WRFL rings in 20 years on downtown rooftop



Story by Juliann Vachon

The crowd at WRFL’s FreeKY Fest on Saturday was as eclectic as the music the station broadcasts every day — some were children; others had grey hair and wrinkles. Some came dressed in tie-dyed shirts; others wore Polos and khakis. Some were pierced and tattooed; others had hair as colorful as the decorations hung around the concert venue.

“We had all the different shades of Lexington here,” said Chuck Clenney, WRFL’s general manager. “Everyone from the kids to the Indian community to the people who love crazy loud music came out. That’s just what WRFL is about, offering something for everyone and bringing people together.”

But most were at the station’s first-ever all-day music festival to soak in the tunes and culture while celebrating 20 years of commercial-free radio provided by WRFL-FM, 88.1, UK’s student-run community radio station.

Mick Jeffries, one of the station’s original staffers and current WRFL DJ, looked out at the crowd atop the Lexington Transit Center that had just heard a performance by The Coup, a hip-hop group out of Oakland, Calif., and smiled.

“A lot of these people were raised on this station,” he said. “They’ve been coming up to me and saying thanks, thanks for WRFL and all it does for Lexington. The day has just been an indication of the strong community of people who love the station.”

The festival featured music and activities for people of all ages and tastes — from a children’s concert in the early afternoon to fire dancers and a set by The Apples In Stereo later that night.

The event included booths with local businesses and restaurants, a bicycle-building exhibition and a spot where people could paint their own record cover. Inside the transit center, architecture students had plans for city revitalization projects on display, and festival-goers could add their own additions to a mural project.

WRFL celebrated its success on air but also asked the crowd to help it expand its reach and bring the same diverse music and talk radio Lexington has known for 20 years to other parts of the state. The festival was a culmination of Alternative Music Week, which included a series of fundraising concerts across town to benefit WRFL’s “Build the Tower, Boost the Power” campaign.

In September, the Federal Communications Commission approved a station upgrade from 250 watts to 7,900 watts. The increased wattage would expand WRFL’s broadcast area from Lexington to most of Central Kentucky, including Frankfort and Georgetown.

The station was given three years to raise the needed $150,000 to build a new tower that can handle the increased wattage. Chuck Clenney, WRFL’s general manager, said $150,000 is a modest estimate; it might actually need closer to $200,000 when all is said and done.

Kakie Urch and Mark Beaty, two of WRFL’s founders, stood onstage Saturday night with more than 40 other original staffers and asked the crowd to give, just like the community did when the station started 20 years ago.

“The last time we needed to do something like this, it was to build a radio station,” Beaty said.

At a dinner the night before, the group of 40 to 60 founders dug into their own pockets and came up with about $9,500, Urch said. From the stage on Saturday, they encouraged the crowd to match that amount as volunteers carried around baskets and manned the donation tables.

The crowd responded to the message; the event raised more than $14,000 total, including the amount donated by WRFL alums.

Kate Wheeler and Kate Hesseldenz, both of Lexington, said they were breaking out their wallets for the station they think helps make the community a better place to live.

The festival made them feel like they were in a “real city” — one that values a vibrant downtown culture, they said.

“This is what we want, an active downtown where people are mixing and coming together as a community,” said Wheeler, who teaches art history at UK.

Urch, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., said she was in Lexington all week enjoying the “absolutely outstanding week” with other founders and friends. They are offering all the support they can to current staffers looking to expand the station’s broadcast reach.

“I think that the founders and original staff are energized and behind this effort because we know how hard it is to raise the money,” Urch said. “You want to let people know that it’s possible.”

Those wishing to donate to WRFL’s “Build the Tower, Boost the Power” campaign can visit WRFL’s Web site (www.wrfl.fm).

Donations can also be mailed to WRFL at 777 University Station, Lexington, KY 40506-0025.