Friday, January 9, 2009

Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Stop 9 - Kentucky's WRFL

I'm pleased to begin 2009 with another stop on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour. The goal of this project is to do interviews with college radio stations from each of the 50 states in order to highlight some of the amazing things happening in college radio in every corner of the country. Yes, college radio is still relevant and thriving!

The first eight virtual stops have been to stations in Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada and West Virginia.

For my 9th stop, I virtually ventured to Lexington, Kentucky to learn more about University of Kentucky station WRFL aka "Radio Free Lexington." While researching the station, I was both amazed and impressed by the tales of their beginnings in the 1980s. Due to the hard work and dedication of students, WRFL launched in 1988.

As I watched a recent documentary about the station on You Tube, I actually got a bit misty-eyed thinking about all of those enterprising folks who were so devoted to college radio that they pushed to get a station on campus. It's an amazing documentary and is even more fun to watch if you were involved in radio in the 1980s like I was. It's full of 1980s imagery, music, album covers, archival photos, and DJ interviews. From the looks of it, it must have been filmed during the station's recent 20th anniversary celebration; as there are scenes of original DJs coming back to the station and reminiscing about the early days. With all of the recent news of station closures, it's inspiring to look at this documentary to be reminded of why people have fought so hard for college radio over the years.

WRFL Documentary, Part 1

WRFL Documentary, Part 2

In addition to the documentary, on the WRFL website there are links to early issues of their music 'zine RiFLE. An edition from 1988 even has a piece recapping the 1987 CMJ conference (hey! I was there too!). They talk about seeing bands like Scrawl, Das Damen, Pere Ubu and Buckwheat Zydeco; as well attending an SST showcase and hearing a keynote by Abbie Hoffman and Billy Bragg about "Activism in the '80s." They mention that Hoffman yelled "Say no to a puppet president" while beating a Ronald Reagan mask with his fist. Ah yes. It was also cool to read that at CMJ they also bonded with and got inspiration from staff members from other stations, including WNUR, WSKB, and KCSU.

Cover of 1988 issue of RiFLE (source: WRFL)

Thanks to General Manager Chuck Clenney for taking the time to chat with me about WRFL. In his interview he talks a bit more about the early days of the station and their recent 20th anniversary celebration, highlights some of their unique programming, their connection with the Lexington local music community, and gives me the scoop on a Leonard Nimoy record lurking in their library.

Spinning Indie: What motivated you to get involved with college radio?

Chuck: Well, I've always appreciated independent radio; growing up near Cincinnati, I grew up on 97X, and, in 2004, when I enrolled at the University of Kentucky, I was pleased to find one of the best college radio stations in the nation nestled in the basement of the Student Center. I came into the station and former GM Michael Powell was DJing. We chatted about the latest Cure album, he complimented my 97X shirt, and had me fill out an application.

After doing a few 3-6am shifts and a midnight underground Hip-hop show, I took over as GM because I wanted to make the station as progressive as I could. What I appreciate most about college radio is that it gives its listeners the rare opportunity to taste from the grandiose buffet of records that mainstream corporate stations neglect to spin. Playing singles, making money from advertising, non-localized DJs, computer automation, and pacifying the masses satiates the airwaves in Lexington; Naturally, college radio rebels from the norm because corporate radio has sucked the creativity, the fun, and, literally, the DJ off of our airwaves; that is why I love it.

Spinning Indie: Can you tell me a bit about the history of Radio Free Lexington?

Chuck: First off, we've been broadcasting, with a live DJ in our studio, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year since 1988. Our programming is widely inclusive and covers almost every genre of music; every kind of Punk Rock, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Indian, World, Reggae, Metal, Americana, Noise, Dubstep, Bluegrass, and so on- lest we forget Democracy Now! and all the independent news programs that we produce with UK's school of Journalism.

WRFL started from a newspaper article written by WRFL DJ, now UK professor, Kakie Urch suggesting that UK needed a station to voice the sounds and opinions of artists that the homogenized mainstream didn't take interest in. Once the article ruffled enough feathers, the founders raised $25K, matched by the Lexington Mayor at the time as well as UK's former President, Otis Singletary, and WRFL hit the airwaves in March 1988.

