Radio Free Orlando 

Radio stations lose their audiences all the time. "Top 40" becomes "classic rock" becomes "adult contemporary" becomes "hot R&B" becomes "the rock alternative." Listeners have become begrudgingly accustomed to format changes that are as frequent as the shifting winds of musical trends. And though many might see this as solely a function of large commercial stations, in fact, noncommercial stations are frequently the victims of change, too.

WPRK-FM (91.5) is the radio voice of Rollins College in Winter Park. And though its current stature as an independent presence on increasingly commercial airwaves has earned it well-deserved praise, the station's 50-year history has seen its share of format changes and controversy. Burdened by the added threats of limited budget, cyclical campus interest, FCC pressure and reliance on "staff" who frequently need to be studying instead of DJ-ing, WPRK has nonetheless thrived and is currently in the process of celebrating its 50th anniversary. And despite the hurdles, the station has managed to maintain vital ties with the Rollins student body and the greater Orlando community. As general manager Dan Seeger sees it, WPRK's efforts have been to get students "on board with supporting WPRK and feeling a sense of connection to the station."

Rollins' first radio station, WDBO ("Way Down By Orlando") was a faculty- and student-run station founded in May 1924 with programming highlights such as glee-club recitals and lectures. Capturing the imagination of neither the student body nor the local community, the station was sold. However, in December 1952, a new Rollins station emerged. Though WPRK's class-credit-oriented beginnings were similar to WDBO's, by the 1960s, the programming had broadened to include issues involving the community and world events. Local fan mail piled in, and by 1964, WPRK bragged it had the highest number of listeners per watt (though, admittedly, it wasn't very many watts). When the late J. Gordon Fraser began managing the station in 1978, he brought WPRK to a seven-day broadcast schedule. Almost instantly, a new focus came to the station, and its image became more professional. Only once during Fraser's term -- which ended with his retirement in 1990 -- did WPRK pull the plug on a broadcast day, and that was when Hurricane Elena hit in 1985.

During this time, WPRK was a musical anomaly in Orlando, with programming that consisted primarily of more adventurous classical music. The station also provided students with free-form shows that would feature everything from pop and jazz to world music. In the late '80s -- an era largely heralded as the heyday of "college radio" -- Rollins students began to gain more hands-on control over the direction of the station, signaling another change in WPRK's identity.

"The most significant change in format was a direct result of transferring control of the station to students around 1989 to 1990," says Seeger. The students' preferences "skewed a different direction when it came to music." The uncommon sounds of "college rock" and "indie rock" overtook the airwaves and left-of-center and underground programming became the station's standard.

It's this vision for WPRK that persists today. Although indie rock is perhaps the genre most readily identified with the station, in fact, its programming is the most diverse on the Central Florida FM dial. Paying more than customary lip service to "world music," WPRK programs no less than 10 shows that focus on different international genres. Additionally, there are a half-dozen classical music programs, jazz shows, folk/bluegrass programs, techno/electronic shows and a healthy dose of student-oriented talk. Such a mixed schedule is testament both to the station's hands-off policy with DJs and to its respect for the ethnic differences so prevalent in the at-large community WPRK serves.

Thus, it's not too surprising that when, in June 2000, WPRK was faced with the prospect of being taken over by public radio station WMFE-FM (90.7) -- leaving much of the student-guided programming behind -- not only did the student body get up in arms, but so did the community. The voices of the students and various local notables had a palliative effect, earning the station a reprieve in January 2001 with the mandate that the station strengthen its relationship with the campus community.

So far so good, according to Seeger, who notes that the station has already added broadcasts of Rollins basketball games as well as a Monday "open forum" for campus issues.

"We're striving to be the true voice of Rollins," he says, "and to be an active part of campus culture. We're making sure we have more and more student involvement."

Still, the station's signal certainly reaches beyond the gates of Rollins, and Seeger notes that nonstudents are still very much a part of the station's identity.

"It's a testament to the station's stature in the Orlando area that so many community members want to be a part of what is, in actuality, a student organization," he says.

And to that end, with the station's 50th anniversary approaching, the idea to host a birthday party at a downtown nightclub -- rather than on campus -- was very much a calculated one.

"It's such an accomplishment to reach 50 years," says Seeger. "We wanted people who support the station to be able to celebrate ... and we wanted everyone who gets our signal to be a part of it."

More by Andrew Jones


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