College Radio Blues

Station Manager Benny Smith struggles to keep UT's WUTK afloat with no funding from the university

It's late afternoon at WUTK-90.3 FM—the combination non-commercial radio station and communications learning laboratory in the nether regions of the University of Tennessee's Andy Holt Tower—and general manager Benny Smith is buzzing around the office at an almost furious pace. One moment he's handing out club passes to a student contest winner who stops by for his prize, the next he hustles back to his own office to finish an underwriting chore, and a third he's seated in the control room, back announcing songs by Nickel Creek and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

"It's semester break," he tells another man who stops by for more free tickets, this time to a sporting event. "Not too many students around right now, so the buck stops here. I'm it."

But appearances notwithstanding, the station is at its highest ebb since Smith, a former WUTK program director as a graduate student from 1988 to to 1991, returned as station manager in October of 2004. Smith estimates that more than 100 students work at the station in some capacity every semester—a huge increase from the years immediately preceding his return—and WUTK has been recognized nationally, nominated as a finalist for the College Music Journal's College Radio Station of the Year, as well as being a finalist in five of the publication's best-of categories (including one category recognizing those stations that do the most with the least funding). And for the Knoxville community, it is, for the most part, the only on-air venue for less mainstream artists like Nick Cave, the Black Keys, and Death Cab for Cutie—to nick just a few of many names from the WUTK playlist—not to mention the only station where a variety of local artists are played on the air, regularly and often. (One commercial station, 105.3 plays a few tracks from local performers, but not in the same numbers.)

But a year after he came, Smith had an unhappy discussion with Journalism and Electronic Media Department Head Peter Gross, who told him in no uncertain terms that the modest but still vital operating funds he had taken for granted since his return would no longer be available.

"Before that happened, I had taken for granted that there was some kind of budget. Now, they keep the lights on and keep the doors open, which is great; I appreciate that. But that's what they do for all the classrooms. There's nothing above and beyond for WUTK, and I feel we are above and beyond as far as what we do."

For now, WUTK is not in financial trouble, thanks to the tireless efforts of Smith and the students who assist him. But the station's budget lives on a razor's edge; last semester was especially trying, when a rash of equipment breakdowns plagued WUTK even as Smith was scaling back his overtime work due to family issues. College officials admit that the station's future would be in doubt should financial disaster leave it floundering in debt. That could spell the end of an institution that has served broadcast and journalism students well for the better part of three decades, not to mention the city of Knoxville as its only real source of local and independent rock.

A DRAWLING, BACKSLAPPING SON OF RURAL GREENEVILLE, Smith says he caught the radio bug early. "I was a music freak growing up, and a radio freak to a degree, staying up late at night listening to WLS and WOWO and WLAC. Those were mostly AM stations, so I had to wait until the sun went down, WOWO in Fort Wayne, WLS out of Chicago, which played a great variety of music."

But it was at his hometown community station in Greeneville, WGRV1340-AM, where he really cultivated his love for working on the other side of the glass. As part of a class project for advanced students, Smith had to spend time at a job that had "something to do with the future." Radio work counted as a technology field, so Smith spent two hours after school working at the station; by the end of the semester, he had a job offer in hand.

"I started working at WGRV when I was only 16, and I was really influenced by the impact that little station had on our community," Smith remembers. "I loved the fact I was able to sneak B-52s and Pretenders and Hendrix on at night after my GM went to bed.

"At 12:20 every afternoon our whole town shut down for the local news on WGRV, to hear who died and whose baby was born. When the fire alarm went off, everyone tuned in to see where the fire was. And there I was, a 16- or 17-year-old, in communication central, and it made a big impression. I was 17, and my voice carried into five states. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be a part of radio, and radio that mattered."

Entering the University of Tennessee as a communications major in 1984, Smith became a volunteer DJ at WUTK as a sophomore, working his way up to music director by his senior year. As a grad student at UT, he took a graduate teaching assistantship as the program director.

