Sending out mixed signals

Don't quote me, but I vaguely remember getting a Rollins College alumni newsletter last year saying that "we" had raised something like $90 million to fund various school improvements. I didn't contribute to this fund, though I love Rollins and wouldn't trade my time there for all the cheap sex in Bangkok. Graduating from Rollins was probably the smartest thing I've ever done, next to figuring out that gay men never change.

And though I never fit in with Richie Rich, I loved the campus' third-home-in-the-Hamptons atmosphere. It makes you feel confident in your own ability to get money that the school that trained you has it in truckloads.

At last count Rollins' ongoing fund-raising was up to $120 million. That's insane. That's solid-gold plumbing and air-conditioned-dog-house money. Jerry Lewis never raised more than $53 million and change during telethon season, and that's with the whole country being emotionally blackmailed by photos of sick children.

Having a gooey affection for Rollins, I was disappointed to hear about the possible merger between its radio station WPRK and public radio station WMFE. Though still being negotiated, the idea is that WMFE will pour gobs of money into WPRK, which still operates with antiquated equipment, and would train Rollins broadcasting students. In return WMFE would take over as much as 16 hours per day of broadcasting time from WPRK and have control over student-run shows.

Doesn't sound so bad, but that's because there's one thing you can't hear from reading this: WPRK. On a $30,000 a year budget and with only student and volunteer programming, WPRK is the most eclectic station on the dial -- classical, jazz, experimental, ska, reggae, talk, punk, rockabilly, the oldest and newest -- and over the years WPRK has literally not missed a beat. They're exactly what a college radio station should be: rich, culturally.

Dial for dollars

Rollins is rich, financially, and its choosing to let WMFE do the improvements WPRK needs feels bizarre. It would be like if Bill Gates decided not to pay his kids' tuition, preferring to indenture them to Wendy's and let Dave Thomas pick up their college tab.

WMFE isn't exactly aural fast food, but let's face it: public radio is essentially franchised. NPR already has WMFE and WUCF. That's 48 hours of public radio time a day. Maybe instead of "All Things Considered," they should only consider a few things, so there's a little more variety on the air.

Actually, the fact that it's public radio and not some commercial station is what makes this a touchy situation. Nobody wants to fight public radio. We all like it. I listen to Garrison Keillor and "Who Would You Do?," or whatever that game show is called, and I've even ponied up when WMFE cried poverty in their pledge drives. Then I come to find out that, like Blockbuster and Starbucks, they have enough dough to assimilate a poor starving college station into the high-brow Borg. You think you gave some money to Oliver Twist and find out you actually gave to Ted Turner.

Broadcast blues

It isn't a given that the richness and diversity of programming on WPRK will evaporate, but with 16 fewer hours a day in which to do it, it's hard to believe it won't be significantly altered. Rollins, as a liberal-arts college, should be the prime defender of cultural diversity, which its own station provides handsomely. It's odd that it's even considering not funding these improvements itself. It's true that WMFE will produce well-trained students and that "The Wall Street Report" is more important in the real world than obscure music and the lowdown on the Bithlo school-bus races, but college is not the real world. The whole point of college is having the safety to pursue your own goofy intellectual enrichment. I put thousands of dollars into Rollins just to find out that Coleridge was a junkie and Candor and Ebb wrote "Cabaret" -- no one was worrying about the practical nature of my education just then. I took a class at Rollins in parapsychology -- ghostbusting, fer pity's sake. It wasn't exactly a trade school. And those were some of the best years of my life.

And WPRK is one of the best parts of our cultural life in Central Florida, which is probably why pessimism is rampant that it will lose its raw charm in this merger. So little of anything with character, color or bite seems to last around here. Before long we'll be as featureless as a Ken doll's crotch, smoothed over by things that are big and corporate. The tourists and octogenarians will like it, but we'll be less of a community and more of an affiliate.

One thing I did not learn at Rollins, but did discover after leaving it and becoming a freelance writer, was that it doesn't matter how good or noble or cool your project is, if the people who sign the checks don't like it, forget it. If the deal goes through, hopefully WMFE will like the good, noble and cool student programming WPRK has provided over the years, because it will be very hard to forget it.

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