Smile Politely

WRFU Looks to Grow Upward and Outward

On a chilly November afternoon in 2005, tens of community members stood on the roof of a downtown Urbana building, many with a rope in hand. Collectively, they tugged and pushed, and with ease a metal object that some have called an eyesore was lifted skyward. This was not a steeple raising or a cross hoisting, but to some in attendance this metal object might have held a similar sort of reverence. It was, after all, a radio tower. Attached at its peak would be the small antenna connecting WRFU to the community of Champaign-Urbana.

WRFU, the community’s first licensed, low-power, FM radio station, went live the following day. Station founder Mike Lehman, who in 2000 had begun the process of obtaining a low-power license with the FCC, was given the honors of selecting the first song. His choice, Steve Earle’s “The Revolution Starts …,” resonated among the more than 100 volunteers gathered at the station. In a matter of three days, those volunteers — many from the Champaign-Urbana area, but also from around the globe — had laid the foundation for “Radio Free Urbana.”

This Saturday, WRFU (104.5 FM) calls upon the help of hundreds more volunteers to complete a necessary phase in the three-year-old station’s maturation. That eyesore sitting atop the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center headquarters at 202 S. Broadway in Urbana must eventually come down. The building, formerly owned by the post office (which is still a tenant), is on the state’s historical landmark register. The antenna was granted a temporary home atop the imposing 94-year-old building.

The cost of erecting a new antenna tower is a burden for volunteer-run WRFU, whose annual budget checks in at around $3,000. The tower, which will likely feature a 12-foot-by-12-foot concrete base and stand 100 feet high, will cost the station between $17,000 and $20,000 to build. While the station has accumulated donations from local organizations and individuals and expects to receive more in the near future, it’s currently about $6,000 to $8,000 short of its goal. To help close the gap, the station is throwing a benefit concert featuring local bands and authors at the Cowboy Monkey on Saturday, Dec. 6, beginning at 6 p.m. A donation of $4 is desired from concertgoers, and all proceeds will benefit the station’s tower drive.


WRFU, which is housed on the first floor of the Independent Media Center building, has narrowed the choices on the type of tower it will purchase, but no location for the tower has been chosen, according to station manager Andrew O’Baoill. The new tower’s location must be within a one-mile radius of the station. O’Baoill would prefer that the tower is erected on the grounds of the Independent Media Center, which would simplify the process from a technological and financial perspective.

The low-power tag is not a misnomer. WRFU broadcasts at just 100 watts, or roughly the equivalent of a bright light bulb, which is the maximum allowance for a low-power license. For comparison, WDWS (1400 AM) broadcasts at 1,000 watts. Fellow community-radio station WEFT (90.1 FM) broadcasts at 10,000 watts, and commercial country station WIXY (100.3 FM) broadcasts at 13,000 watts.

At 100 feet tall, which is the maximum height allowed for low-power stations, WRFU’s new tower will reach about 35 feet higher than the current one. That should help carry the station’s signal to a greater segment of the twin cities’ population. While WRFU’s signal can currently be received relatively well by many Urbana residents, it dampens as it travels into Champaign. Depending on location and interference from taller buildings, a listener along Neil Street in Champaign can typically pick up the signal, albeit with some occasional static. In some cases, the signal stretches as far west as Prospect Avenue.

One alternative to improve the station’s reach within the community is to broadcast an online streaming feed, or webcast, for listeners. But that is a pricey endeavor.

“We’re not averse to going online, but at the moment the costs would be prohibitive. We would have copyright fees and internet fees,” says O’Baoill. “We would have to lease bandwidth equivalent to the number of listeners we expect to have. … We might have a few hundred people listening to a show over the air. If we were to have the same number of people looking to listen online at the same time, the costs of bandwidth to serve hundreds of listeners at one time would be quite expensive.

“At the moment, our priority is capital fundraising to build a permanent tower so that those who are within our catchment area are able to listen to us.”

O’Baoill suggests that once this goal has been accomplished, then fundraising efforts could transition to subsidize a webcasting solution, which he says could cost up to $5,000 annually.


While the hardest work — getting the station on the air — is over, the raising of funds for the new tower has proven to be a daunting task. Donations from generous community members and groups like the local American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) have put a significant dent in the monies needed to construct the tower. Still, at least $6,000 remains to be raised. O’Baoill hopes to have the remaining funds gathered within a six-month window.

As WRFU struggles to raise funds, it must do so alongside WEFT, also a not-for-profit community radio station that depends on listener donations to raise its necessary operating capital.

“WEFT is a well-established community radio station. They’ve been around since 1981, and they’ve got some of the strengths that come from that, insofar as they have well-established identity,” says O’Baoill, who adds that the stations complement each other well.

Despite WRFU’s difficulties raising capital, both Lehman and O’Baoill are quick to point out the community’s acceptance of a second volunteer-operated radio station.

“I am very much honored that the community has embraced this project and supported it,” says Lehman. “I’ve always believed that WRFU was about the needs in our community for more diverse voices to have the resources they need to bring us a better community. I only wish that I had time to actually have a [radio] show.”


WRFU is a variety “free-form” station, which in short means it places little boundaries on the style or content of its shows, and encourages scheduling that reflects the diversity of the community the station serves. On Wednesday evenings, for example, listeners can successively hear “11th Indian,” a show produced locally by and for Native Americans; “Muslim Mosaic,” a show created by the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center; and “The Tipping Point,” a show featuring “eclectic music and community news, art and politics.” When no DJ is live in the studio, the station features automated programming, including a large library of local music, Spanish-language programming, public affairs news and commentary from around the world, “Corporate Watchdog Radio” and coverage of environmental and food issues.

WRFU is open to broadcasting novices and lifelong disk jockeys alike. To earn the right to broadcast a radio show, one has to become a dues-paying member of the Independent Media Center and WRFU (a small fee), buddy up with another eager airshifter, complete a training course to familiarize one’s self with the station’s equipment and on-air requirements, and be willing to donate a small portion of one’s time to volunteer work affiliated with the station.

“We’re built around programming groups and working groups … and then volunteers who take care of different areas like scheduling, membership, finance, tech issues and so on,” says O’Baoill, who stresses that the station involves its airshifters in its decision-making process, which is governed by consensus rule.

For those who may be intimidated by donning headphones, speaking into a microphone and operating a basic sound board, O’Baoill says it’s really a simple process. He encourages the public to drop by one of the station’s general meetings to speak with other airshifters.

Currently, the station boasts around 70 airshifters, which still leaves room for plenty of additional airshifters and radio shows. Approximately 70 hours of air time are available for new airshifters, including slots during the day and on weekends.

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