"They had just changed the station to New Rock 90," Smith remembers. "It was the heyday of the station and kind of the heyday of college radio. I put in some good times and good days there, running hand in hand with all the clubs and shows going on in the Old City. You had the grunge thing in the early ‘90s, which really fired up college radio, rap in the mid- to late- ‘80s, which college radio had a big part in. The timing of everything was great. The place really meant a lot to me. I got to see a lot of success stories that meant a lot to me over time."

After college, Smith worked for a host of prominent local operations—mostly media outlets, and most of them music-related; success seemed to follow him. His stops included several years with the rising promotional force known as AC Entertainment, where he served as right-hand man for company head Ashley Capps, a successful stint with radio station 100.3 The River during the years it reached its commercial peak, and even a stint doing promotions for Metro Pulse, during a time when its financial fortunes were significantly on the rise. All of this, plus Smith ran his own No Cheez Productions, a one-man booking agency of a sort that worked exclusively with local music.

It was while Smith was working in promotions for this publication—"It was a slimy business up there at Metro Pulse at the time," he deadpans—when he was approached by Sam Swan about taking on the newly revived position of general manager at WUTK. "Sam Swan had been my advisor during my student years, and he was acting head of the department at the time," Smith remembers. "He called me up and said there may be an opportunity to bring the general manager position back to WUTK. The position had been cut in 1991 as part of massive budget cuts, and in the meantime the station had drifted into an abyss because there was no on there really running it, no one providing direction for students.

"Sam Swan saw what I and others had done with WUTK years ago, that we were successful in the community and successful in bringing money in to help run it, but especially successful in providing an effective learning laboratory for students. I loved working at Metro Pulse, but WUTK was where my heart was. So Dr. Swan said if I'm interested, I should apply, and that he would look for some money to provide some funding. And sure enough he did."

But when Smith took on the challenge in fall ‘04, he found the station in a state of utter disrepair. "I thought I knew, but I didn't realize just how bad it had gotten," he says. "It took me two or three months to figure out, ‘My God, what am I going to do, and how am I going to do it, get this thing turned around and moving in the right direction?'

"I spent my first week there just cleaning the place, physically cleaning the place up. There were very few students down there doing much of anything at all. They had maybe 10 or 15 students come through in a semester; the place had turned into sort of an exclusive club for the students that did come down here. The inmates were running the asylum; there was no training going on, no discipline."

Although many communications students were supposed to work at the station as part of their curriculum, that often didn't happen. "When the lifeguard is away, there are people pissing in the pool, and it was my job to clean up the piss and pet hair.

"But I'd seen what the station could do with 128 watts; now it had 1,000 watts. There were exciting things happening downtown, and we needed to be a part of it."

The turnaround was gradual, but sure. For Smith, the biggest obstacle he faced early on was convincing local businesses to return as underwriters for WUTK. "During those years without a station manager, The Torch [WUTK's station nickname at the time] had developed a terrible reputation," he says. "Folks would agree to underwrite the station, then nothing would get done."

Then came the fateful afternoon of his conversation with Gross. "He told me there was no funding for the station, and there would be no funding," Smith says. "That was a somber day."

SMITH SAYS THE STATION REQUIRES a minimum of $5,000 per month to keep it afloat—just enough to cover his own salary and other fixed costs. Where the lack of additional funding becomes most problematic is at those times when unexpected costs pop up, such as last year, when the station's transmitter broke down, or this past semester, when several key pieces of equipment, including two CD players, were on the fritz.

Gross, who took over for interim head Swan, isn't without sympathy, but he points out the station was founded on the notion that it would be wholly self-supporting. "Periodically, it has received help on those occasions where funding was short. But it was never set up to get funding in the first place. There were a lot of misconceptions flying around.

"WUTK was never on the budget of the college or the university. It was never a line-item on the budget. It started selling underwriting in the 1980s, and was always intended to survive on underwriting and donations. What happens is the station gets some help, and that transfers in people's minds to, it's funded by the university."

