WLFM leaves the air

Adam Berey

WLFM, Lawrence’s campus radio station, stopped transmitting its signal September 15 following the sale of the station’s broadcasting license to the Starboard Media Foundation.
The sale, announced by President Beck in a June 22 e-mail, includes much of the equipment used by the station and the right to broadcast at 91.1 MHz. Starboard Media, a Green Bay organization which operates the Roman Catholic network Relevant Radio, will conduct activities from a new location, while WLFM will retain its call letters and continue to broadcast from the Music and Drama Center via webcast.
The administration has not released an exact price of the sale, but Chief Information Officer Steve Hirby indicated to The Lawrentian that it was “six figures.” Indeed, the terms of the deal are extensive: the station’s microphones, computers, CD players, turntables, and monitor speakers have all been tagged for sale.
But the loss of the equipment may be a positive occurrence. Much of the station’s equipment dates back to 1956 – the year of the station’s founding. When the studio console broke two years ago, the station managers had to order vacuum tubes from the Russian government. “If something were to happen to the antenna or the transmitter,” said station manager Andy Hanson-Dvoracek, “I doubt the university would have been able to find the money.”
What the university is finding the money for is brand new equipment to upgrade the station’s webcasting capabilities. “What the webcast used to be, was a radio that was connected to a computer that then webcast the signal,” said Hanson-Dvoracek in an interview Tuesday. Now, the webcast will be hard-wired to the Internet, greatly reducing lag time and improving sound quality.
Over the next month, the WLFM studio will be completely refurbished – right down to the carpets. The absence of FM equipment will allow for more space in the studio and allow for new kinds of programming, like live performances and radio dramas. The control room, until now used for storage, will be transformed into a production studio for prerecorded shows and “podcasts,” a new radio format for portable music players such as iPods.
In addition, the station’s music library will be digitized. “We’re not even sure we’re going to have CD players or turntables in the live studio,” said Hanson-Dvoracek. “It might just be digital.” The station may also get a new mobile unit to broadcast sports games, convocations, and conservatory performances. “The station’s lighting itself on fire to rise from the ashes,” said Hanson Dvoracek of the upgrades.
There will also be a great deal of freedom in the station’s operations. The Federal Communications Commission doesn’t regulate webcasts, so content may be less restricted. In addition, WLFM is dropping its affiliation with Wisconsin Public Radio. “The thing that’s really opening up is that WPR doesn’t have 16 hours a day on our station,” said Hanson-Dvoracek. This will make for more time slots for student shows. If those slots can’t be filled, the station managers plan to run prerecorded shows, an automated playlist, or even re-runs.
But the fact remains that WLFM will no longer be “real radio.” That might hurt the station’s local standing. “That’s the thing that’s really scary,” said Hanson-Dvoracek. “Now we’ve lost the people from town.” WLFM has previously broadcast programs in Spanish and Hmong – shows whose audiences may not have access to computers or the Internet.
Beck cited finances as the primary reason for the switch. WPR has been considering upgrading to a digital signal, a change that the college station was not prepared to make. Also, Congress approved legislation earlier this year that raised fines for on-air obscenity to $10,000 per violation.
The administration has come under criticism from students and alumni from its handling of the issue. The agreement was made without the input of LUCC or the station managers, and was not announced until it was finalized. Even the station managers are a little bitter. “Sandi [Schwert] and I felt very cheated,” said Hanson-Dvoracek.
In her defense, Beck points to the sensitivity of the transaction. The restrictions on the FCC license – 91.1 is required to be operated by a non-profit station – coupled with the low broadcasting frequency and Northeast Wisconsin’s lack of appeal for broadcasters made the license a difficult item to sell. “Transactions in the field of broadcast media are highly sensitive,” Beck said via e-mail, “more so than in many other spheres of business activity.” Because of this, the university’s legal counsel recommended that the negotiations be limited only to the senior administrators. “Decisions may be unpopular but that does not mean that they are poorly made,” said Beck.