WPRK 91.5 has been off the air for nearly 3 months, but it will return

Radio silence

WPRK 91.5 has been off the air for nearly 3 months, but it will return
Photo via WPRK

Those who've attempted to tune their radio dials to 91.5-FM in recent months have been met with one of two things: all-out static or the occasional crackle of what sounds like Sunday morning church.

No, Rollins College's storied WPRK – the "Best in Basement Radio," as it bills itself – hasn't had the plug pulled. That's bleed-over from its Christian contemporary neighbor on the dial, WHIF 91.3-FM.

The problem is simple: WPRK's antenna has been down for months, leaving them no way to broadcast a terrestrial signal. Simple though the problem may be, there's no easy fix. Even though the station continues to stream online, it's likely to remain off the airwaves for some time.

On Sept. 8, less than two days before Hurricane Irma made landfall across Florida, the WPRK staff made the decision to sign off for safety, says Greg Golden, director of student media at Rollins College. So they shut down the radio station's transmitter and carried books, binders and whatever else they needed out of the station's basement studio to higher ground, safe from potential flooding. And then, like many other Floridians, they went home and hoped for the best.

It was supposed to be a temporary hunker-down, but the silence on the FM dial would last.

"The day after [landfall], when Rollins' facilities management was doing an assessment of the campus," Golden says, "they noticed that our antenna – our tower, more specifically, the tower holding the antenna on top of [the Mills Memorial Hall] – was leaning at an angle."

One of the brackets that had originally held the tower in place was damaged and hanging loose. Out of concern for students' safety, administrators decided to vacate the area and take down the tower almost immediately.

That was three months ago. Most of Central Florida is now back in pre-storm condition; the same can't be said for WPRK.

Golden explains that the station's prolonged absence on FM airwaves is not only due to the removal of the tower – it's that the tower hasn't been replaced because the Mills building (which houses the station's office and studio) is up for renovation in June 2018. Reinstalling the antenna in its previous spot, which Golden estimates could cost the college as much as $100,000, isn't practical if the school has to take it down again shortly after. Though no concrete dates have been set, Golden says Rollins administrators have been working with an offsite tower leasing company in recent weeks, with hopes that the signal will be on air again by January.

Rollins president Grant Cornwell confirmed as much by phone, saying that it's been a complicated issue and the strategy is slowly but surely coming together.

Cornwell, a known proponent of the school's radio station, acknowledges how important WPRK is in a community like Orlando. "I think it brings a voice of independent radio that's getting harder to find on air," Cornwell says.

He went on to say that the transmitter will be relocated to a spot about a mile west of Rollins on Fairbanks Avenue, until the renovations of the Mills building are complete.

As for where WPRK's broadcast studio will be relocated once it's turfed out of the basement it's long called home, Golden says he and Rollins' facilities management team, alongside the student staff, have been planning well ahead so as to make the move as seamless as possible. The school's Division of Student Affairs has been generous enough to purchase equipment that includes acoustic solutions for the temporary space, Golden says, and the station staff are working with the team that's planning the interior redesign of the Mills building too.

So where does that leave WPRK and its community DJs and more than 50 student staffers?

In student staffer and assistant station manager Syd Rock's words, the situation only proves "how strong [the radio station] is."

"[WPRK's] purpose is not to just serve Rollins," says Rock, a sophomore at Rollins who has been involved with the station since high school. "It serves the entire Orlando community. Anywhere you go, if somebody mentions WPRK, if somebody knows it, then they know it for totally different reasons."

Programming-wise, however, nothing has changed. Longtime DJs like Anthony Mauss, who hosts the early Monday morning show "Bargain Bin Bonanza," and student staffers are still plugging away as they do their best to maintain WPRK's listenership.

"[The radio station] is a crucial part of the community," Mauss says. "I think WPRK reflects what the organic community of Orlando sounds like more than what the larger mass-market identity [of the city] is."

What has changed is that only a fraction of WPRK fans are able to listen, even though Golden says their online listenership has slowly gained momentum.

"It's certainly not a good feeling to not be on the air," Golden says. "For us to be able to fully serve our community, being over the FM waves is the best way to do it."

Still, it's promising that administrators haven't said anything along the lines of how WPRK has had a good run over the last 65 years and it's time to cut losses.

As a former DJ and lifelong fan of WPRK who's also on the station's Community Advisory Council, Dave Plotkin views the antenna dilemma as yet another challenge for both the station and its latest class of young leaders.

Plotkin – a WPRK godfather of sorts, who earned FM notoriety in his attempt to break a Guinness World Record by broadcasting for 110 hours straight in 2005 – recalls instances in which the station has seen far greater existential threats.

In 2000, Plotkin worked with a group of community members and the student staff to oppose a corporate purchase of the station by WMFE 90.7-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate in Orlando. He says the move to rip WPRK from its basement dwellings at Rollins was all but said and done at the time, minus a signature from then-president of Rollins Rita Bornstein.

"Because of the students' work, the president didn't sign the contract at the last minute," Plotkin says. "It was very dramatic. The administration to this day ... remember [the station members' efforts] and still take a great deal of pride in the students who stopped the corporate sale of a radio station."

"That wasn't the only time the station was threatened," Plotkin continues. "But that was probably the closest to going away or being something completely different that it'll ever be."

Plotkin explains how despite the disappointment that students feel with WPRK being off the airwaves, it's widely understood that for a natural disaster to take out the antenna is a very "Florida thing" to have happened.

"That's kind of the ethic of the students that work there," Plotkin says. "Anything can threaten the station, and that keeping it alive and on the air is part of the job."

It's interesting that a school like Rollins College, which lacks a mass communications department, would even have a college radio station; most are treated as learning environments for students of broadcast. But countless ex-staffers say that even though it wasn't part of their major, the station shaped their later careers.

"It's kind of typical for weirdos at Rollins to find a safe place at WPRK," says Steven Head, a recently appointed member of the station's Community Advisory Council and host of the Tuesday night show "Without Rhyme or Reason." "I mean, I met the majority of my friends here. I got involved with music booking here. It really was a turning point in my life."

Along with WPRK's eclectic nature, it's integral to local radio history. The first message ever broadcast over the station's airwaves was spoken by our 34th president, Dwight Eisenhower. WPRK isn't just the state's oldest college radio station – it's the oldest radio station in Florida.

And when WPRK is fully functional, on full form with student staffers and community members blasting out across the airwaves, it's what Mauss describes as "radio in its purest form."

"I mean it's sloppy, it's accidental; it's transcendent in the most organic way," Mauss says. "There is no format, so it's completely free-form radio.

"I've always said the great thing about WPRK is you're going to turn it on and you're either going to hear the best radio you've ever heard or the worst radio you've ever head."

He continues: "And it's great. It's kind of that crapshoot."


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