Adds Dr. Michael Wirth, dean of the College of Communications, "If we had base budget funding in place for WUTK, it would be nice, but we don't. And if you look at the likelihood, it's not very likely we will. And frankly, it is working. The station has stayed around 25 years. The real question is what happens if you hit a year with a deficit, and don't cover costs? We would be responsible for covering those costs. What would happen to the station? I don't know. But it could be at risk."

Although the station may have been founded on the notion that it would remain self-supporting, Smith says the reality of its funding has been much less cut and dried. "When I came back, Dr. Swan said we're trying to get some funding here," Smith says. "I knew my salary was still going to be something I had to raise through underwriting and donations. But when I was in school, it was told to the community that WUTK is supported by the School of Broadcasting, which is now Journalism and Electronic Media. That was on the website when I came here again. Come to find out, it was just a misunderstanding, or it wasn't really the case. There was no budget for the station.

"I guess what was being told was not in very black and white terms. Sure, there was funding, but it wasn't some sort of direct line in the budget that says X amount of money goes to WUTK. They were finding it elsewhere to keep it afloat, and God bless them for it. There were new equipment updates that were keeping the station open. Or there was some research budget or something they could apply to keep it afloat. But what was being understood by myself, but more importantly by the listeners, is this station's operational funding came from the school of communications."

According to Fritz Kass, chief operating officer of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System—a 1,000-strong organization that counts WUTK as one of its members—most college radio stations get some degree of school funding. Taking NPR stations such as UT's WUOT out of the equation, he says the average station gets around $9,000 per year.

"The major sources of funds tend to be student activities funds and academic sources," he says. "College radio stations present tremendous economic and educational opportunities. For students, they tend to be business and life labs as well as media labs. They give engineering students a chance to practice; they give IT students a chance to practice web design; they provide journalism students a chance. And that list goes on."

In recent years, funding for college radio has been on the rise, says Kass, as high-level university officials realize the fundraising opportunities such radio stations present by reaching out to alumni. "A webcast on a college radio station can reach alumni in Europe, for instance," says Kass. "And suddenly the athletic department wants to broadcast basketball games via webcast. With a radio station, it's easier to reach out to these folks than with college newspapers."

Smith says $9,000 would make his job considerably easier, but he knows that likely won't be forthcoming. As Wirth points out, obtaining base budget funding at this juncture would be nigh on to impossible, in a climate where so many programs are competing for limited university budget dollars.

Even more frustrating, says Smith, is the unwillingness on the part of university higher-ups—and most of the decisions that ultimately affect WUTK funding options ultimately come down from what Smith calls "the men in the tower," not from the department head or even the college dean—to allow the station to charge lab fees to replace some of the equipment worn down by students required to participate in station life through their curriculum.

"We try to keep fees as low as possible," says UT Vice Chancellor for Communications Tom Milligan. "Philosophically, we try to limit new fees."

Milligan adds that "we've supported WUTK pretty aggressively from our side, covering costs of putting cameras in the studio for Rock Unplugged."

Which brings up another issue, a burr in Smith's craw since it was introduced in March of this year—the rollout of Studio 865 on UT's other radio station, WUOT, a weekly show broadcast on the university's UTTV featuring local music hero Todd Steed interviewing other local musicians. It's a concept not so dissimilar to WUTK's own longer-running Rock Unplugged, and it rankles Smith that the other, better funded station (as an NPR affiliate, WUOT receives considerable support from donors, but receives some direct university support as well) was provided with extensive resources to air a show that covers a realm—that of local music—Smith considers the natural province of WUTK.

"More power to Todd (Steed), but the concept—I'm seeing advertising for the show on TV; I'm seeing a new studio," Smith says. "That concept of supporting local music is what we've been doing for years, and that format is something we've been doing for almost a year now with Unplugged. We've been doing this, and doing a good job of it. We've always played local music, supported local music. Our tag line has been ‘Local Music's Best Friend.'

"Then they say here, WUOT, here's what UTTV wants [you} to do, and here's the money to do it with. It felt like a kick in the teeth for me and the students down here. You say we have no money for us for something we've been doing for quite some time, but they're giving money for others to do that."

