate sponsors such as Book Horizon, a bookstore near UM, and Publix. The other third comes from UM. "I think the university could do more to help the station," says WVUM programming director Chris Rogers, a graduate student majoring in film.
"Most students don't even know we're here," added Bennett. He claims that until the university gave the station two speakers last year so WVUM could broadcast music through the rest of the campus, it had to rely on "word-of-mouth" to draw new listeners from the student body. "Most people on campus know who we are but don't listen to us," he says.
The spirit of WVUM, however, lies in the DIY dreams of college kids who embrace the latest by Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, and Wilco -- music that inspires them to get into noncommercial radio in the first place.
"Yes, we still believe there's hope in music," says Rogers. "Right now, FM radio seems pretty homogenous in Miami -- about the same as most major cities. You hear the stations playing the same 40 songs."