The Silence of the Amps

For the past several weeks radio listeners tuning in to WDNA-FM (88.9) have heard only static where once they could find Miami's most eclectic music mix: jazz, Latin, blues, folk, rock, and funk. Not to mention Indian, Haitian, Pakistani, and more.

Those curious or desperate fans of the community-sponsored, nonprofit station who tried to call 264-WDNA for information got only an endless ring. Even some of the station's 50 volunteers were left in the dark. "I've been calling every week to see if my show would be on," complains one who couldn't get an answer. Says another: "I don't know what's happened."

What happened is that the station's South Dade transmitter broke down. Twice. Maybe as a result of faulty air conditioning. Maybe after a lightning strike. Maybe one day during the first or second week of June. Even Maggie Pelleya, president of WDNA's board of directors, isn't sure. "I just know I miss it like hell," Pelleya says. "I have nothing to listen to myself."

"You'd think they'd be familiar with answering machines," quips one frustrated volunteer. She is familiar, counters Pelleya, "but with the [phone] system we had, you couldn't install one. We tried to rig up something."

An answering machine message might have reassured listeners that the silence was temporary, not permanent. It also might have informed station volunteers that WDNA was moving its studios. That, too, came as news to several veterans. "I heard through the grapevine that they were moving," notes one. "WDNA moved," recalls another, "but they didn't tell me!"

Says board president Pelleya: "Everybody was made aware we were moving. Some kept in touch, some didn't. We called most of them and said, `If you see so-and-so, tell them.'"

Off the air? A change of address? Imperfect communication? That's the sort of confused atmosphere in which WDNA has idiosyncratically operated since its debut a decade ago: balky equipment, high-strung volunteers, insufficient funding, quirky programming, and relentless internal feuds.

That's also the sort of information the Federal Communications Commission in Washington is interested in having. FCC industry analyst Glenn Greisman says agency officials try to be understanding about transmitter problems. All they ask is that an out-of-service station notify them, usually within ten days of going off the air. Pelleya insists the FCC was alerted. "There's nothing in our file, nothing in the database," Greisman answers from Washington. "A letter will be sent immediately asking them to tell us of their status. Failure to respond will result in adverse actions. We call it a `nudge' letter."

Presumably that letter will find its way to the new studio, though Pelleya won't reveal its address for publication because of "security" reasons. The timing of the move from the station's old warehouse near Bird Road and the Palmetto Expressway was set after new space was leased. Facing a July 1 deadline to vacate the old studio, Pelleya and a bevy of volunteers in June began carting the station's gear to their new home, another warehouse a few blocks away.

Then the transmitter crashed. "We needed an $800 part," Pelleya says, explaining that the repairs were completed about ten days ago and adding, "We could have already gone back on the air." Instead the station's board of directors decided to complete the move to new headquarters before signing on again. Rainy weather has delayed that longer than anticipated, but Pelleya is optimistic. She predicts WDNA will be back on the air this week.

When it does resurface, the station's volunteers will enjoy a spiffy, upgraded broadcast studio and a separate production facility, which will not only enhance the sound quality, but allow the station to earn money by renting time to independent producers.

Money for the new equipment has come from a $72,000 grant awarded to WDNA last August by the Telecommunication Facilities Program, operated by the federal Department of Commerce. As part of the award the station is required to raise roughly $23,000 in matching funds, about half of which has already been collected. "That grant money is strictly for equipment," Pelleya says. "A new air studio, a production studio, and service from the public-radio satellite system. Unfortunately we can't use that money to, say, pay off Southern Bell."

Nor can it be used toward legal expenses that are mounting as WDNA works its way through a nasty lawsuit. In February 1991, a group of disgruntled and mutinous volunteers held a special meeting in which they voted out Pelleya and her board of directors and voted in eight of their own. Pelleya's board claimed the procedure was invalid and refused to turn over control of the station. The dispute ended up in court last summer, at which time a "special master" was appointed to hear arguments from both sides and recommend a solution to the courts.

That process has dragged on for nearly a year, and appears to be only half over. A hearing is scheduled next week in circuit court, during which the special master will present to Judge A. Leo Adderly an interim report and a request for 50 hours' worth of fees. That sum could run as high as $8000 and will be split evenly between the warring factions.

As relocation of the studio nears completion, as telephone communication returns to the operation (the new number will be 662-8889), as grant money provides new equipment, and as the litigation for control of the station proceeds, faithful listeners await the one missing element: music. Perhaps Miami's broadcast alternative will be back on the air by the time you read this. Perhaps not. "We're not even sure if the transmitter is actually fixed," Pelleya warns. "You can't tell if it's working until you have a signal to send through it.