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Radio Daze

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.  

It's about 8:00 p.m. inside one of the three closet-size rooms that serve as VUM headquarters on the second floor of University Center. A DJ named Tear Drop, a junior with one of those chocolate-ice-cream voices that ooze through your speakers, is on the air, cuing up a Dinosaur Jr song and announcing a giveaway A tickets to a show featuring local bands Muse, Chant, and Valerie Archon. She'll take the fourth caller.

The push buttons blink silently on the old-fashioned beige phone. "You're caller one, sorry, try again," Tear Drop says. "Sorry, number two. Sorry, you're number three, try again. Congratulations! You're caller four! What's that? Oh -- you're not calling for the contest?"

When it's time for the next giveaway, Tear Drop is careful to explain that "this is a contest, not for requests, okay?" In the meantime, she struggles with cart machine number two, a piece of equipment similar to a cassette or CD player, which has been on the blink. "It's frustrating," she says, "because we're trying to sound more professional with the power boost, and you have to deal with this."

The struggle between professionalism and a more collegiate approach A that is, having fun and being irreverent toward everyone over the age of 22 A continues at WVUM, especially now that the whole world, or at least more of it, is able to listen in. "We're working at programming continuity," says Nikki Tominac, the student general manager. "We're trying to tighten the rotation. Three or four years ago VUM had more hard rock, now it's more diverse -- from the Melvins to Mazzy Star. Balance is important." In other words, the station, with all these new listeners, needs, she says, to sound more like exactly what it isn't: professional.

WVUM's three-room office isn't big enough for 10 people, much less 100, which is roughly how many students are involved in the station. So they gather outside the office in a spacious lounge area. One night, Tominac recalls, the lounge area had been set aside for the showing of films. "So there we were," she says, "gathered outside on the patio in the middle of the night." Not exactly the mahogany and plush-pile conference room setting most radio people are used to.

She finds this anecdote amusing, at least in part because she has more important things to worry about. There's the new professionalism inspired by the power boost, the bitter complaints by students she's fired, and, of course, protecting that coveted and valuable broadcast license Dr. Butler helped obtain 28 years ago.

Over the years WVUM has had its ups and downs, the quality of its broadcasts varying not only from show to show, DJ to DJ, but also fluctuating as semesters pass, as old kids move on to the real world and new kids come in to learn a little about how broadcasting works. So many students have passed through the VUM experience it's impossible to say how effective a launching pad it is, but there are plenty of success stories, former DJs who've gone on to commercial radio careers and others who now hold good jobs in related fields.

Many of those displayed a fair share of professionalism during their tenures at the Voice, but they also grew and learned a thing or two thanks to the hands-on experience of controlling a soundboard in a broadcast studio.

This fall semester, Nikki Tominac and her management colleagues -- primarily program director Jason Gordon and music director Mary Koma -- are attempting to bring a more professional sheen to the station in two main ways: by providing more training to the volunteer DJs before they go on the air and by instituting a more commercial-station style playlist, complete with rotation, meaning that DJs are required to play certain songs a certain number of times per day.

Rotation is why commercial radio sucks. Commercial-station programmers aim their product at the masses, skewing toward the lowest common denominator, playing no song that isn't already tested and proven accessible to any and every idiot out there. And that's why WVUM has always been a treasured resource in South Florida A a college station can play whatever the hell it wants. No advertisers are going to pull out A there are no advertisers. WVUM calls itself an alternative and an alternative is what intelligent people want and need. There is a time and place for Patti Smith's "Piss Factory" (on VUM that time and place is the Revolution Rock program on Tuesday nights). There is a time and place for new musical adventures, discovery, personal growth via an artform. And that is what WVUM is all about. Or should be all about.  

Tominac and her supporters still believe in being an alternative in the wake of the power boost that has alleviated the one complaint always heard about VUM A that, great station though it may be, it doesn't matter, because no one outside Coral Gables can pick up its meager signal. Now that everyone can hear it, VUM has edged closer to the mainstream, inserting more major-label artists into rotation. Two-thirds of the acts being played in heavy rotation around the middle of this semester were major-label artists.

