LIVE FROM A ROLLINS COLLEGE BASEMENT, ALL THINGS REALLY ARE CONSIDERED AT WPRK.
Photography by Rafael Tongol
It’s noontime on a Wednesday, and Stewart Spears, a Rollins College English major, is behind the microphone in the scruffy basement studio of WPRK-FM, ready to launch his weekly two-hour Orangelando show.
For Spears, that pretty much means ignoring the hits and playing the music he likes. It’s the middle of a crazy week, says the bearded “DJ Stew,” and he’s “just chillin’.” It’s a day for “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” by The Postal Service, “Bats in the Belfry” by Dispatch and “The Science of Selling Yourself Short” by Less Than Jake.
“Just chillin’ ” might be as a good a slogan as any for the 62-year-old Rollins station, which calls itself “The Best in Basement Radio” and “The Voice of Rollins College.”
Stumbling onto 91.5 while scanning the dial is like crash-landing in an alternative radio universe — a dimension of broadcasting in which every genre of music is honored, the DJs are unpolished and, in the spirit of non-commercial FM, all things really are considered.
While commercial stations thrive on rigid formats and frequent repetition of popular songs, WPRK proudly defies programming niches. It’s an indie rock station.
It’s a blues station. It’s also, at various hours of the week, a jazz station, a reggae station, a country station and a late-night punk station. (What? You haven’t been tuning in for Punk Rock in Your PJs?)
The dozens of students and community volunteers who host the station’s music and talk shows around the clock are not paid for their on-air work, and their “announcing” is often more like coffee-shop chatter — informal, unscripted and sometimes meandering.
They give WPRK an eclectic, unpolished vibe heard nowhere else in Central Florida, with long, uninterrupted stretches of alternative music; earnest discussions of politics, economics and books; live performances by local bands; and endearingly goofy station-identification jingles.
While most Orlando-area stations scream for attention, 91.5 barely rises above a whisper. With 1,300 watts, it has a reach of only about eight miles. Its audience isn’t measured, so nobody is quite sure who’s listening. Funded by the college, donations and program underwriting, it has the freedom to be … whatever.
On Sundays, for example, WPRK morphs from reggae to blues to jazz to hip-hop, with two hours of film music in the afternoon. Greg Golden, general manager of student media at Rollins, notes that some of the station’s longest-running shows are also its most esoteric, including Music from the Movies, Jazz in the Bible Belt and the pajama-themed punk program. The movie show, for example, has run for 26 years.
“Even if someone decides to tune out after the folk program ends and the metal program begins, it’s still our goal to reach as many people as possible and let them hear music they can’t hear elsewhere,” says the 27-year-old Golden, who was an overnight DJ at 91.5 as a student.
While Golden makes certain the station is meeting its legal obligations, students determine the programming, and some are paid for behind-the-scenes work.
WPRK was founded in December 1952, when President-elect Dwight Eisenhower recorded a lofty dedication that was among the first words aired by the fledgling station: “This new FM station of Rollins College can help to spread and advance the great ideas which keep men and women free,” Eisenhower said.
Today, WPRK’s greatest idea may be its commitment to the new and different. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Golden says, DJs are required each hour to play at least five new songs and one song by a local artist.
The station didn’t always have such wide-ranging tastes. Phil Muse, co-owner of the pet-sitting business Cuddles of College Park, ran it as a student in the late 1970s and remembers when it was on the air only part of the day, broadcasting mostly classical programming provided by the Rollins music department.
He now gets new clients through underwriting announcements on WPRK, whose broadcast area matches his pet-sitting market. But Muse, a former music retailer, gets something else, too: the satisfaction of preserving a station that offers the unconventional.
“Corporate radio has gone to hell in a hand basket,” says Muse, who listens to the station while making his pet-sitting rounds.
The station’s unregimented nature gives students an unusual opportunity, even if they’re not seeking a career in broadcasting. Spears, a 26-year-old Air Force veteran, says he started working as a DJ about a year ago just for fun.
Since then, Spears says he’s come to value the chance to “talk to the community in a judgment-free, stress-free zone.” He plans to head to Los Angeles after graduation in May, perhaps to attend film school.
Although free-form radio stations are found on campuses across the country, not all college stations operate this way. Across town at the University of Central Florida, the more powerful WUCF-FM 89.9 is a National Public Radio affiliate with a “straight-ahead jazz” format, professional managers and on-air talent.
Students work there in production and support roles, says Kayonne Riley, the station’s general manager, who believes both types of stations are valuable. At a student-run station, she says, you can learn the basics of how to do a radio show. But she encourages those interested in the business to take on bigger roles and learn skills that are more transferable. At WUCF, Riley adds, students gain real-world experience they can put to work. At WPRK? Maybe not so much.
