commentary (2006-44)

90.3 FM is making its own way

Can’t Stop ‘The Rock’

by Leslie Wylie

Maybe five years ago, a solid decade after mixtapes went out of fashion, I was still taping songs off the radio. In order to qualify for mix tape status, however, the song had to adhere to each of three criteria: 1) There had to be some suspicion in my mind that said song might be the best song ever , 2) I had to have heard it on the college radio station, 90.3 WUTK, and 3) I had to have absolutely no clue who the band was.

My mixtape collection, as I saw it, was a kind of mausoleum. Songs on the radio come and go, and not knowing to whom they belonged or how to retrieve them, there was always a chance that I might never hear them again. And since they seemed to me, at least at that particular moment in time, like plausible candidates for the best songs ever , that would’ve been a tragedy.

With most stations, of course, if you don’t know the name or artist of a song, you can pick up the phone and ask the DJ. These days, with playlists streaming on most stations’ websites, it’s even easier than that. But 90 percent of the time when you called WUTK, circa 2001, to inquire about the name of a song, the phone would just ring.

That was before Benny Smith showed up. As the station’s first general manager since budget cuts swallowed the position in 1991, he had some serious initial housekeeping issues to deal with. The first few months couldn’t have been easy: I remember calling the station late one night, when it was just starting to reinstate the concept of live DJs, with a hankering for a certain Lucero song, half-hoping somebody would pick up. When I heard Smith’s voice, I almost dropped the phone. It was well after midnight. Talk about long hours.

Fast-forward to November 2006. Yesterday, most of the station’s staff took off for the CMJ College Radio Awards in New York City. The station was chosen by the College Media Journal as one of five finalists in its “Biggest Improvement” category, out of 400 college and non-commercial radio stations nationwide. The awards ceremony is Thursday night. 

I called Smith, who’s holding down the station while they’re gone, late Tuesday afternoon. He noted that each of the students paid his or her own way for the trip, which rang up at around $1,000 apiece. And it’s not like they’re making even minimum wage working at the station. It’s a volunteer job; they’re working for the experience, so they can get jobs in the real world later on.

Win or no win, the nomination is well deserved. Over the past two years, WUTK has been rewired to operate as a truly independent, non-commercial radio station, with hot-off-the-press playlists and a devoted listener base. It even tied with WIVK, the biggest country radio station in the nation, for “Best Radio Station” in this year’s Metro Pulse reader’s poll.

Can’t say we were surprised. To start with, WUTK’s got specialty music shows to suit about any musical taste and just enough sports and news to keep it well rounded. The lineup of both national and local in-station performances it has hosted is impressive as well, ranging from Steve Earle to the String Cheese Incident, Rhett Miller to Luther Dickinson.

On the local music front, the station may be the city’s biggest fan (besides us), broadcasting its Friday night “Funhouse” show live from Barley’s Taproom, introducing the masses to their new favorite local music with the Tuesday night “Locals Only” show, and sponsoring myriad shows around town. Plus, being the radio station after my own heart that it is, WUTK does its part to make an impact on the community as well (which, this week means a deluge of “Get the Vote Out” PSAs).

Lastly, the station’s live DJs do their best to call the songs like they play ’em, and if you miss that, the station’s website at keeps count of the last 24 hours’ worth of songs played.

The downside to all this is, when things start looking confident, we sometimes start taking them for granted and backing off our own support—and that’s not a liberty Knoxville can afford to take with WUTK. Supported entirely by underwriting and sponsorships, the station is presently receiving no funding from UT, including from the School of Journalism and Electronic Media under which it operates. So when financial issues come up, like last week when a broadcast antenna went south, shutting the station down for a day and leaving it with a $2,000 repair bill, it’s the station’s checkbook that takes the hit.

Fundraising options, beyond what the station is already doing, are limited. Smith believes the station is too understaffed to pull off the semi-annual donation drives that other listener-supported radio stations like NPR affiliate WUOT 91.9FM depend on for survival. On the other hand, Smith also notes that individual supporters of the station can write tax-deductible checks at any time (see their website for details). They’re also submitting a budget proposal to the university next week, which they hope will pick up at least the station’s basic operating costs.

I hope there’s a solution. Blank cassette tapes are getting hard to find these days.