VUM management is quick to point out that only half of a DJ's show is consumed by must-plays, leaving the other half of the program open to the DJ's own selections. Further, it's misleading to make too much out of the major label issue A among such acts are underground types such as Bjork, Manic Street Preachers, Moby, Buffalo Tom, Flaming Lips, Revolting Cocks, Mudhoney A bands with big-time contracts but alternative reputations.

To comprehensively analyze the musical content of any radio station is a foolish endeavor A too many songs are played, it goes 24 hours per day A but to get a general sense is easy. Fundamentally, WVUM is the best outlet for alternative rock in South Florida. By far. Could it be better? What couldn't.

Reigning in a bunch of rebellious kids and turning them into junior pros is the other challenge. The door of the studio from which WVUM's DJs broadcast is plastered with vaguely threatening, fingerwagging notes and memos. There's a list of a dozen DJs who've missed shows without being excused. This is a warning. There's another stating that anyone who hosts a show must have an FCC license, and some still haven't taken care of that technicality as of early November. Program director Jason Gordon's memo about the necessity of reading the VUM rulebook is written sarcastically, like an elementary school teacher talking to little kids: To sugarcoat his serious message, he's added a happy face and promised a gold star to the good.

There are many ways a student DJ can get in trouble. When a student skips his show, or misses meetings, or says 'fuck you' on the air -- or even uses a phrase such as "you should go check this show out," violating the No Recommendations rule A that student, the rulebook says, will get a warning. If that doesn't put the kibosh on the misbehavior, then a suspension from the station can be ordered by the executive board, composed of twelve students with top positions at the station. One more transgression, and it's dismissal. WVUM is ultimately controlled by a corporate board of directors (four UM administrators, led by Dr. Butler, plus the student general manager, all of whom control the actual broadcast license); even so, the administration and faculty take a hands-off approach. An advisory board, which is a mix of school officials and students, makes recommendations but doesn't make day-to-day decisions. That aspect of station management falls to the executive board, the twelve students who vote on operational matters.

General staff meetings take place roughly once per month, unless some emergency comes up, and in radio, especially college radio, emergencies are always coming up. "Radio is a crazy medium," notes Nikki Tominac. The executive board meets every Friday to discuss problems with DJs and what each department head -- underwriting, promotion, programming, music direction, news, sports -- is up to. One reason for such gatherings is to air opinions and concerns. A few DJs who have been forced out complain that airing their opinions at the meetings led to their dismissals. Insecure management, they allege, just couldn't take the criticism.

In the broadcast studio, where Tear Drop is playing a song by Dore Soul, the beige phone blinks again. "Hey, Nikki," Tear Drop says. "Oh. Yeah, I know. But I can't really talk about it right now. I'm trying to do my show." She hangs up, smiles. Tominac and Tear Drop are good friends. "Nikki," Tear Drop says to a visitor, "loves to bitch." It's clear by her tone she doesn't mean this as a criticism.

She is a bitch, several of Tominac's former associates at WVUM complain. This operation has its share of disgruntled expatriates. A handful of former station members feels that Tominac bases her actions on friendship and paranoia rather than on what's best for a professional-sounding A and creative A station. They say she wields an iron fist. Plenty of people in real life feel the same way about their bosses.  

One rabble-rouser, who was fired during the early part of this semester, was J.C. Richards; he fell in love with rap music as he was entering his teens and came to the University of Miami four years ago from Pennsylvania. He noticed that WVUM was airing a show called Rap-a-Thon. Richards "helped out" the two hosts of the show, occasionally filling in on the air, and eventually worked his way up the VUM pecking order, becoming public service director. Then, by vote of the executive board, now led by Nikki Tominac, he was named music director last spring.

"And then I left for summer vacation," Richards says. "Paul [Zimmerman], who was the music director before me, said he'd stick around until I got back. But before that I heard Paul had been fired."

Mary Koma was tapped to fill in last summer as music director until Richards returned. "Jon Bell, the promotions director, also got fired over the summer," Richards continues. "I told Jon's girlfriend that three weeks after I get back, I'll be fired. It was three weeks to the day."