But vocational training is hardly the station’s goal. It’s to give students an outlet for expression and to involve the community, Golden says. In fact, non-student volunteers, including alumni, account for two-thirds of WPRK’s programming.
Station Manager Drew DeVito, a 21-year-old junior majoring in communication, calls the station’s hosts “a brotherhood of people who really care about this.”
Adds DeVito, “What makes a fantastic show is someone who’s not only passionate about it, but someone who makes the process more interesting — an experience.
Someone like Julie Norris, host of Front Porch Radio (4 p.m. Wednesdays). As co-owner of the organic Dandelion Communitea Café in Orlando, Norris says she’s found herself “at the intersection of people who are doing amazing things” and has brought their ideas to her show.
For seven years, Norris, 36, has hosted “everyday conversations” with guests on such topics as farmworker rights and holistic birth. “I talk about things that are not commonly talked about in mass media,” she says, describing her viewpoint as progressive yet pragmatic.
Norris says she’s not afraid to seem vulnerable on the air and that her lack of broadcasting expertise has helped make her show what it is. “The rawness keeps it real,” she notes.
But like other hosts, Norris has trouble measuring the effect of what she does. Because of the expense required, WPRK’s audience hasn’t been measured by Nielsen Audio (formerly Arbitron), the company that tracks listenership and compiles demographics for radio and television outlets. Golden says the station will be measured in the future.
But for now, reaction to shows is mostly anecdotal. And in an age of seemingly unlimited listening options, from satellite to Spotify, it’s hard to know who’s tuning in to the tiny 91.5.
Among a handful of students interviewed at Rollins’ Cornell Campus Center one recent day, only one said he listened to the station, and some said they didn’t know it existed. WPRK is also streamed on the Internet, and the VosCast streaming service reports that the station had almost 4,000 total listener-hours worldwide in January.
Limited though its impact may be, Gregory Weston, president of Hummelstown, Pa.-based College Broadcasters Inc., says the free-form style of college stations such as 91.5 still has a role.
“My personal belief is that format is as important as ever,” says Weston, whose association supports electronic media in colleges and high schools. “There are fewer and fewer outlets for independent artists to get exposure. No matter how many places you have to download music, you still need a place to discover new music.”
That need was part of what drove Spears to host Orangelando, he says in the WPRK studio, with its vintage sofas and thousands of CDs lining the walls. After growing up in Sebastian on Florida’s east coast and joining the Air Force, “there was a lull in my life when I wasn’t really discovering new music.”
Then the studio phone rings, and a listener wants to know the name of a song he just played. It was “Thrash Unreal” by Against Me!, Spears tells the caller.
“He told me I run a good show,” Spears says after hanging up. DJ Stew smiles just a little, knowing that someone out there still loves basement radio in all its quirkiness.
Here’s a WPRK-FM weekly programming schedule, as of press time. Of course, it’s subject to change. Descriptions, particularly the more colorful ones, were provided by show hosts.
1-4 a.m.: WIRED Radio (live mixing, electronic)
4-6 a.m.: Varies
6-8 a.m.: Sam in the A.M. (indie, pop)
8-10 a.m.: Hawk I Entertainment (reggae)
10 a.m.-Noon: Biscuits, Bacon and Blues (“Southern-fried blues”)
Noon-2 p.m.: Roots Uprising (reggae, world)
2-4 p.m.: Music from the Movies (great film music)
4-6 p.m.: K, H & M (indie, pop)
6-8 p.m.: Jazz in the Bible Belt
8-10 p.m.: The Motorsports Hour & Sprinkel Set (talk, new/local music)
10 p.m.-Midnight: Villains League Radio (hip-hop)
Midnight-3 a.m.: Bargain Bin Bonanza (polka, disco, show tunes)
3-5 a.m.: This is Where It’s At! (electronic, hip-hop)
5-7 a.m.: Celtic Sunrise (“ragin’ Celtic Pagan”)
7-9 a.m.: Thank God It’s Monday (“farcical punk cabal”)
9-10 a.m.: Sandspur Hour (Rollins talk)
10 a.m.-noon: Cocobuda Melting Pot (eclectic)
Noon-2 p.m.: PB & Jams (indie, pop, acoustic)
2-4 p.m.: Zero Crossings (local contemporary classical)
4-5 p.m.: Rethinking the City (discussion, interviews)
5-7 p.m.: Scorpion & the Frog (indie, new music)
7-9 p.m.: Varubishka (“fuzzed-out guitars”)
9-11 p.m.: Morning Motif (“caffeine, salsa et croissants”)
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Black Monday (“brutal moshing required”)
1-3 a.m.: Nick Tunes (hip-hop, etc.)