I can say that we've been the nucleus of the Lexington Music scene and we've brought such progressive acts to town as Outkast, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Coup, Jolie Holland, Of Montreal, Mates of States, Wolf Eyes, Camper Van Beethoven, Apples in Stereo, KRS-One, and Times New Viking, just to name a few. We've been educating the bluegrass for 20 years and have had thousands of DJs come through the station. Ashley Judd even hosted our first women's music show under the alias Hollie Austin. The best part of it all, is that we're about to expand from 250 watts to 7900 watts, so, in the next year and a half, we'll be able to educate almost 32 times more Kentuckians with our extremely diverse, eclectic human-powered programming- which is very exciting!

Spinning Indie: How did WRFL celebrate the 20th anniversary this year?

Chuck: WRFL celebrated our 20th anniversary with the resurrection of Alternative Music Week building up to our first ever FreeKY Music and Arts Festival that went off crazy successful. Having a chance to share the FreeKY stage with over 50+ WRFL alums, who came together from all over the country, from the original crew who started the station and helped to get it started, as they asked the 7000+ Downtown Transit Center crowd to give what they had to help us upgrade was a magical moment for me and for the station.

Bringing together former DJs from the last 20 years was a great way to reflect upon all the good power that WRFL has brought to the airwaves and the Lexington community since it first hit the airwaves in March 1988. As WRFL reflected on all the wonderful events of its past and present over the decades, spanning from when Red Hot Chili Peppers ended the 1st Alternative Music Week in 1988 to when Apples in Stereo finished the night of the FreeKY Fest off to a packed crowd, it was clear that a new era of WRFL had begun.

We hosted a wide variety of shows throughout the week, including everything from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to bluegrass to noise to an all-DJ art show, and we even had local Lexingtonian, Zach Brock, take a break from touring with Stanley Clarke to fly back into town and play a show for his favorite radio station- a pretty amazing week, Lexington's mayor Jim Newberry even declared it WRFL Week. We finished off the 7 days of celebrations on Saturday with the FreeKY Fest, starting with a children's show and ending with Jolie Holland, The Coup, Apples in Stereo, Mahjongg, and some notable local acts, such as Big Fresh, Health and Happiness Family Gospel Band, and the Hair Police. We finished the week on Sunday with a community potluck concert featuring a lovely concert by Lake and Half-Handed Cloud- the perfect end to such a beautiful aurally-overloaded week .

Spinning Indie: I hear that you guys have a close ties to the noise music community in Lexington. Can you describe your local music scene and the station's connection to it?

Chuck: Well, Lexington has one of the most cohesive music scenes in America. It's very supportive and rich with talent and experimentation. WRFL has been home to members of the Hair Police, Wolf Eyes, Warmer Milks, Caboladies, and numerous other internationally recognized noise acts. Venues such as The Fact House, The Void Skateshop, Charles Mansion, Frowny Bear, provide venues for such experimental music. WRFL alums and DJs run and book shows at local concert venues, such as The Dame, Cultural Preservation Resources, and Al's Bar. Lexington is also home to famous music blogger,'s own Matt Jordan, as well as home to Apples in Stereo's Robert Schneider. Needless to say, like I said before, WRFL is the nucleus of the Lexington music scene and our programming is the mitochondria (to stay with the metaphor).

Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour Poster (source: WRFL)

Spinning Indie: Tell me a little about some of the events that you put on, including the recent Elephant 6 show and the Halloween Skatefest.

Chuck: Well, the Elephant Six show was a real treat. The warm-hearted members of the Elephant 6 music collective, such bands as The Music Tapes, Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Nana Grizol, all came together to play each other's songs in a round barn located at the Red Mile Racetrack. This show saw an amazingly energetic reunion of Hilarie with Apples in Stereo, a rendezvous of fellow Lexingtonian, Robert Schneider, with his Elephant 6 pals, not to mention incredible and rare performances from Elf Power, Olivia Tremor Control, and Julian Koster's Music Tapes project as well as his film projects.

The amazing night ended with a breathtaking acoustic performance under the moonlight from Scott Spilane, Julian Koster on saw, and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel as they led the audience out of the venue to play "The Fool" together and finish the night off, under a Kentucky moon next to an empty horse track, with a solo acoustic performance of "Engine" by Jeff. It was the final date on the tour and tears and smiles ran amok; the E6 crew had to divide their vans up, The Music Tapes were headed to NYC to play the CMJ showcase and everyone else was heading home. Even later that night at my house, Julian found an issue of Paste Magazine in my bathroom with an article about Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, where he talks about living with him in Athens. It was one of the most memorable concerts of my life and something that only WRFL could have pulled off with such style and uniqueness.