Richards sees his and Zimmerman's firing as part of a purging of enemies in favor of friends A Nikki Tominac's friends. He says he expressed his opinions, contrary opinions, and that's not what the executive board wanted to hear.

At one point earlier in the semester, Richards called the ACLU with the idea of suing WVUM, but he lost interest and says he doesn't really care any more.

And then another popular DJ was fired. One night, Nikki Tominac wasn't able to host her own show because she wasn't feeling well and had a big exam the next day. "I called and volunteered to fill in," says DJ Jeff Straw.

Straw admits that he strayed from the station's playlist, ignoring the rotation songs altogether. "An hour into the show," Straw says, "Mary Koma calls up and says, 'You've had your hour of fun, now it's time to play the rotation.' So I got a little pissed off." Straw went back on the air and told his audience that he had to go back to rotation, which he announced was "boring." Koma called back. "She was personally offended," Straw says. "She said that was uncalled for, this isn't something personal, I should play rotation." He agreed to do that, but he also cued up Run-D.M.C.'s "Mary, Mary" and a song by the Jesus and Mary Chain. He admits that it was aimed at Koma, but adds that no one in the general listenership would know that. "What's important is that other DJs do know that," Tominac says, "as do other people familiar with the station. The DJs need to respect the management, who are working very hard for them." He was fired at the next meeting by unanimous vote of the executive board on the following Friday.

"They voted me DJ of the Year for 1992," Straw says. "And I was doing the same thing I did to win DJ of the Year. That's what I got fired for. In our new manuals it says you get a warning, a suspension, and then dismissal. I got nothing. I got dismissed." Tominac says he was warned twice about rules violations.

Another prominent VUM staffer, who requested anonymity, says, "What J.C. and Jeff say is easily refutable, because they've been fired. Well, I haven't been fired. And here's what's really going on: the management of the station is running a dictatorship. If you're friends with them, fine. If not, you lose your show. It's pathetic, because all the best DJs are gone."

Management's take is that rules are rules. "I called Jeff [Straw] up and told him to play rotation," Koma says. "He got on the air and said something about 'boring.' He was screaming at me on the phone. The music was fine and everything, but if every DJ has to play rotation, then every DJ has to play rotation. He blew it out of proportion. There're a lot of weird things going on around here."

Jason Gordon, the program director, says the executive board was simply doing its job in each dismissal. Paul Zimmerman, Gordon explains, was let go because, for one thing, he was no longer a student during the summer semester, when he filled in for J.C. Richards. Secondly, Zimmerman wasn't changing the rotation or inserting new songs voted for airplay by the executive board. Because Richards wasn't in town during the summer, he missed the meetings where the new rotation approach was discussed and approved. When he returned, Gordon says, Richards said he felt it was unfair for him to have to abide by something he didn't have a chance to vote on. His refusal to go along with the new rotation policy led to his dismissal.  

Jon Bell was found to be not doing his job as well as expected, and because the promotions director's job is important, he had to be dismissed, according to management. Gordon essentially affirms the anecdote about Straw's telephone run-ins with Mary Koma and Straw's refusal to play rotation. "If you don't follow the rules," Gordon concludes, "you can't work here."

"If we didn't have rules," Tominac says, "there would be total anarchy, and the station could lose its license. And if they [the staffers] broke one rule, who's to say they're not going to break the rest of them?"

It's a tricky business, the programming of radio music. One wrong song can turn off any number of listeners in the age of push-button scanners and rampant diversity. Advocates of the rotation approach A where a certain number of sure-fire songs are repeated several times each day A claim it can hook listeners. That's why big commercial stations hire consultants and subscribe to services that tell them what to play. You can't be too safe.

And you can't play everything. For example, a band called Concrete Blonde recently released a cover of "Crystal Blue Persuasion" on a compilation CD. Concrete Blonde is a successful outfit, proven, and that particular Tommy James and the Shondells tune was a huge hit the first time around. That's a safe combination. What station wouldn't insert such a thing in rotation? Well, for one, South Florida's commercial modern-rock station, WSHE-FM (103.5). And so WVUM does play it.

