Lost on the dial

"It's been a crazy, crazy week," Jennifer Barczak says, running a hand through her hair.

She says this as she slumps in a chair in the office of the only radio station in Orlando that has stickers of Gus Gus, the Circle Jerks, Gizzard and a million other bands plastered on desks, walls and garbage cans. A Black Grape poster says, "Despite our best efforts, shortages of marijuana are now being reported."

These are signs WPRK (91.5-FM) has not fallen -- yet -- under some form of corporatized format as so many others in Central Florida already have. "The stickers give you an idea of the way things are around here," says Barczak, who deejays a show at the station.

The "crazy" week began when she received word that WPRK, owned and operated since 1951 by Rollins College, might soon join the modern world. During a meeting with Rollins administrators, she discovered the station's 50-year-old equipment might be updated, National Public Radio talk shows might be syndicated on its airwaves and a professional group of managers might be brought in to oversee the refreshingly eclectic programming that defines the current WPRK.

All bad news to Barczak. "Judging by the character of WPRK, I'd rather see it turned off the air than pretend to be doing the community a service," she says.

The WPRK staff feels the same. They have begun signing an e-mail petition and are planning a benefit July 16 at the Bodhisattva Social Club.

Rollins administration are still weighing whether to enter into a management agreement with executives of WMFE (90.7-FM), one of two NPR affiliates in Orlando. Rollins' Board of Trustees has agreed to look into a "collaboration" with WMFE that would permit that station to manage and program WPRK's air time. The college would retain the station's broadcast license.

Jorge Fajardo, WMFE's senior vice president for operations, was unavailable for comment. But presumably the station would broadcast NPR programs such as "Fresh Air" and "Talk of the Nation" on WPRK that it can't squeeze on WMFE's schedule. That means, in exchange for new equipment and professional training, students would forfeit up to 16 hours a day of air time to WMFE. They've been promised late-night time slots for their own shows, but they'll lose the ability to manage themselves.

"[WMFE] says they will grade the [student] shows on the air to decide what is valuable or what is not valuable," says Barczak, who has worked at WPRK for more than two years. "It scares me to think what they would deem valuable."

Barczak is in a strange position. She is WPRK's station manager, but she's forbidden to speak against the proposal because, technically, the $5 per hour she receives as station manager means she is an employee of the college. Rollins doesn't want an employee to speak against their position. So all her comments are provided in the context of her status as DJ and student, not as a Rollins employee.

"That only shows how retarded this whole thing is," Barczak tells programming director Michael Pickett as the two sit in WPRK's office. In the adjacent DJ booth a female student has been giving public-service announcements and providing WPRK's call signal at the top of the hour. In between, she plays violin-driven folk music, part of eight hours of syndicated programming the college station plays each day.

It may be syndicated, but it is eight hours of programming that WPRK's student management has selected. "We decide what we run and what we don't," says Pickett, a philosophy/art history major. He stresses the "we." Programming decisions are made "at our discretion," he says.

Barczak says she can see Rollins administrators' position: Facing an Federal Communications Commission requirement that all stations become digital within the next decade, Rollins would be able to update their station's antiquated equipment at no cost and offer a more professional atmosphere. It hasn't happened lately, but in the past Rollins DJs have played "objectionable" material on the air and have, at times, come across to Winter Park's older residents as vulgar.

Says Pickett: "As a business decision, it's a wonderful decision. But for a liberal arts college, it's a terrible decision."

"They're no bad guys in this thing," Barczak says. "The administration sees this as a win-win situation."

In fact, those are the words that Rina Tovar, Rollins' director of student activities, uses when she talks about the proposed agreement with WMFE. Rollins looks at the station like a learning laboratory, she says. WMFE would enhance the college's ability to provide a better education. "We'll listen to all students," Tovar says, "and do what we think will increase learning opportunities."

Barczak and Pickett say they are already learning as much as they want. After all, their education isn't in broadcasting. It's in music variety and in building a sense of community through the air waves, especially from the large number of nonstudent DJs at WPRK. "They're approaching it like we want to train to be professional broadcasters," says Barczak, a philosophy/political science major. "They think we want to grow up to be DJs."

Pickett says it's obvious that few Rollins students are interested in hands-on broadcasting experience. The college operates a closed-captioned TV station that broadcasts in the student union. Except it never runs any programs; it broadcasts a wall clock so students can tell what time it is. "Really, no one is interested in broadcasting," Pickett says.

Pickett is candid about the number of WPRK listeners: Not many. The station, whose signal barely reaches across the city, sometimes has fewer than 50 listeners in a quarter hour. WMFE has as many as 8,000 per quarter hour.

But some people wonder how much more of an audience there is for NPR. In addition to WMFE, Orlando also has NPR station WUCF. "I don't see how there is an audience now for two NPR stations," says Daniel Fuller, music editor at CitySearch and a WPRK DJ.

Fuller was among several DJs who worked at WUCF when that station upgraded its power and became an NPR affiliate in 1994. As with Rollins, students at UCF were promised evening hours for their own programming. Those hours were eventually phased out.

Fuller is one of approximately 55 on-air personalities who are not students -- so called community DJs. The community DJs provide a sophisticated music taste that other stations in Orlando would be hard pressed to duplicate.

"Some of them look like riff-raff, but to us they have a lot of valuable things to say," Barczak says.

One of those DJs is Tyler Davis, known for his '60s garage-band show on Wednesday-evening drive time. Davis, who slicks his hair back in retro fashion, brings many of his own records and uses a modifier to make his voice sound dated. "I could not imagine him walking down the halls of a conservative radio station" such as WMFE, Barczak says.

Many of those community DJs are holding their breath. The overall feeling seems to be that "pretty much, the party's over," says Matt Gorney, who has been a DJ for almost 10 years at WPRK.

"Basically, it's been a little DJ's dream, because as long as you act responsibly, you can [satisfy your] creative impulse," he says. "It's been nice to have a free run for this long."

If the door is closing, it will close on another cultural landmark, Barczak says. Orlando can't seem to hold on to the few historical treasures -- like the remodeled Langford and Harley hotels -- that it has.

"How many bastions of culture do we need to see destroyed before someone says we're not going to see Orlando turned into a really, really crappy tourist town more than it already is?" Barczak asks.