Boosting the Signal

Left, the first voice of WVUM Peter Berlin, A.B. ’68; right, current WVUM general manager Emmi Vélez
By Aaliyah Weathers

Left, the first voice of WVUM Peter Berlin, A.B. ’68; right, current WVUM general manager Emmi Vélez

Boosting the Signal

By Aaliyah Weathers
From spinning vinyl to streaming digital, WVUM celebrates its half-century ride on the changing airwaves of radio with a major renovation.

Some 50 years ago, a group of University of Miami engineering students got caught running a pirate radio station out of an Eaton dorm room. Today the student-run station, WVUM 90.5 FM, is a mainstay in South Florida’s alternative music scene and is nationally acclaimed as a community where students express themselves freely and gain professional experience as radio broadcasters.

Back in the summer of 1967, UM broadcasting major Peter Berlin, A.B. ’68, was home in New York and taking classes at nearby Hofstra University. Radio was booming, so when Berlin learned Hofstra had its own campus station, he signed up to host an evening show. When he returned to UM in the fall and got wind of the renegade station operating out of his dorm, he approached The Men’s Residence Hall Association to establish something official. 

Along with the team he assembled, Berlin began putting together contracts, begging local radio stations to donate their outdated equipment, and negotiating with both University administrators and the FCC to get WVUM on air. His was the very first live voice on 90.5 FM in February of 1968.

“Rick Whitman [then station engineer] flipped the power button on, and I said, ‘This is WVUM, Voice of the University of Miami testing on 90.5 FM,’” Berlin said, recalling one of his favorite campus memories. Berlin went on to work in radio for years and even now curates playlists of 1960s music for a WFUN morning show.

WVUM was registered as an educational station, with the goal of promoting campus events and activities, along with airing some music and specialty programs. The initial broadcast was only 10 watts, reaching just around the proximity of campus. The most recent update in 2013 to 5.9 kw means you can tune in anywhere in Miami-Dade County. The station’s online livestream attracts listeners from all over the world, bringing the estimated tally to 60,000 listeners weekly.  

“I used to tell people, if you are even in the parking lot of UM, tune in,” said Margot Winick, B.S.C. ’91, M.A.L.S. ’05, director of news and content management at University of Florida, who was a DJ at the station in the late 1980s, when the range and technology were far more limited. Now the studio uses a digital music library that is curated and updated weekly by the music directors, but in Winick’s day, the DJs spun vinyl and didn’t have the luxury of using software to queue up songs automatically. “There was always a certain song I would play when I had to go to the bathroom because it was 8 or 9 minutes long. I’m sure the listeners caught on eventually,” she laughed.

As the station's geographic grew, so did its repertoire. The overall sound is alternative and electronic music, and the staff actively seeks out music not played on any other Miami station to create WVUM’s distinctive sound. There are a variety of music specialty shows, talk shows, news reports, and broadcasts of Hurricane Sports. From one hour to the next you never know what you may catch—from video game music to psychedelic rock, from a science talk show to a dissection of New Orleans-influenced jazz and hip-hop.

Some of the specialty shows are passed down over time and have become legendary on the airwaves, like the 24-year-old Electric Kingdom Live or the even older Metal Revolution. Students work hard to curate their shows, some consistently bringing in guests and interviewing local musicians. Over the years, prominent guests like contemporary jazz band Snarky Puppy and former University of Miami President Donna Shalala have all been featured on the air.

“We treated our positions at WVUM like they were real jobs,” said former WVUM general manager Amber Robertson, B.S.C. ’12, noting that the professional skills she honed at WVUM have translated to her current position as marketing manager at CBS Interactive. “I think the fact that we put so much time, love, and passion into the station really made a difference.”  

Paul Driscoll, vice dean for academic affairs in the School of Communication and WVUM’s faculty advisor for 27 years, credits the staff for making the station the best it can be.

“It is completely operated by the students; I am hands off unless there is a legal issue,” said Driscoll, who primarily handles the station’s license with the FCC. “I think it is important to let the students make the decisions on the content, as it gives them a chance to be creative.”

Driscoll, whose Ph.D. is in mass communications, noted that the station’s cutting-edge format would not work in commercial radio but has worked for WVUM thus far—and in a top-15 radio market in the country, no less.

“WVUM is the most powerful media outlet that the University has to reach the local community,” he said. “It’s an incredibly valuable learning experience for students to gain on-air experience or try their hand with student leadership.”

In 2011 the station earned national recognition with an MTV Woodie Award for best college radio station. It is consistently included in the Miami New Times annual “Best of Miami” list and has received multiple awards from the National Broadcast Society. Many of these awards are based on voting by loyal listeners. Winick remembers having the same listeners tune in every week just to hear her set. Current general manager Emmi Vélez says listener interaction is one of the reasons she hosts the All Request Show.

With its revered reputation in the South Florida music and arts scene, the station is able to cultivate relationships with local venues, promoters, and festivals. The Fillmore Miami Beach, Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival, and The Ground routinely promote events through the station’s social media coordinator and allow the station to do ticket giveaways for listeners and staff in exchange for blog coverage. WVUM has worked closely with the III Points Music, Art & Technology Festival and the House of Creatives Music Festival to plan on-campus events promoting the festivals to the student body.

Much more than a club, WVUM is a nonprofit organization owned by the University of Miami and overseen by the advisory board, but day-to-day operations have always been run entirely by students. The biggest hurdle is funding. Most funding comes from underwriting, paid promotional content for local businesses. Every spring WVUM students run the station’s Radiothon fundraiser, hosting events, offering various donation packages, and begging their families to help keep the station afloat. This year, the students made one of their biggest pushes yet.

“A lot of our equipment in the studio hasn’t been renovated in over 40 years, and it was failing almost every day. People just always had to go in there and fix it,” said Vélez, a junior journalism and political science double major who has worked at WVUM since her freshman year. 

Securing the funding for a full renovation of the WVUM studio, located on the first floor of the Whitten University Center, has been every general manager’s top goal over the past several years. Velez accomplished that early this semester when the Division of Student Affairs granted the station a $150,000 loan to be paid off over the next five years.

“Everything is going to be brand new; if you take a photo of the studio now and then after renovations, you will not recognize it [as the same place],” said Vélez. And it is important. The station currently has a second production studio that is nonfunctional, but with new equipment, the students will be able to literally double their workload.”

While a double workload is not something most students are willing to take on, the WVUM staff are on their toes waiting for the chance to do more. WVUM has about 100 student members with majors ranging from media management to neuroscience. And their dedication does not end after graduation. Many alumni still tune in to the station, donate every year during Radiothon, and come back to campus during Alumni Weekend and Homecoming to host shows with current student DJs.

“We’re an eclectic group of people, but we can all bond over this love for WVUM and for music,” said Vélez. 

So despite the plethora of different academic disciplines, musical tastes, and cultural backgrounds of its members, for 50 years WVUM has created a niche community on campus for the artsy eclectics—and they are dedicated to seeing that legacy continue.