Back in those days, when I was looking for a classic conservative look, I pulled on the Cuban-heeled magenta suede cowboy boots. And walked down to clubs like Café LMNOP, the Bottom Line, Wrocklage, Great Scott’s and later BabylonBabylon to see local bands like I.S., Paul K., Kiya Heartwood, Velvet Elvis, Active Ingredients and the occasional out-of-town act that braved our little college market without a college radio station.
I wrote the column “Radio Free Lexington: What UK Needs” in 1985, not to start a college radio station, but to be able to listen to one. I was the UK Concert Co-chair and just loved music. Without a student radio station, I was spending most of my money on records and cover charges to see live bands. But because my name was attached to the idea in that column, people all over campus kept coming up to me and asking “When are we going to get a radio station?’ I really thought that when the UK administration learned that we were the only school in the SEC except Mississippi State that didn’t have a student radio station, they would just build one.
In the end though, it was up to us — the entire Lexington community, the entire readership of Ace [it hit stands a little later in 1989] — the folks who were looking for something different.
We looked at the methods available on campus and decided to model ourselves after the most successful independent student media—the Kentucky Kernel. So we became a student organization with the Kernel, Student Government Association and Student Activities Board members on the first board. WRFL’s founding was a perfect example of collaboration between a number of student groups, UK administration, the community and local musicians. I like to say that WRFL was everyone’s good idea.
And 20 years on, it still is.
Coming back into town for this weekend’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, I tuned the car radio to Lexington airwaves just outside of Waddy-Paytona. And there it was: Pyromania by Def Lep. I thought, “I never left.” Then I went down to WRFL-FM and there was “The Black Fist,” an amazing array of hip-hop that I had never heard, all pushed out into the Bluegrass Saturday night and then explained by a dj who traced the connections between groups, techniques and the songs he’d just played.
For free, on a Saturday night in a crap rental car, I got an education. And that’s part of what WRFL set out to do and still does every day—bring new horizons to new generations in the Bluegrass. On Monday night, I sat at the fundraiser for the new WRFL tower and listened to the amazing Lexington jazz violinist Zach Brock tell the audience that he had flown in for the Monday night gig (despite being booked at New York’s Blue Note all week with Stanley Clarke’s band) because WRFL had meant so much to him growing up in Lexington.
In junior high school, Brock said, he tuned into WRFL, “the ultimate rebel station,” and was exposed to all types of music from his home on Easton Road. Then the classically trained Lexingtonian picked up his axe and played violin like Charlie Parker blowing Birdland any old day.
In building the station that got out there to the junior high schoolers like Zach Brock, we were somewhat protected by our youth. We simply didn’t understand or accept how impossible this task was.
So, we kept moving forward.
The WRFL playlist from an average disc jockey was in fact, the first iteration of the iPod playlist. Play what you like, what goes together in your world, whether it’s Patsy Cline into Husker Du into Robert Johnson into Active Ingredients into Calexico into Bill Monroe.
As we hit our 20th anniversary, the early WRFL staff has reunited online, more than 100 strong. Amongst that first group of 60 or 90 alone, we have people who have become major players in their fields, both inside and outside the commonwealth.
Not only do we have doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and college professors, but also public accounting, Internet, advertising, public relations and publishing executives. There are world renowned artists, photographers, musicians and filmmakers amongst the group. The guy who used to write ‘zines in Lexington is now a major Hollywood comedy writer. One of our early general managers now runs national tours for the renowned Actors Gang Theatre founded by Tim Robbins, and takes her show featuring the music of Johnny Cash into California’s prisons.
One of our first music library staff now runs the circulation department for the library at Harvard. Steve Holland, a UK economics professor who did a show on the first staff became an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank. One of our early staffers who was a great punk rock devotee, now with her Master’s of Social Work, operates one of the commonwealth’s most successful facilities for troubled youth. Wyn Morris, the publishing expert who is opening Morris Books on Southland Drive, is one of our original staff. We have the author of a major book on GIS systems who keeps track of all the real estate and public projects in Contra Costa County, California, and the person who ran the California Digital Newspaper Project at Berkeley. Historian David King’s book on Vienna 1814 has just been published. And of course, Ashley Judd, who did a great women’s music show as “Holly Austin” on our first staff and still to this day is a strong supporter of women’s causes and the Wildcats.
There are at least three people from the first group who have gone on to major radio careers. Paul Miles, who does your news on WLAP and WHAS in Lexington and Louisville everyday, was a key WRFL “Original Gangster,” a major player. Larry Joe Treadway, who was the incredibly popular talk jock on WLXG, originally hit the radio airwaves with the “Brains on Film” movie show with George Maranville on WRFL [which went on to become one of Ace’s first columns]. And Jack K. Smith went on to run a group of Hearst Communications radio stations before he switched over to the Internet, which he built, with or without Al Gore’s help.
It’s an incredibly impressive roster but no, none of us had any idea that things would turn out that way. The biggest concern was the next fundraiser, next bake sale, next step in ordering and building the equipment and of course, the next live show by local and national musicians in Lexington’s great clubs. We had fliers to make and put up on telephone poles, classes to go to, airshifts to do. The new Sonic Youth album was coming out.
We knew that we were building something important and tangible. Aradio transmitter on the top of the Patterson Office Tower was proof of that. But the specifics of it, with WRFL staffers telling me that they were tuned in to our first broadcast at their high schools in Lexington and Richmond and the great successes of station management that has really kept the station amongst the top in the country in college radio, are really only coming clear to me now as we look at 20 years of history. The current music director of WRFL was born in 1988, the year we went on the air. All of us who were involved are glad to be part of a legacy that keeps reinventing itself every day.
Um, the new Sonic Youth album is coming out.
Listen for it on WRFL. We made it for you.
2010 update, Kakie Urch is an Asst. Professor, Multimedia, School of Journalism and Telecommunications
College of Communications and Information Studies, at University of Kentucky