The station’s front door opens into a storage area; enter the side door and you’re standing in the middle of the air studio.
A rickety window-mounted air conditioner almost drowns out the announcer. Sometimes the station dog, Rascal, wanders through the room.
Mr. Rhythm, Rascal, Arlene Sweeting and David Milberg Welcome to low-power community radio for Sarasota, WSLR(LP).
Located in a cramped one-story house in a poor neighborhood of this Florida city, WSLR operates on a total budget of $80,000 per year, with more than 100 volunteers and just one full-time employee.
The closet-sized bathroom doubles as a repository for a large collection of car batteries, an experiment in solar power that hasn’t quite worked out yet. The walls of what used to be the living room hold racks of albums and CDs, and there is enough room for seven people to work in the building at once. Maybe.
Some funding for the station comes from corporate sponsors like Rick Arcaro’s law firm, but the majority is derived from listeners around the world and local fund-raising events held twice a year. Concerts are also staged to raise additional cash for the cause. While the station gets no money from government, it has received grants from several foundations.
Arlene Sweeting is the station manager. ‘It’s a balancing act between trying to have quality programming on one hand and still maintaining a lot of inclusivity.’ A sign planted in the yard amongst a pile of rocks and weeds reads, “R.I.P. Corporate Radio.”
More than one challenge
“It’s a balancing act between trying to have quality programming on one hand and still maintaining a lot of inclusivity,” said Arlene Sweeting, station manager and ex-officio board member.
“And we get pressure from both sides. Our mission is to give a voice to those that don’t have one elsewhere, and when we consider new show applications from volunteers we try to give everyone an opportunity. Maybe not everyone gets a show of his or her own, but we can provide a segment on someone else’s show.”
At WSLR, which airs at 96.5 MHz, each producer is required to go through two hours of training. That is followed with a sit-in session with a programmer during his or her shift, then a trial show during which the “newbie” runs the show under the supervision of an experienced programmer.
Technical instruction is only part of the requirements at WSLR. Each programmer also is expected to volunteer at least two hours per month at the station off-air.
“Anyone who is not willing to do these things is weeded out,” said Sweeting. “If people are going to make that commitment, we are willing to give them some extra help, especially if they are a little below our technical standards.”
Dave Milberg at work. ‘I am willing to bet that WSLR will be in the eye of the storm while the commercial stations in town are running pre-programmed music and pre-recorded voice-overs that were not even locally produced.’ Sweeting, a former public school teacher and political candidate, said the station operates as a democracy.
“It’s not like I’m on top and everyone else works for me. It’s an open process, all station meetings are open, and the listeners are invited to attend. We have an all-volunteer programming committee, and because we understand mistakes can be made we are always looking for feedback.”
What’s her biggest challenge, other than keeping donations flowing?
“It’s a challenge to stay in compliance with the FCC,” she said. “One issue is profanity. I get an occasional e-mail from a listener telling me someone slipped, in spite of our training and guidelines. We have written consequences built into our policies, but it happens.
“We believe it is important for everyone to stay on top of things and screen their music, because one wrong record can take us off the air. WSLR is a family-friendly station and our rules are stricter than those of the FCC. There is a programmers’ handbook, and we go through it with each person, and everyone has to sign a contract saying he or she will follow those rules. In addition, each person on the air has to repeat this process every two years.”
There is a delay device in the control room, and Sweeting asks that everyone use it whenever calls from the public are aired. As long as there are no “language malfunctions,” programmers have a great deal of autonomy, and Sweeting says most of them really appreciate the opportunity to have a voice on the air.
“WSLR is an innovative, listener-supported, non-profit, non-commercial FM radio station dedicated to serving the Sarasota community. WSLR features locally produced programming and presents cultural, artistic, and political perspectives currently underrepresented in the media. Our goal is to inform and empower listeners to play an active role in WSLR and in their community. WSLR’s programming promotes equality, peace, sustainability, democracy, and social and economic justice.” (Original emphasis.) The group is kept current on changes in the studio equipment, volunteer opportunities and other station notes via weekly e-mail messages sent out by Sweeting.
WSLR does not have a full-time engineer but is consulted by Sara Allen, who had previously worked for KTAO(FM) in New Mexico, a station with a solar-powered transmitter.
The on-air board at WSLR is an old Radio Systems console pulled out of a defunct Clear Channel station. Also at the station are a Nicom Jupiter audio processor, Nicom NT 250 transmitter and a Shively Labs 6812B FM antenna. The automation system, used mostly in the overnight hours, is Megaseg, a Mac-based package. Audacity is the station’s audio editing software.