3-5 a.m.: Varies
5-7 a.m.: Open Source (live mixing)
7-9 a.m.: Magic Transistor Radio (“eclectic yet accessible”)
9-10 a.m.: Varies
10 a.m.-noon: Green Eggs and Jams (local talent, rock)
Noon-2 p.m.: Spence & Hally (Rollins show)
2-4 p.m.: Daft Chillin’ with Paz (“daft, sultry, saudade”)
4-5 p.m.: Outloud Orlando: The Homo Happy Hour (discussion, commentary, LGBTQ+)
5-7 p.m.: Limelight Live (new indie, electro/alternative)
7-9 p.m.: Hex Education Programme (“uncontrollably eclectic”)
9-11 p.m.: Without Rhyme or Reason (world, experimental and reissue)
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Punk Rock in Your PJs (chat, punk, ska)
1-3 a.m.: Sophie’s Choice (electronica, trance, new electronic)
3-5 a.m.: The Pop Omnivore (eclectic)
5-7 a.m.: Varies
7-9 a.m.: From A to Zeppelin (classic rock, indie, hip-hop)
9-10 a.m.: A Dialogue with VOICE (community talk)
10 a.m.-noon: Varies
Noon-2 p.m.: Orangelando (local music, interviews)
2-4 p.m.: Punkonomics (political and economic discussion)
4-5p.m.: Front Porch Radio (discussion, commentary)
5-7 p.m.: Local Heroes (music, talk and live performers)
7-9 p.m.: Poor, Illiterate Ramblings (indie, new music)
9-11 p.m.: Crash the Console (“ ’80s retrofuture”)
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: The Backstage Pass (hip-hop, R&B)
1-3 a.m.: Metal Rob Show (“lipstick leather express”)
3-5 a.m.: The Church of the Insomniac (“psychic space exploration”)
5-7 a.m.: The Live with Bennie Show (variety, sketch comedy, music)
7-9 a.m.: Retro Roast (new and old alternative)
9-10 a.m.: Functionally Literate Radio (literature, writers, discussion)
10 a.m.-noon: DJ Mo Radio (“hypest jams of the ’80s, ’90s and beyond”)
Noon-2 p.m.: The Whitney Costner Radio Show (indie, pop, progressive and local)
2-4 p.m.: Kris’ Show with Kris (indie, alternative, electronic)
4-5 p.m.: Community Sports Report (local sports talk)
5-7 p.m.: The Curtis Earth Show (quiz games, interviews, indie music)
7-9 p.m.: Blue Light Special (“eclectic, indie and chill wave”)
9-11 p.m.: Rock en Espanol USA (“music without borders”)
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: The Truth Radio (entertainment, news and life topics)
1-3 a.m.: Electronic Francais (funky, eclectic, international)
3-5 a.m.: Varies
5-7 a.m.: Cultured Friends: (“Shower thoughts galore and indie music”)
7-9 a.m.: Varies
9-10 a.m.: The Low Frequencies (bass, rhythm)
10 a.m.-noon: Rare Forms (contemporary classical)
Noon-2 p.m.: Gray Matter (music, satire)
2-4 p.m.: The Faith(e)ful Following (indie, folk)
4-5 p.m.: State of the Scene (interviews, new/local music)
5-7 p.m.: Lunch Ladies (post-nu metal, future R&B, backyard jazz)
7-9 p.m.: Anything and Everything Above and Underground (“intergalactic funk dopeness”)
9-11 p.m.: Low Rise Radio (electronic, dance, live mixing)
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Electronic Infinity (deep house, live mixing)
1-3 a.m.: Organic Katnip (avant-garde electronic)
3-5 a.m.: Basement Groove Collective (underground electronica)
5-7 a.m.: Varies
7-9 a.m.: Irie Vibe (reggae, world)
9-11 a.m.: World of Reggae
11 a.m.-1 p.m.: Pickin’, Grinnin’ & Sinnin’ (classic country-western)
1-3 p.m.: Acoustic Highway
3-5 p.m.: Leah Liminal (“good-time reverb art noise”)
5-7 p.m.: Our Show (hip-hop)
7-9 p.m.: Gradient Echo (sonic landscapes, big beats and harmonic textures)
9-11 p.m.: Johnny Garlic & Don Don Show (commentary, music, discussion)
11 p.m.-1 a.m.: Back to Reality (discussion)