Halloween Skatefest Poster (source: WRFL)

Spinning Indie: Are there any specific rules about the music that gets added to your station? Are DJs required to play anything in particular? Is there anything they aren't allowed to play?

Chuck: There aren't any specific rules, we have a playbox for local music, upcoming shows, Americana, metal, hip hop, blues, reggae, world, and jazz in addition to our general format playbox, which is pretty diverse in itself. Only general format shows are required to play from the playbox and they can play from any of the genre boxes. Since we are free-form, we have no boundaries to what kind of music can be played, it's always unpredictable and that element keeps our programming fresh and our audiences constantly inquiring. Of course, we don't play top 40 superficial garbage and other songs that you can hear on stations that choose profit over programming, that is really our only limit.

Spinning Indie: Do you add MP3s? vinyl? cassettes? What format of music gets played the most?

Chuck: We mostly add CDs, which get played the most, but occasionally we'll add some vinyl and mp3s. We do have DJs that spin records, cassettes, CDs, and some that mix music on their laptops or turntables live, so you never know what to expect. Our old school hip hop show DJ, Tommy Miller, is notorious for his 4 turntable sets full of scratching, freestylin, and all sorts of aural delights.

Spinning Indie: What's one of the weirdest records in your library?

Chuck: Oh gosh, where to begin? Our 7" collection has got some gems and goofy stuff in it and we get some pretty strange stuff all the time but if I had to pick one record, I'd have to go with a Leonard Nimoy record that I found, it's all music from "outer space"- totally wtf?

Spinning Indie: What's the longest running show at the station?

Chuck: Well, we have some DJs who have been on the air since the station began in 1988. Mick Jeffries, who hosts a trivia show, Trivial Thursdays from 6-9am on Thursdays, has been at the station since the beginning as well as bringer of all that is experimental-cutting-edge-punk-scaring-your-parents, Bill Widener, who hosts the Unca Bill show every Friday from 8-10pm. We've also had The World Beat and Music from India bringing Lexington music from all over the world for more than 15 years and Shareef Hakim's Black Fist Radio has been bringing the realist in new and old hip hop for more than 15 years- quite a feat considering all the DJs volunteer their time.

Spinning Indie: Are there any shows that stand out as being unique to WRFL?

Chuck: Oh for sure, we have shows that feature music that you can't hear on the radio anywhere else in Kentucky, and maybe the world. Our bluegrass shows, Blue Yodel #9 and The Hard Travellin' Revue, every Saturday morning are the perfect cure for a hangover and are the only place on Lexington's dial that you can listen to this music that our state has been making for hundreds of years. Tommy Miller's Old School Hip Hop Show, The Jazz Vault, Music from India, Thru Da Vibe (dance), El Tren Latino, The Psychadelicatessen, and The Black Fist are all shows that I think of when I think of WRFL's uniqueness.

Page from 1988 issue of RiFLE (source: WRFL)

Spinning Indie: I enjoyed looking at one of your first issues of your music magazine/program guide RiFLe. How have you guys managed to keep the magazine going for 20 years?

Chuck: Well, it's had all kinds of incarnations and formats, changing with the editors over the last 20 years. Since students always put it together, it's always evolving and, this last issue that we put out, included a complication CD of all local artists called "Know Your Own". It's just a collection random writings, artwork, reviews from DJs including everything that WRFL has done, will do, and all the gooey goodness in-between

Spinning Indie: Are the majority of your DJs students? What's the role of community DJs at the station?

Chuck: While the majority of our all-volunteer 100+ DJ staff are students, many of our longest running shows are the work of community members unaffiliated with the university or alumnus. Since UK student fees are where we get our funding, WRFL's primary commitment is to the university community, though we aspire to provide alternative music to a much broader audience and include close to 50/50 community members and students. We are a vehicle for education for all people interesting in learning about myriad varieties of music as well as how to operate broadcasting equipment. The station is also run by 12 part-time student employees including the General Manager and Programming Director positions.

Spinning Indie: Do you listen to other college radio stations? Which stations do you love?

Chuck: Of course I do. I enjoy KVRX in Austin, they're similar to us and we always enjoy each other's hipness at the National College Media Conferences.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the next stop on the Spinning Indie 50 State Tour: Rhode Island.

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