Hidden in the bowels of Shirk, there’s a room that always has the lights off. The door is always locked, and the faint glow of computer screens visible through the window. Ask most students on campus, and they likely have no idea what is in there. It’s a radio station stuck in the past.
One computer still runs Windows XP, and probably has not been shut off since that day. Notes for DJs plaster the walls, and FCC licenses hang on a bulletin board. Soon it will all be gone. The campus would like to turn it into a broadcast studio for newscasts, but nothing is set in stone.
WFCI used to be the student-run radio station on campus, but radio has lost its luster, student involvement has been slashed and the station has sat in a permanent idle status. It's been simulcasting WFYI for the past few years, but that’s all about to change. Franklin College knew they couldn’t hold on to the station forever.
President Kerry Prather explains why the college made the tough decision to sell it:
“The market for commercial radio stations is dwindling. I mean, that's just the reality of things. Our use of it, probably now three years, maybe four years deep, is zero… There will come a day in the not too distant future where the value of that radio station will be zero. So while it still has value, what made sense for us was to monetize it while we still could,” Prather said.
The radio station’s history stretches all the way back to 1960, when radio was king and FM stations were cutting edge. Professor Raymond Cowan started the station, mostly because he liked classical music and wanted to give students the opportunity to work in radio.
According to a 1960 issue of the Edinburgh Daily Courier, the station’s 60-foot antenna was mounted on top of Cline Hall. Initial broadcasts consisted of “classical and semi-classical music and educational features.”
The station’s reach, however, was too limitedl. After a library in Kentucky offered to donate their 1000-watt tower to Franklin, it seemed like all of central Indiana would pick up the campus station.
WRTV 6, a TV station in Indianapolis, did not approve of this new tower. The wattage increase threatened to interfere with their signal. This caused a dispute that almost went to court with the FCC.
Journalism professor Joel Cramer, who started managing the station in 1985, took over at the tail end of the dispute.
“All of educational radio was in between [channel six and channel seven] on the TV. If you were an educational manager on the top end of it, you would run into seven, if you’re in the bottom and you run into six, and your audio can be distorted because of your signal,” Cramer said.
Things came to a standstill. The station went silent, lawyers were locked and loaded and everyone anticipated a long, drawn-out trial.
Thankfully the two compromised. WFCI could increase their power to 500 watts: enough to reach 30 miles outside of Franklin, but not enough to interfere with WRTV 6. The new antenna was moved from the roof of Cline to Trafalgar, Indiana.
The station soon began playing alternative rock, a much more popular format with the student body.
Cramer said the shift happened for two reasons. Firstly, a station out of the University of Indianapolis was also playing classical with a better signal, and secondly, students and the general public as a whole preferred more alternative music.
“When we switched over to the alternative format, we used to get a lot of [collect calls] from the Johnson County Jail,” Cramer said.It was more of a freeform music. Stuff you don’t hear anywhere else.”
Those were the days when current radio voice of the Indianapolis Colts, Matt Taylor (class of 2008) started working at the station.
“Since I was ten years old, I knew what I wanted to do, whether it be a music guy or a sports guy,” Taylor said. For our first day of freshman year orientation… I asked my group leader ‘where’s the radio station and how do you get involved?’”
WFCI was the first radio station Taylor ever worked for, and he took full advantage of it. Even though it was a student-run station, he treated it like the real thing. Cramer noticed.
“Matt was always having fun. He’s got a great sense of humor, but he was very serious about what he was trying to do too… He just dove in, and that’s the thing I always appreciated about Matt,” Cramer said.
Taylor was the quarterback for the football team, and had a natural affinity for sports, which led to more sports related programming on the station. He and his crew broadcasted play-by-plays of basketball and baseball games. Taylor also started a coach’s show.
Thus the radio station became part of the campus community. It often served as the soundtrack to Friday night parties for students.
“Me and a buddy of mine, we did a music shift on Friday nights from seven to nine… We would stay in there all night taking calls from people, and we were essentially DJ’ing the campus party,” Taylor said.
According to Cramer, the station was the place where people could be whoever they wanted to be on-air, and nobody would judge them for it.
“It’s always fun to find those students who are just a little off kilter. I had one student who would bark and his partner would translate. That was a little different.”
But with the creation of the MP3 player, people suddenly had the power to listen to what they wanted, when they wanted. Radio was on the outside looking in.
With student interest decreasing, the campus partnered with WFYI to simulcast on the station from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., while students took over from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. But after a while, there were few students left to take shifts, and the station began broadcasting WFYI all the time.
According to Cramer, in the mid 80s he had upwards of thirty students working for the station. Now, he only has two or three students a year who voice their interest in the station. He has tried to get students to use the space for podcasts, but the idea hasn’t caught on.
Taylor is sad to see the station go, but he understands that the times have changed and radio is on its way out.
“From a sentimental standpoint that’s where I started and that’s what I think gave me a launching pad for my career… to be able to talk to someone while they’re driving their car and knowing they're listening to you and enjoying what you’re doing, to me there was no other high. There’s no other drug for that, it’s the coolest thing in the world… it’s disappointing on my end that no one’s going to get that experience anymore,” Taylor said.
For the last student-run broadcast, the family of Raymond Cowan sat in the studio that he started. The last song the station played before transferring over to WFYI for good? “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M.
As of now, the station will change hands to Catholic Radio Indy.
All the equipment is still in that dusty old studio, everything sits exactly where it was left when FC students signed-off for the last time.
While the station may soon be gone, and few students on campus will even realize it left, those who worked for it and listened to it will always remember the magic of WFCI.
This is sad news. I'm not sure Prather is correct that radio is dead, IU student radio is still going strong and is a great place to discover new music. The college probably should have reached out to the community to see if anyone wanted to DJ. I for sure would have volunteered my time to melt the faces of listeners with some rad metal and punk you've never heard. No one wanted to hear another NPR stream and classical...
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