Music News & Reviews

WRFL celebrates 30 years as UK’s student-run, independent radio station

Franki Arroyo, general manager of the WRFL, with Prof. Kakie Urch, one of the founders of the station, in WRFL’s studio at UK. WRFL is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a series of events this weekend at The Burl.
Franki Arroyo, general manager of the WRFL, with Prof. Kakie Urch, one of the founders of the station, in WRFL’s studio at UK. WRFL is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a series of events this weekend at The Burl.

Kakie Urch did not hesitate when offering a summation of the working philosophy that has driven WRFL (88.1 FM) for the past three decades.

“This is a perfect example of a coming together of people working both within the system and outside the box.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky during the 1980s, Urch helped organize and eventually launch the station in the bottom floor of the UK Student Center. Its initial broadcasts in March 1988 came out of a makeshift studio constructed, in part, from large chunks of stage plywood donated after a two night concert stay by Pink Floyd at Rupp Arena the previous fall. The student run, multi-genre/format station has since become a prime Central Kentucky voice for independent music and programming.

Urch, now an Associate Professor at UK’s School of Journalism and Media and a member of WRFL’s advisory board, says every fragment of the station’s history and every hint of continued growth as the station celebrates its 30th anniversary, “warms my heart.

“That happens just by turning the radio on and hearing all these sorts of things coming out of a freely accessible format where we are supporting ideas of creativity, exploration, diversity and community. Back in the day, we couldn’t get two hours a day on WBKY (which became WUKY in 1989) to play Talking Heads. So we said, ‘We’ll build our own station.’”

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Vintage sign in WRFL's studio at UK. WRFL is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a series of events this weekend at The Burl. Matt Goins

And so they did. This weekend, successive generations of WRFL staff members will gather in Lexington to celebrate 30 years of dispensing everything from the latest voices of indie rock, folk and country to programs devoted to jazz, metal, hip-hop, psychedelia, world beat music and more.

But music and accompanying news programs weren’t all that WRFL has been up to. The station’s considerable appeal to a community outside of UK led to sponsorship of concerts and other live music events, including makeshift club shows with minimal cover charges and, in many cases, an all-ages admission, as well as large scale events like Boomslang. The latter was a music festival that ran for five years, encompassing as many as 50 acts staged in a dozen different Lexington venues.

“Just being part of the station, I learned so much about music, and not just the live music the station put on,” said Saraya Brewer, who became a disc jockey at WRFL in 2007 before founding Boomslang two years later. Today, she also serves on station’s advisory board.

“It really opened my eyes to this whole world of music and underground music — music you don’t normally hear on other radio stations. Boomslang opened up another whole realm of possibilities about what the station had the potential to do and tap into. Just the level of interest we got from all these bands we reached out to book Boomslang really showed the impact that college radio can have on music that maybe doesn’t make sense for mainstream radio.”

RFL was really the kind of thing that made me feel like I didn’t have to leave Lexington.

Ross Compton, former WRFL staff member

Ross Compton, who began working with WRFL in 1994, used his experience with the station to organize local music projects as varied as the Know Your Own record compilations of Lexington bands and the long running Outside the Spotlight series of improvised music and free jazz concerts.

“RFL was really the kind of thing that made me feel like I didn’t have to leave Lexington,” Compton said. “I always thought I would have to leave for some bigger city or scene to find the kind of cultural community I was looking for. Once I got into RFL and met everybody there, it made me feel like the ground work had already been laid in Lexington. So much of the community I came to love in Lexington I discovered through RFL.”

While much of this weekend will focus on WRFL’s past, the station is preparing for a homecoming that will fortify its future. After several years of temporary relocation in the basement of the White Hall Classroom Building on the UK campus, WRFL will move back to the Student Center — as in the newly constructed Student Center — this spring. Helping oversee the new digs will be arts administration junior Franki Arroyo, who last week was named WRFL’s general manager for the 2018-19 school year.

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Broadcast schedule in WRFL’s studio at UK. WRFL is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a series of events this weekend at The Burl. Matt Goins

“When I first listened to WRFL, I was like, ‘Finally, here’s a radio station I can listen to where I’m not hearing the same songs over and over again,’” Arroyo said. “I really loved some of the genre programming, even though much of the music I didn’t really have a lot of experience with. It was definitely something that helped me branch out musically compared to what I would hear on a regular Top 40 station.”

One of Arroyo’s duties this weekend has been to gather assorted station ephemera from throughout its history titled “F.M. Era: 30 Years of WRFL.” It will be on display beginning Saturday at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center.

“We went looking for a lot of things we wouldn’t have had at the station like old merchandise from forever ago — lots of posters from concerts, ticket stubs, things like that. It’s been crazy to see all the things that have come through. Everything that came in has had a story to it, too.”

“It’s an extraordinary legacy,” Urch said of the station’s work and influence through the years. “We hear it in every hour of programming that continues on. We have generations and generations of students and community members who learn about new music and learn about old music together.”

If you go

WRFL 30th Birthday Bash

When: March 2-4

March 2

▪  ​Washed Out, Helado Negro, Idiot Glee at The Burl, 375 Thompson Road. (9 p.m., ​$15-$20).

▪  Hellbent Hearts, The Yellow Belts and Just a Test​ at the Green Lantern, 497 W. 3rd St. (10 p.m., $10).

March 3

▪  “Homecoming: a Multi-Media Reception” ​at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St. Includes opening reception for ​“F.M. Era: 30 Years of WRFL” and a screening of “How It Went Down,” a documentary on the origins of the station. (Noon-4 p.m., Free).

▪  Cults, Ellie Herring, Devine Carama, Hair Police, Thank You for Coming to Our Parties at The Burl. (8:30 p.m. $15-$20).

March 4

▪  10 Foot Pole, ​Nine Pound Hammer, 10 Foot Pole, Johnny Conqueroo, Lovely Grandmas and the All-American WRFLien Band at The Burl. (11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Free.)

Online: Wrfl.fm/birthday

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