If WVUM is mainstreaming its sound for the masses, it's still way underground compared to a commercial rock operation such as SHE. Ernesto Gladden, SHE's program director, believes that in VUM's case, "the more experimental the better. They're not concerned with reaching a mass, but with painting an artform in its purest state. They have the ability to paint alternative rock in its purest form and that's a delight." Years ago, Gladden recalls, he encountered some college-radio programmers at a convention. They expressed a belief that if an artist becomes so popular that they go platinum, then the artist has, de facto, sold out and is no longer worthy of college radio's attention. Gladden doesn't buy it. "That's cultural genocide. Buying a CD is a vote for that artist. We realize that if someone is buying it, that may be something they want to hear on the radio. So we play Pearl Jam and Jackson Browne, where WVUM probably wouldn't touch Jackson Browne. So in one sense we're more open-minded, and in another they're more open-minded. What makes it great fun is that the audience is able to figure it out themselves."

Unfortunately for the students at WVUM, they can't afford the market-survey services that tell commercial radio stations what the masses are thinking. Tastes vary A that's why you might hear Y-100 or MTV on the campus from which WVUM broadcasts music aimed at the same students munching in the Rat or hanging out in their dorm rooms. VUM staffers must base programming decisions on informal research techniques. "On the phones we get a lot more honest callers [than a commercial station]," says Mary Koma, who is responsible for selecting the rotation songs VUM plays. "They do call up and tell us what they think, and we can get a pretty good feel. And we're trying new things, including a request log. And we'd like to go out and survey around campus. But it's not easy. 'Alternative' is so big, and there are so many types. From the rock stuff, like Pearl Jam, to the electronic, like Orbital. So we're very eclectic."

Eclectic -- no other word can begin to describe what you might hear on WVUM at any given time. The Cocteau Twins, Pearl Jam, Golden Palominos, Redd Kross, and Letters to Cleo were among the top acts at the Voice in mid-semester. If songs by any of those bands -- by any band -- become a big hit, VUM will stop playing it (and SHE might begin to start airing the song). If it's popular, if it's in the mainstream, then it can not, by definition, be alternative.

On the desk in the studio a copy of the Live at Washington Square CD sits next to Midnight Oil's Drums of Heaven. Scan any random playlist, and you see eclecticism defined. From a show hosted by program director Jason Gordon: the Doughboys, Vinnie James, Urge Overkill, Bryan Ferry, the Ocean Blue, King's X, Velvet Taxi. (The last is a local band fronted by Jason's brother, Adam.) On an overnight show with Steven Moore at the board: Kirsty MacColl followed by Nirvana followed by Cypress Hill. There's little chance any commercial station would program Nirvana and MacColl and Cypress Hill.  

Block programming -- regularly scheduled shows devoted to one type of music -- abounds. On Sundays there's a program devoted to Israeli-related music, another that plays Christian-oriented stuff. Later in the day, it's reggae, then the local-rock show, then jazz. A "retro" program called Revolution Rock, on Tuesday evenings, airs the best punk and new wave of the late Seventies and early Eighties. There are blocks devoted to dance, rap, blues, metal.

"I spent the past two summers traveling," Koma says, "and I tried to tune in college stations whenever possible. Ours sounds like the best. That's my unbiased impression. We still play stuff that commercial won't touch. We've been playing Golden Palominos. I called [Yesterday & Today Records] and they'd sold out of Golden Palominos." But if WSHE were to pick up on the group, it's a sure bet you wouldn't hear the Palominos on WVUM again.

Nikki Tominac notes that the school administration -- through the corporate board of directors of the station -- always has the option of ordering a new format. "They could," she says, "make this a country station." It's happening elsewhere around the nation -- some college stations program all-jazz and all-classical formats.

Or all sports. In fact, the bulk of underwriting that -- along with the activity fee -- funds the station comes through the sports department, not the more pervasive music side. VUM has long been established as adept at covering Hurricanes football and baseball. "The VUM kids," says one former executive at the station who graduated several years ago, "know the players, get in the dugout, and do a good job."

