Eric Cobb, Jason Allen
Down in the basement of Andy Holt Tower on the southern end of the University of Tennessee’scampus is a mini-factory of chaotic efficiency. The tiny windowless studio of WUTK, UT’s college radio station, is kind-of like Santa’s workshop, except the craft is music rather than toys. The college kids scuffling about could resemble industrious elves if it weren’t for their normal height and fondness of expletives when bursting into the main office yelling, “Have you heard the new [insert cool band name here]? It totally kicks ass!” The station hums a Brazilian Girls tune on several radios throughout the office, and everyone seems to unconsciously move along to its methodical beat.
The studio’s explosive energy makes it hard to believe Michael Grider, student music director at the station, when he says that just a year ago, “You could walk in here and there would be no one here. Rumor had it they were going to shut down the station and sell all the equipment.” In 1991, university budget cuts resulted in the loss of a full-time faculty member to head up the radio station, leaving inexperienced students to their own devices, their only guidance coming from well-meaning but already-overextended media professors. The once-legendary New Rock 90 went downhill fast, relying mainly on top 40 hits to fill the airtime.
Until this year, the station might have been number six on some Knoxvillians’ radio speed-dials; others probably didn’t even tune in at all. But things have changed. With a new name, (90.3 The Rock), a new director, an influx of enthusiastic students and a new programming approach, UT’s college radio is once again the hottest thing on everyone’s lips, and it’s easy to hear why.
The station plays an astoundingly eclectic mix, but doesn’t ever sacrifice quality for quantity, as each new disc that comes in goes through a rigorous system of hoops before it’s deemed worthy of airtime. Even so, 90.3 typically plays new music at least a few weeks before anyone else. Listening to the webcast while watching the artists and songtitles streaming is literally an education for any music junkie who wants to hear the newest, most underground tunes on the air. And people are catching on. In the last few months, the station’s web hits (at www.wutkradio.com ) have shot up from about 10 a week to 200 or so.
The job of director went to Benny Smith, who bounds out of his office, looking, as usual, like it’s the best day of his life. Anyone who has ever come into contact with Smith, through his work with West 105.3, The River, A.C. Entertainment, Metro Pulse , and even New Rock 90 (in the late ’80s), knows him as the guy who comes into work on the rainiest day of the year, grinning for no good reason, bearing an armload of Krispy Kremes and a full report on last weekend’s Vols game—the kind of guy who makes everyone feel worthwhile. Today, he’s enviably exuberant, now more than ever, for two reasons: a new baby, his “princess,” Ella Kate, and the dynamic momentum at the station.
Smith’s first foray into college radio was back in ’85, when he was a student DJ. He recalls trudging up from Greve Hall on glacial East Tennessee winter days for the 6-10 a.m. timeslot. He eventually worked his way up to music director in ’87, and the following years proved to be formative. “It just so happened to be the heyday of college radio,” he says. “Grunge and hip-hop were blowing up and we had clubs like Ella Guru’s and Ace of Clubs that we were able to get behind.”
A lot has changed since those days, for better and for worse. Back when Smith started at the station, the signal was only 128 watts. It now broadcasts at nearly 1,000 watts, flickering out of listening range right around the West Hills exit as you head out of town on I-40. Despite technical improvements, though, Smith gets a pang of nostalgia as his eyes fall on the wall of impressive memorabilia, photos of musicians with personal thank-you’s from names like the Old 97’s, Flaming Lips and Del McCoury. “The kids trip out on this stuff,” he muses. “They can’t believe that back in those days we had the Chili Peppers in the studio. We had Chuck D from Public Enemy and Joey Ramone, all kinds of people.”
One gets the sense that Smith has the shrine not for his own ego’s inflation, but to give the students confidence—a wordless push that says, “Hey, this is how it was once, and it can be again.” It’s going to be a lot of work, of course. “This is such an evolving process,” says Smith. “I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel down here, because for years, these kids didn’t have the leadership, and it was a ship lost at sea. You could tell that by listening to it.”
Smith and his band of merry students seem up to the task. For one thing, Smith, who’s really just a pumped-up college kid at heart, is not afraid to get his hands dirty. His office door sees almost as many eager faces as do the spatula-wielding servers at Smokey’s on fried chicken day. After one of the DJs interrupts to tell him that the New Orleans Voodoo Festival has been moved to Memphis due to the hurricane, Smith jets out after him, choosing his steps carefully amidst lily pads of CD piles on the floor, to tell the young floppy-haired student that he should feel free to report news like that on the air.
The late ’80s may have seen the boom of college radio, with the spawning of mega-bands like REM and Nirvana, but Smith sees some parallels with those times today. “It’s kind of weird because at the end of the Reagan era there was a lot of creative experimenting with music that came out of being frustrated with the political landscape. I think there’s a lot of that out there today.”
