Take back the airwaves

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In 1995 the University of Central Florida turned its student radio station, WUCF-FM (89.9), over to National Public Radio and jazz programing. The idea was to rid the airwaves of objectionable content, professionalize the operation, make a name for the university, and maybe save money in the process, since the school struggled to keep student radio afloat.

"It used to be students playing their favorite CDs, doing a two-to-three hour music show, having lots of fun," says WUCF-FM manager Kayonne Riley. "Now they come out with something they can put on a resume that shows they worked at a professional radio station."

Eight years later, the station has certainly accomplished its first two objectives -- NPR is sanitary enough for the most easily offended listener, and the station is far more professional today than the student-run WUCF ever was.

But WUCF-FM's ratings and fund-raising are so stagnant that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is cutting out a quarter of WUCF's $38,000 grant next year. And instead of saving money for the university, WUCF-FM has proven to be something of an albatross, costing UCF far more than NPR-affiliated college radio stations in other markets.

All of which has some students at this mushrooming university asking a very good question: What exactly is the mission of "student" radio anyway?

"I don't think [WUCF-FM] serves the needs of the campus," says radio-and-television-broadcasting major Joshua Royffe. "I don't think it serves the needs of the campus. I understand why it is the way it is, but it's not a college radio station."

That WUCF's broadcast license is turned over to NPR programming isn't unique. Of the 714 NPR radio signals (there are 272 member stations, but some stations operate more than one signal), 147 are owned by universities.

But UCF's level of support is unique. Most university-NPR stations receive 15.6 percent of their budget from the schools, according to statistics provided by NPR. UCF, by contrast, provides 75 percent of WUCF's $400,000 budget.

At the same time, university officials don't seem interested in the two fledgling student-radio efforts that have sprung up in response to the NPR takeover of WUCF-FM. "They don't even know we exist," says Michelle Betz, faculty advisor to WNSC, a 3-year-old student station that broadcasts only on UCF's cable systems. (The other student operation, Knightcast, gets its $20,500 budget courtesy of the Student Government Association, not the university proper.)

WUCF-FM employs students as behind-the-scenes interns, and occasionally allows them to read the news or sports. So students have gone online and onto the campus cable system to be heard.

Royffe, for example, joined Knightcast, which formally began in fall 2001. Now he's the manager. "We're trying to give students as close to a college radio station as we can get now," he says.

The problem is, no one's listening. The Internet station's limited bandwidth only handle 50 listeners at a time.

WNSC, the other student broadcasting station, had to cease online programming when the federal government began assessing royalty fees for both artists and songwriters earlier this year. The station owes back royalties of $2,000, and $1,000 more per year of programming -- too much for its budget of less than $4,000 (none of which came from the university). It went offline, but still airs over the on-campus cable Channel 21.

If she can scrape up funding, Betz is looking at new options to grow WNSC, but as of right now, there aren't many. "Getting low-powered FM will probably not happen," she says. "We're proposing a small on-campus transmitter. We've had obstacles since day one, and this is just another one."

Regardless of the administration's cold shoulder, interest in the two student stations is growing.

Betz's students jumped at the chance to form WNSC in 1999. Since then, it has grown from a half-hour broadcast every week to a full-time station. Every day, the station's e-mail in-boxes are inundated with students requesting either music or DJ jobs. Staffing has doubled since the stations started. Student government's hefty financial endorsement of Knightcast is a strong measure of the campus' support, too.

Rollins College has a thriving radio station, WPRK-FM (91.5) -- though its reach is limited due to a weak transmitter and the pirate and religious stations that neighbor it on the dial. (Two years ago, Rollins toyed with replacing WPRK with an NPR affiliate, but backed down in the face of student protests.) The University of South Florida also has a station, WBUL-AM (1260).

Nonetheless, UCF is happy with its NPR station, despite the fact that it is a financial boondoggle.

Despite what the CPB says, Riley insists that ratings are up, adding that it pulls roughly 50,000 to 60,000 listeners a week. "My goal is to make the station more of a money maker for the university," Riley says. "The university is providing us with expense money and salary money. I want to take that money and give it back or use it to pay students. Our goal is to be something that financially benefits the university and provides an educational service."

Right now, it's doing neither. Even the best behind-the-scenes internships don't compare with the realities of running an actual radio show, and money wise, there's no way WUCF can claim success.

"They should encourage [student radio], support it, not just financially," says Betz. "It's a good thing. You need a creative outlet, a what's-going-on-around-campus outlet. We provide such a huge service. UCF has so much to gain by doing this."

Additional reporting by Lisa Cericola

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