And sports coverage is just one of many facets of WVUM, all of which ultimately fall under the aegis of Nikki Tominac. But those things A sports and news and underwriting and promotions A tend to take care of themselves. They are what they are. Music is more subjective, and music is VUM's bread and butter. No matter what music is being played, Nikki Tominac says, the main goal at the new VUM is to eliminate goofy kid stuff -- profanity and endless patter and miscued records, all the things that identify it as an amateur operation. She does, however, admit that the station's purpose is to be an "educational tool. It's such a huge, huge privilege to have this station, and I don't want to do anything to screw that up." Though it's a highly subjective evaluation, there does seem to be, since Tominac took over, much less of the rambling patter and silly commentary that marks an amateur operation.

J.C. Richards, one of the disgruntled former staffers, says, "They say they want more listeners -- why? You don't get money and you don't even have ratings."

Maybe all that's less important than the intangible benefits to the students themselves. Ray Vaughan, the general manager at the time of the first power boost, back in 1981, says people can feel the station in their blood. "I remember once, I was off campus, at home sleeping, at three in the morning. For some reason I woke up and turned the station on. Dead air. I called and found out lightning had hit. I found out two other people had done the same thing."

Pretty mystical stuff, but usually the vagaries of sending a signal are based on more pragmatic and tangible actions. The power increase was originally supposed to be from 365 watts to 3 kilowatts, not 1.3 kilowatts. However, WCIX-TV, which owns the tower where VUM's antenna is located and whose television broadcast frequency is very close to VUM's radio band, protested that big a jump. A spokesman for WCIX explains that when WVUM applied to boost its signal, thereby threatening interference with Channel 6's broadcasts, the TV station offered a compromise: if VUM would accept a lower-watt signal, WCIX would buy them a new antenna. "It was well worth it for VUM to compromise from 3000 to 1300 watts," says one engineer who worked on the power-boost project, "because Channel 6 ended up buying a very high-quality antenna." Dr. Butler, in his speech to the Voice staff, put a kinder spin on it: He thanked WCIX for "donating the antenna."

In her speech at the ballroom ceremony Nikki Tominac captured the essence of the delicate mix of playing at being professional and still being a kid. "We've been working for this," she told her colleagues, "so now we must be responsible and stuff like that."  

Mary Koma adds, "The idea is not to just be immature and childish, 'Oh boy, I'm on the air.' When you have a college radio station, everyone volunteers, so you get all these different opinions and philosophies."

Nikki Tominac says she wants her own radio station some day, one not owned by a big corporation, as most commercial radio stations are nowadays, one with "a pushover program director so I can do whatever I want. I could imagine that being MTV without the picture A fast-paced with a lot going on."

For now, Nikki Tominac's challenge is clear: taking WVUM into its future as a countywide broadcast entity, not something just for the kids on campus, or, as in the early days, the men's dorms.

Some veterans of the station wonder if the vaunted and celebrated power increase was such a wonderful idea after all. "This [push for a power boost] started when I was a sophomore," says Fred Sowder, who graduated in May after serving for a year and a half as VUM general manager. "I never had the problems Nikki's having." Sowder adds a twist: that not everyone at VUM was gung-ho for the power increase because they feared A rightfully A that it would lead to the conflicts between professionalism and a more free-form approach as well as the conflicts between personalities. "But I don't see what the big deal is," says Sowder. "It's college radio A lighten up."

After the speeches in the Flamingo Ballroom, everyone traipsed over to the station for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. The Eye to Eye crew zoomed in and the strobes flashed A apparently a yearbook photographer had joined the media parade. Dr. Butler and Nikki Tominac debated about who should have the honor of scissoring the red ribbon draped across the door to the three tiny rooms.

"C'mon, Nikki, make it happen," Dr. Butler beamed.
"This is a great moment for WVUM and its future," Tominac announced, and both of them held the scissors to the ribbon. More camera flashes popped. A brief pause ensued. "Oh, no," Tominac blurted, "it's not going to cut!"

Nothing's ever as simple as it should be in real life.


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