Strong Signal

In the basement of the Marshall Center on the Tampa campus, WBUL-1620 AM tries to reach an audience.

click to enlarge BUL WHIPS: WBUL music director Eric Turner, left, - mans the mic with DJs Vivian Santiago and Chris - Duke. - Bud Lee
Bud Lee
BUL WHIPS: WBUL music director Eric Turner, left, mans the mic with DJs Vivian Santiago and Chris Duke.

Athens, Ga., has it. Tiny Westerville, Ohio, has it. And you can bet your britches Boston and San Francisco have it.

It gives a voice to a generation of young creative thinkers and First Amendment firebrands, and it gives the record industry a taste of what's ahead.

It is college radio, and even though Tampa hosts the largest urban university in the country, the city doesn't have it.

But in the face of difficult odds and laboring under Sisyphean conditions, some University of South Florida students and alumni choose to believe that college radio might just happen someday in Tampa.

In the basement of the Marshall Center on the Tampa campus, WBUL-1620 AM tries to reach an audience.

The entirely student-run radio station broadcasts live over the Web, into USF dorms via a television system, and, since 1999, with a weak AM signal that fades by Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

It ain't much, but even that was nearly 20 years in the making.

In certain Tampa circles, the history of WBUL is well known. WBUL alumni are everywhere: musicians, artists, concert promoters, scenesters, and some WMNF-88.5 FM staffers. From humble beginnings as the brainchild of DJs deposed from National Public Radio affiliate WUSF-89.7 FM, WBUL should have grown into a major cultural force in the Bay area by now. It hasn't.

There are many stories about why.

WBUL is funded through a charge tacked onto student tuition. The funds are doled out to campus organizations through the USF student government.

Each year, representatives from all 150 student organizations become salespeople in order to charm a nine-person committee into giving their particular club a slice of the tuition fee pie. The student government makes WBUL wait in line with the Young Republicans and the Students of India Association to ask for money.

Though WBUL is one of the highest funded student organizations at USF, former station manager Joe D'Acunto says the money is hardly enough to keep the CD players going.

"From the year I started there, which was '96, they were given zero funding," D'Acunto told Weekly Planet. "By the time I left, we received a budget of $17,000."

D'Acunto says between 70 and 90 students volunteer for WBUL at any given time, some working 30 or 40 hours weekly while juggling their class loads. "It was out of the respect for the music and the respect for the idea that we broke our backs," said D'Acunto.

The $17,000 annual budget sounds like plenty of money. But for professional-grade disc jockey equipment, it barely keeps the sound going. CD equipment, turntables, speakers, and transmitting equipment are expected to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. They break down and need to be replaced.

Factor in other costs like shelving and maintaining CDs and records, staging events, turntable needles and subscriptions to trade magazines and all of a sudden $17,000 has vanished.

WBUL historically holds some of the money, ranging from $2,000 to $7,000, in reserve until the end of the fiscal year, with a prayer that something expensive and key to broadcasting doesn't go kaput.

"That's the joy of having 10,000 people use the same equipment," said Eric Turner, WBUL's music director. "They keep breaking it."

Aside from the money issues, WBUL's low profile seems to add to its status as a campus outsider. USF is a commuter school and, though WBUL can be seen and heard on every television in the residence halls, the station only reaches about 2,800 students out of 30,000 or so who attend the university.

"Do (students) even know it exists? They probably don't," said Joe Synovec, assistant director of the Marshall Center. "I'd say 80 percent don't know. And I'd say if you asked the staff, 90 percent of the staff would say they don't know."

An initiative to transform WBUL from the redheaded stepchild of USF media outlets is underway. The goal is to shift the station's status from that of a student organization to an agency of student government.

Agencies are responsible for helping students in their on-campus lives. Examples are the computer lab in the Marshall Center or Safe Team, a service that provides safety escorts to students walking around campus at night. As an agency, WBUL would serve as the voice of the students, discussing campus issues on air and showcasing the world of underground music to the university.

In the game of upstairs/downstairs in the Marshall Center, the initiative to make WBUL an agency started with one of the upstairs players in student government coming downstairs to the radio station.

WBUL Station Manager Jean-Paul Gagnon has been meeting with Dave Mincberg, vice president of the student body. "He had a show last semester and so he got to see firsthand the strengths and weaknesses of the station," Gagnon said of Mincberg. "So he has helped get a real push moving us towards getting a couple more people on staff and helping us to reorganize."

Repositioning WBUL in the student organizational hierarchy has been tried before. In the fall of 1999, just as WBUL got its AM broadcast signal, then-station manager D'Acunto tried to work through the USF administration and student government bureaucracy to get proper funding and radio facilities.

"From the beginning it was a student project, and eventually it mutated into something where the students had no power at the end," said D'Acunto. "The student government was taking over and could dictate what we could play, what we could say, and what we could and couldn't do. It was something that we didn't even want."

As an agency, WBUL would report directly to the student body president. Student government control of a student media outlet raises the picture of government control of media, something understandably unacceptable to WBUL staff.

"The main thing that I tried to make sure continues to happen throughout the changes is that WBUL retains it extremely awkward diversity," said Turner, the station's music director. "To make sure that no one would be able to say, "Oh, you are into Scandinavian black metal, sorry, you can't have a show because no one likes that except for you.'"

The trick might be to change WBUL's status before the initiators leave the university. "Two steps forward and one step back, I think, is the general rule," said Gagnon.

For D'Acunto, who was station manager for three years, WBUL reflects the status of students at USF in general.

"There is so much politics in that university and in the Marshall Center, it's like its own little clique," said D'Acunto. "And it has its own little policies and own little politics, whose ass to kiss, and so much red tape.

"No one on any level ... administration, student government and every level within that university; no one there respects the students that attend that university. It's a factory. They are there to take your money; they are there to give you a piece of paper, and move on."

USF students wishing to become involved with WBUL should look for fliers at the station for the beginning-of-semester organizational meeting.

Quincey Vierling, who can be contacted at [email protected], is a USF alumna as well as the former DJ Lady Q at WBUL. News Editor Francis X. Gilpin contributed to this article.

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