What goes on?
There is a tiny production room and a non-working control console in another room, but there is just one air studio, and it would be a horror to behold for anyone who is by nature compulsively neat.
The walls are festooned with eclectic arcana including a ukulele, a Janis Joplin album cover, a fish, a bulletin board with various exhortations aimed at the show producers, and one random license plate. A bare fluorescent tube and a thrift shop floor lamp provide the only illumination.
A Brief History of WSLR
WSLR is licensed to the New College Student Alliance. New College of Florida is an arts & science school in Sarasota, founded in 1960. Radio World asked Station Manager Arlene Sweeting how the station came about and its current relationship with the school. She provided this summary:
2000: Five non-profit groups filed applications for low-power frequency 96.5 during the FCC’s four-day window.
2003: Bo Bentele and Sarah Kell, acting on behalf of the New College Student Alliance, negotiated a settlement agreement with David Beaton, acting on behalf of the Gulf Coast Sanctuary. In this agreement, the Gulf Coast Sanctuary agreed to withdraw its application in exchange for creation of a governing board that would consist of community members and student representatives. This settlement agreement allowed the NCSA application to prevail.
2004: The NCSA was awarded a construction permit for a low-power station. An interim board was established. It was agreed that we would form a new organization, WSLR, and that this board would govern the station. The board met for a year and a half establishing bylaws and procedures by which the station would be governed, and raised money to get the station on the air. The bylaws approved on Oct. 20, 2004, called for a simple majority of the board seats to be reserved for New College affiliates: students, alumni, faculty or staff.
2005–06: WSLR applied for and received 501c3 status in June. Until we were formally recognized as a 501c3, the New College Foundation set up a Radio Fund to which people could make tax-deductible contributions.
Bo Bentele formed a radio club on campus to generate interest in the station. At the end of July 2005, Prometheus Radio sent three technical people down from Philadelphia to help us get the station on the air. With the help of 20 volunteers, the studio and the transmission site were constructed in one weekend. In August, WSLR tested its first live broadcast and filed for a license to cover.
From August 2005 to May 2006, we ran two studios, one at New College and one at Royal Palm. Due to technical issues and lack of consistency and New College concerns with community members coming on campus late at night, this studio was shut down and New College students became one with community members, operating out of the same studio. We also eliminated specific slots for New College students in the programming schedule, opening up any slot for them.
Because of the elimination of the “us” and “them” mindset, the requirement that a majority of the board be New College Representatives was also dropped. We have attended the New College Job/Volunteer Fair every year to try to recruit student programmers. The equipment is a ragtag collection of vintage analog and digital gear that works most of the time, so show hosts have to learn to keep it running in spite of an engineering budget that wouldn’t buy a box lunch.
Programmer David Milberg is by trade a high-priced Chicago attorney. He spends half his time up north and the other half in the sunshine state where he volunteers on the air. Milberg, known as “Radio Dave,” also provides pro bono legal advice to station management when needed.
His show is called “Liner Notes” and it is carefully planned and timed in advance, although he does allow a moment or two of air time for anyone who walks through the studio with something to say. The show consists of stories about the artists who created the music of the last 60 years, and often the original version of a hit is played, followed by a more widely-known contemporary version. An example: “Mambo No. 5” by band leader Perez Prado from 1949, followed by the 1990s track of the same name by Lou Bega.
“WSLR is a vital local resource,” said Milberg. “Just wait for the next big hurricane and scan the Sarasota radio dial for up-to-the-minute emergency news and information. I am willing to bet that WSLR will be in the eye of the storm while the commercial stations in town are running pre-programmed music and pre-recorded voice-overs that were not even locally produced.
“I take the same pride in being at 100-watt WSLR as I did when I was at 50,000-watt WLW(AM), Cincinnati and WBBM(AM), Chicago.”
Other shows on WSLR reflect the passions and diversity of the programmers: “The Fabulous Food Show,” “History of Bluegrass” with Dr. Nik, “Louisiana Gumbo Show,” “Africa Unite,” “Truly Sustainable Sarasota,” “The Jumping Mullet Report,” and a healthy dose of local news and community events.
Underwriting and public service announcements are logged by hand in a three-ring notebook kept near the console. The station’s mighty 100 watts cover about a five-mile radius, at least when the cable lines to the transmitter are operating properly.
A visitor tried to stay out of the way because of the rather limited space. One of the volunteers replied, “Everyone is underfoot here, and no one is underfoot here.”
Ken Deutsch says he started his so-called radio career at a small station at which the bathroom doubled as the repository of the FCC public file.