According to Milligan, whose office oversees WUOT, 865 is "just a cable TV show. WUOT will certainly not be competing with WUTK in that area anytime soon."

BUT THE NUT OF SMITH'S PROBLEM is that far too much of his time is spent on underwriting, essentially the non-commercial station's form of advertising, the announcements and promos you hear relating that a particular entity has provided funding for the station.

Though he doesn't have to beat the bushes per se—the station now receives a considerable number of calls from potential underwriters, in sharp contrast from the years before Smith returned—the entire process is time consuming: calling potential underwriters, writing and recording spots, billing, collecting, accounting. And it can't be avoided, since Smith estimates that underwriting makes up 95 percent of the station's budget, with the remaining five percent coming from donations.

He estimates that 75 percent of his time is now consumed by underwriting and related chores, allowing him to spend perhaps only 15 percent of his efforts on educating the students who work at WUTK, with the remaining 10 percent spent on station promotions.

"The students are ultimately the ones who are suffering," Smith says. "The first year I came back, before I had the big discussion with Dr. Gross, that ratio was nearly reversed. But now I don't have much time training the students on the equipment, for instance, or taking the DJs aside to critique their air tapes. For these kids, it effectively means that their tuition is not trickling down to that part of the university where their program is taking place."

What's more, changes in Smith's personal life have cut further into the time he can spend; he became a single father in 2007, in the wake of a marital breakup. "I can't spend several nights a week working 'til 7, 8 p.m. anymore," he says. "I have to be there for Ella Kate. She's two and a half, and she's the best part of my day."

There is some hope the station's lot will improve, funding-wise, in the guise of a proposed endowment fund that would give the station a small nut of annual funding, in addition to providing a safety net in times of crisis. "What we'll do is start looking at who has benefited from WUTK, maybe students who have gone on to work in the field, and ask them for support," says Wirth. "I'm sure we'll also hit up some industry folks.

"The endowment would throw off 5 percent; if you manage a $500,000 endowment, that would be $25,000. But I don't know what it's realistic to think we can raise. Once we actually start the process, we'll get a better feel for it. There are people who are very passionate about their time here, about this university's radio station. But you also have to remember that it takes time to raise an endowment of any size."

The news has given Smith cause for optimism for the first time since his conversation with Gross; ironically, it was Gross who came to him with word of the endowment proposal.

"When Dr. Gross came to me, it was very encouraging, because it shows we're getting some support, that they're looking for ways to help," Smith says. "I think they have gone to the powers that be, to see if there's any money in the budget, and now, it's like, ‘Let's identify some potential donors and create an endowment for this radio station.' I think it's something that never had been done here before, though it's been done in a lot of other schools.

"My hope, too, is that there will be matching funds available, maybe some grants out there. But it's early right now. We have a meeting set up next week; I'd like to see it start in earnest next fall. I'll be happy to work with them, trying to identify potential donors, maybe give this station a solid financial standing."

In the meantime, Smith is trying in smaller ways to create his own revenue streams, most notably through the recently released local CD ReDistilled, which features a broad selection of local bands covering the music of other, older local bands, many of which are no longer together; the roster of participating local artists includes Superdrag, Immortal Chorus, the Tenderhooks, the Rockwells, the Judybats, and Todd Steed, among many others. It's available through the station and through several local record and music stores [see sidebar].

"That one is all me, brother," Smith says of ReDistilled. "It's meant to accomplish two things—support local music, and provide a way where I don't have to provide total upkeep and maintenance continuously like you do with underwriting. You get it out there, promote it, and hopefully it takes on a life of its own.

"I complain a lot about the underwriting, about scrimping for funds, but this is still what I love to do. It sounds hokey, but it feels like this station is where I'm supposed to be. I'd love to be here if my daughter goes to UT and decides to go into broadcasting; she's a ham. She's already playing on the mike at two years old. This is the job I'd like to have for the rest of my life."