WRFL rides the wave of success into its 30th year

Radio Free Lexington is a student run organization at the University of Kentucky with a mission to provide professional radio training and management and offer its listeners with music, news and other programming. Taken Sunday, March 5, 2017. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Akhira Umar

Lexington radio station WRFL was born from a little column that made a big splash.

In 1985, then-sophomore Kakie Urch wrote a weekly opinions column for the Kentucky Kernel. When local radio stations refused to play the bands the SAB concert committee booked, Urch decided it was time UK got its own radio station and printed the suggestion.

She wrote a “logical” column arguing for the station, and the response was huge. Hundreds of people showed their interest, and the Kernel put those replies on a two-page spread. Urch became the mother of the WRFL revolution.

Radio Free Lexington was then formed and worked tirelessly to get its station. With efforts like bake sales, poster making and benefit concerts, the student organization was determined. With the support of Theo Monroe who got WRFL’s FCC license, the Student Government Association, UK administrators, President Otis Singletary and over 150 other contributors, WRFL raised the money to raise its radio tower.

“Basically, we were unaware of how impossible the task was, so we were able to do it,” Urch said.

At 2 p.m. on Monday, March 7, 1988, WRFL hit the airwaves for the first time. Urch coined the term “Only Alternative Left” because the station was actually the last station left on the dial at 88.1 FM. In the beginning, the station only reached about 12 to 15 miles. Now, nine different counties within a 45-mile radius of the station can tune in.

WRFL’s goal was to bring an alternative sound seldom heard in Lexington. According to Phillip Kisling, WRFL’s promotions director and manager, the educational mission statement and license of the station has worked well with playing music outside of mainstream, giving listeners something unique to hear. The station plays everything from Bluegrass and hip-hop to Christian and women’s music. Urch said this much hasn’t changed from when she first started the station.

“The station is a central point for people who are interested in arts, who are interested in technology, who are musical, who are interested in nonprofits,” Urch said. “And the programs and the sound resonate through the lives of everyone from high school students to people in their senior years.”

This was the case for Kisling, who heard about WRFL before he even lived on UK’s campus. Enticed by the idea of sharing his love of music, Kisling joined the station. Now, as a business management and marketing sophomore, he says WRFL has made him truly appreciate Lexington.

“I feel like the word community or family gets thrown around a lot, but I think that’s a really adept description,” Kisling said. “We’re kind of a melting pot. We don’t want to turn people away. That’s kind of another part of our mission, is to really accept and give people not only the skills to broadcast but also how to feel welcome.”

WRFL not only has diverse music but diverse people. The station’s alumni include famous album cover artist Robert Beatty, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert S. Karem, actress and political activist Ashley Judd and many more musicians, executives, doctors, lawyers and activists. Urch said the skills gained by working with WRFL’s diverse group truly resonates with alumni no matter their career field.

Current WRFL workers feel equally as appreciative of the station and are about to prove it. They want to make sure the station’s 30th Birthday Bash is a smash hit. The event will span three days– March 2 to 4– and three locations– the Burl, the Green Lantern and Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center.

On Friday at the Burl, audiences can enjoy performances by Washed Out, Helado Negro and Idiot Glee. Tickets for this show are sold out. Later that night at the Green Lantern, Hellbent Hearts, Just a Test and the Yellow Belts will perform. Be on the lookout for ticket information.

Back at the Burl on Saturday, performers include Cults, Ellie Herring, Hair Police and Devine Carama, a WRFL alumnus. Tickets are available on WRFL’s website. There will also be a free exhibition, called F.M.era, at the Downtown Arts Center showcasing WRFL memorabilia from the station’s formation to now.

On Sunday at the Burl, there will be a free WRFL “Brunch Bash” Alumni Show featuring WRFLien Family Bands, Sour Cream, Johnny Conqueroo, 10 Ft. Pole, Nine Pound Hammer. 

After seeing what her 1988 mission has become 30 years later, Urch was proud to say that although almost everything had radically changed, from the people to the music, the core values that founded WRFL remain the same.

“It’s still the same energy of a group that’s running after one of the most complex and difficult student organizational goals on the campus,” she said.