Music and social movements have always been intertwined, but college radio is a unique vehicle because it’s youth-oriented and lacks a corporate entity ruling its programming. Todd Steed, a local musician and UT’s programs-abroad director, served as WUTK’s first official “rock” director in ’83. “College radio has the incredible good fortune to be able to choose its voice and listen to other sources besides Arbitron,” he says. “They can develop and grow some kind of heartbeat. It sounds like human beings are running the place.”
Though they don’t say it outright, the students manning WUTK today seem to realize they are doing something important by carrying on those traditions. “Benny has definitely turned things around down here, but it’s also a labor of love for the students,” says Jay Lewis, assistant music director, junior in public relations, ex-Navy man and self-proclaimed “walking music encyclopedia.” “The station is helping Knoxville grow musically. I mean, where else can you hear music that just came out this week?” As if on cue, Smith walks in with the new Franz Ferdinand disc, a full week before its release date.
Like school itself, college radio should be a learning experience—not only for the students behind the microphone, but for the listeners as well. But it’s no easy task to stay on top of the deluge of new music out there. Jay Lewis and Michael Grider, student music director and junior in journalism and electronic media, explain the painstaking process. First, one of them listens to each CD that comes in. Then they divide those onto shelves with post-it labels such as “punk, ska,” “alt rock,” “local, high priority,” “local, your call,” “Benny’s choice,” and “wait and see how record does.”
Though they do keep tabs on charts and sales, as the last category would indicate, they say those factors don’t rule them. “If it’s good, we play it anyway,” says Grider. Songs are then recorded into the production computers, where they are sorted into levels of rotation, from “hot,” which are played six or seven times a day, to “medium,” and so on.
Grider and Lewis are both wildly emphatic about music, and if left to their own devices, the station’s programming would sound inspired, to be sure. But it might also sound randomly spewed and muddled, as can be inferred from their boisterous talking over one another in conversation. Tony Farina, a mild-mannered grad student who helps out at the studio, balances the act by closely tracking audience reactions to songs. Listeners can go online and vote on whether a song should have playtime. “You have a responsibility to your audience,” he says. “We’re trying to get established in the community as consistent and to have an identity. Our niche is in variety and local bands.”
Finding that niche is of high importance for a college radio station in a David-and-Goliath situation, clamoring amongst giants in the ever-more-corporate radio business. “We have to compete against the Big Boys,” says Smith. “So we have to tweak our station so that we offer something different.” Being a non-commercial station, WUTK goes by different FCC laws, some of which are a bit puzzling. Rather than advertisers, they have “sponsors” who purchase underwriting, or scripted segments similar to advertisementsbut with restrictions. For example, superlatives like “best” or “most variety ” are forbidden language, and DJs cannot make “calls to action,” prodding listeners to “go buy this album.” Restrictions be damned, Smith says, “We have a lot of repeat customers, so we know that their sponsorships are paying off for them.”
Should student DJs accidentally break FCC regulations, Smith says, the organization is generally understanding of college radio’s “learning-lab” nature. The students are first and foremost there to learn the equipment and the business, and to get a practical “real-world” experience.
And sometimes things are a little unprofessional on The Rock; occasionally a DJ will botch a pronunciation, and sometimes the song titles streaming on the Web don’t match up with what’s on the air, but that might be part of the charm. “There’s a certain untamed element of college radio,” says Steed. “Sometimes students will say things that are downright amusing—things you couldn’t say if ‘the man’ were listening.”
The “specialty show,” another quintessential element of college radio that was absent from WUTK during its dormant years, has now been revived. There are one or two a day, and the variety is staggering; “The Passport” plays international tunes, “The Combo Meal” features punk, emo, screamo and ska, “The Mothership” covers old school funk and rap, and the list goes on.
That multiplicity of offerings may boggle the mind of the typical one-genre radio listener, but it fits this station well. During Grider and Lewis’ interview, it’s sometimes difficult to guide them down a lane of thought, as they’re constantly stopping to pester fellow student Jamie Wilson over his OC addiction or pausing to discuss the merits or lack thereof of a particular song being played. “There’s a lot of arguing and debate going on around here,” explains Lewis. “But there’s a lot of diversity too. Everyone brings something to the table. The main thing everyone agrees on is that it’s gotten better, and it’s going to get better.”
If the students’ energy is sporadic, it’s also invigorating and crackling with unpredictability. It may be a tough job reining in all that unbridled enthusiasm, but Smith is running with it. “Hearing these kids get excited, and hearing people in the community who have started listening to the radio again, that makes me excited to come in here every day,” he says, broadcasting his statement, as usual, with the aid of a 100-watt grin.