Sitting in the new WSLR broadcast studio with volunteer DJ and 53-year veteran of the industry David Milberg—known on the air as “Radio Dave”—for just a few moments will likely instill in any guest an appreciation for the enthusiasm that he exudes while running through his agenda of carefully selected song choices, playful banter and, yes, even custom-made WSLR jingles.
“This is real. This is radio the way it used to was,” he jokingly said in an interview with This Week in Sarasota that took place in between music breaks during his show Liner Notes. The generally upbeat conversation may have hit a bittersweet note when the seasoned DJ compared his joy about what WSLR contributes to the airwaves with his lament for the increasingly homogenized state of present-day commercial radio, but the mood quickly brightened when he glanced around the studio and declared, “I’m in heaven right now.”
Sarasota community radio station WSLR is adored by listeners for its enjoyable, commercial-free content that is lovingly arranged by passionate volunteers like Milberg, who spends about 15 hours per week to create each show. Broadcasting quality entertainment, however, is not the only role that WSLR plays in the community. The station strives to be a powerful, progressive force dedicated to positive change, empowerment, sustainability and content that is relevant to those tuning in and unlikely to be found on other broadcast sources.
“WSLR is trying … to walk the talk,” stated Dave Beaton—a founder, volunteer and member of the Programming, Technical and Events committees at WSLR—in an interview with TWIS. “We’re about change and a movement forward.”
It’s true that WSLR has been through a number of significant changes in the past several months, and Station Manager Arlene Sweeting explained exactly what these changes are and how they will be used to integrate WSLR more deeply into the community, improve content by providing volunteer broadcasters with more powerful tools and even decrease the new station’s overall carbon footprint. She also revealed a number of exciting plans for the future of WSLR that include expanding local news content through the work of interns, volunteers and citizen journalists.
In terms of physical changes, the station—which was moved literally overnight by a five-person technical crew in October of last year to its new location at 525 Kumquat Ct. in Sarasota’s Rosemary District—now boasts a number of improvements and additions. These include, among other things, a brand new broadcast studio, an adjacent performance studio that is currently under construction, a larger space to store media and hold administrative meetings, an outdoor area for children to play in, a set of cisterns for collecting rainwater and an indoor venue with its own outdoor patio to host events and fundraisers that feature musicians, speakers and other live activities. The move “really went without a hitch,” commented Sweeting. “I don’t think we missed any programming. It was very exciting,” she added. Since then, WSLR has hosted several events in the new space and currently even volunteer it as a weekly pick-up and drop-off location for residents who subscribe to deliveries from the local farmer’s market cooperative.
Even though the new station has run successfully for several months, there is still much to be done. “We’re still working to get the performance studio up and operating, which I think is really important to programmers. They’re really excited about having that space to do a live performance,” Sweeting observed. The new studio, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of June and will enable guest musicians to perform live on the air, should have many listeners excited as well.
For fans who really want to “be there,” however, there may be even more to look forward to, as Sweeting mentioned plans to wire the outdoor venue for broadcasting as well. This would allow the station to host an event featuring live bands and speakers and simultaneously broadcast it to the entire community, meaning that listeners may hear more ironic requests of “Freebird” on the air than they are used to. Talk radio enthusiasts may get a chance to chime in as well, as Sweeting hinted at the possibility of WSLR broadcasting some of its talk shows in front of studio audiences.
On a more serious note, the outdoor broadcasting upgrade may also give community members a new venue to congregate and have their voices, concerns and suggestions heard by a larger audience. “There might be town hall meetings that we have on certain issues … [that] we could broadcast live,” Sweeting said. This could be an extremely powerful tool in that it would allow for an increased level of real-time dialogue between community members and may encourage more collective action by participants.
Many of the changes will give listeners more reasons to visit the new location, but the station is also preparing to literally bring the studio to the community by performing remote broadcasts in various locations. “We have the technology set; we just need to train a few people so that they can do it without too much assistance,” Sweeting explained, adding that WSLR hopes to “take the radio to the people.” In the near future, then, listeners may be bumping into volunteer DJs broadcasting live at local coffee shops such as the Coffee Loft—which Sweeting said has approached WSLR about doing just that—and many other possible locations and events around Sarasota.
All of the projects planned and completed by WSLR, of course, require a good deal of time and effort, and the station’s staff and volunteers have fortunately received some additional help in completing projects since October. This is possible because WSLR received a grant to fund two part-time paid internship positions that have been filled by New College students Elizabeth Bennett and Eva Gray, whose official titles are Office Assistant and Production Assistant, respectively. Bennett was happy to share her experiences as an intern at WSLR in an interview with TWIS. “My favorite thing, besides meeting all the programmers and all the people involved with the radio, is all of the new skills that I’ve learned,” she remarked. “That’s been the best part, definitely.”
Bennett is enthusiastic not only about her own experiences with WSLR but also about the ways that other community members can benefit from the station’s presence. “It’s a good place for a community to come together,” she commented. “They do so many workshops and training sessions and it’s very helpful to people who don’t really have those opportunities otherwise,” she added.
Even with the help of interns, WSLR is always in need of volunteers. At this point in time, the station is undertaking a mission to improve its news department and is looking particularly for community members who want to serve as citizen journalists. Anyone is welcome to volunteer and the station has recently been working to get more people involved and encouraged by offering free workshops on topics that include citizen reporting, audio editing, podcasting and improving interview skills.
“We’re trying to get more people interested in doing some local reporting for the station,” Sweeting stated. “Folks that are interested in covering city commission meetings and school board meetings and just things going on around town,” she continued, explaining that if more people volunteer, there will be a greater chance that the program will be successful. “It’s really hard to put a volunteer newscast together,” she added, although she believes that WSLR is up to the challenge, which will require the hard work and dedication of staff, volunteer broadcasters, citizen journalists and anyone who is willing to contribute their skills to the cause or support the station with donations.
It can be said that cooperation, partnership, encouragement and dedication are required to accomplish almost all of WSLR’s present and future objectives. Sarasota’s community radio station, however, is just one of many across the nation that share similar goals, and support within that larger network of stations can be extremely powerful in terms of strengthening existing stations and encouraging the emergence of new stations in other areas.
The national community radio movement has reached a pivotal stage of political development that could see the establishment of many new stations all over the country over the next three years or so as a new licensing application window opens for low-power FM stations, which are stations that broadcast (like WSLR) at a maximum broadcast level of 100 watts. WSLR is dedicated to supporting the foundation of new stations, and its staff has recently hinted that, if all goes according to plan, some west central Florida communities—specifically Venice and St. Petersburg—may have their own fledgling community radio stations in the next few years, to which WSLR will be more than happy to act as a mentor.
- This is the first part in a series of articles about community radio in the area. For further developments, readers should check back at TWIS in the coming weeks.