Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Radio Station Field Trip 33 - WEFT in Champaign, Illinois

Entrance to WEFT (Photo: J. Waits)

During my trip to the mid-west this summer for the Grassroots Radio Conference, I was able to tour a number of radio stations. My first stop was WLUW in Chicago, then I visited WPGU in Champaign, followed by a visit to community radio station WEFT in Champaign.

Historic advertising on the lobby wall at WEFT (Photo: J. Waits)

WEFT 90.1 FM is a community radio station located in downtown Champaign, Illinois. WEFT's first FM broadcast was in 1981 (following a launch over cable FM in 1980) and by 1988 WEFT was broadcasting at 10,000 watts of power.

Paul Riismandel in the WEFT record library (Photo: J. Waits)

My friend Paul Riismandel was a former DJ and volunteer at WEFT from 1994 to 2008, so he helped arrange my visit to the station on Saturday, July 28, 2012. We met up with Paul's friend Mick Woolf, who is the Station Manager at WEFT. Woolf drove us over to WEFT, which was empty when we arrived.

Public Service Announcement bin at WEFT (photo: J. Waits)

WEFT owns the building that it's housed in and faces a main street in town. The studio is near the entrance to the building and behind that is a large open space containing the record library. According to Woolf, there are about 40,000 CDs in the library. He told me that they moved the vinyl out of the library because it wasn't being played as much and they were having trouble with broken equipment on the turntables. He said that they got rid of most of the vinyl collection, but held on to a portion of it which is housed upstairs.

Main studio at WEFT (Photo: J. Waits)

Riismandel shared his perspective about WEFT with me. He told me that it's largely a volunteer organization, saying,

"What makes WEFT unique is that it is very volunteer driven, with only one full-time staff member and a couple other part-time staff. It serves a somewhat transient small university community of just over 100,000, which means there's a fair amount of turnover and, therefore change in programming, especially compared to community stations in larger cities."

Music genre list at WEFT (Photo: J. Waits)

WEFT currently airs a mix of music and public affairs programming, including some syndicated shows as well as programs produced by local volunteers. Music genres represented include jazz, blues, lounge, electronica, experimental, Celtic, goth, industrial, and rock. There's also a local music show called Local 901.

Riismandel explained the station's music philosophy and told me,

"The station makes a strong commitment to American music like Jazz and Blues, which has been historically popular and strong in Champaign-Urbana due to its location on the way between Chicago and Memphis. At the same time, so-called 'world music' is also a strong component of its programming due to the very international and cosmopolitan nature of the community around the University of Illinois. As well, WEFT has a long lasting music program, where bands come in to play live on air, which has been running for over 20 years."

Sign in WEFT music library (Photo: J. Waits)

Since my visit was timed with the Grassroots Radio Conference, it's also fitting that WEFT has been active in the broader culture of community radio. Riismandel told me, "WEFT has a significant place in the history of community radio, as...one of the first Pacifica affiliates, as well as one of the first stations to air Democracy Now and Free Speech Radio News."

Artifacts in the WEFT library (Photo: J. Waits)

Since WEFT was DJ-less on the day that we visited, Woolf asked if we'd like to get on the air. Riismandel quickly got set up in the studio, grabbed some headphones, and turned on the microphone. He invited me to join him and we spent about half an hour chatting about the Grassroots Radio Conference. It was much like Riismandel's former "Media Geek" program, which aired on WEFT from 2002 to 2008 (and on WNUR from 2008 to 2010). On that show, Riismandel featured news, commentary and interviews about various topics in the media.

After our impromptu interview, we turned the studio back over to automation and raced back to the conference.

Thanks to Paul and Mick for the great tour of WEFT!

Board in WEFT main studio (Photo: J. Waits)

See a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

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