Profile: WRFI radio free Ithaca
Behind a closed off-white door on the third floor of the Clinton Building is a large gray carpeted space. The sound of old school music fills the room. On one side of the wall are rows of shelves stocked with music ranging from vintage vinyls to the hard plastic CD cases. There is a small built-in studio, equipped with a number of machines, two computers and dozens of wires running along the floor and connecting each piece of technology to the next. Beyond this main area are several other rooms, all furnished with old yet charming decor that represents the ingenuity of its owners.
This space belongs to WRFI, an independent community radio station for the Watkins Glen and Ithaca areas. Broadcast on 91.9 in Watkins Glen and 88.1 in Ithaca, the station provides local programming 24/7, 365 days a year, ranging from newscasts during the day to live local music shows at night. Community-owned and operated, WRFI is run by local volunteers from the Ithaca area and supported by listener donations.
Prior to the conception of WRFI, a station of the same name existed in 1980 as an unlicensed, underground, community radio station. While the station was short-lived, Felix Teitelbaum, general manager of today’s WRFI, said RFI became an acronym to represent the alternative character of the station: radio free Ithaca. The technical term for RFI, radio frequency interference, means a station’s frequency is not coming in correctly, and Teitelbaum said even this technical term highlights the station’s purpose.
“I think that sort of underlines the sort of subversive intent that, you know, that sort of we started out with or that we like to hold on to at least to some extent, the kind of like alternative to the standard type of broadcasting in the area,” he said.
Following the disbanding of the pirate station, early inceptions of today’s WRFI formed in 2002 as Ithaca Community Radio, after a founding board member re-mortgaged her home to obtain a Federal Communications Commission license for the 88.1 station in Ithaca. The mission of ICR was to create an independent community station in the area, and in 2007 the station received an official license from the FCC. After several years of testing and working to bring the station to full operational standards, WRFI officially went on the air in June 2012 following the completion of its broadcast studio in the Clinton House in downtown Ithaca. The station hosted its first radio fundraising marathon in December 2012, where anybody from the community was welcomed and invited to learn more about the station and get involved.
With no prior radio experience, Teitelbaum said his first exposure to WRFI was hearing a piece of music he knew he would never hear on the radio. He then began getting involved with the station as a late night DJ.
“I came in my first shift from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. and played songs that basically had never made radio before, and never left since then,” Teitelbaum said.
Since WRFI is solely community run and operated, and in addition to hosting their own programs, many of the volunteers shoulder different responsibilities in the upkeep of the station, including helping with outreach, doing computer work, helping with design or the general maintenance of the station. One volunteer is Domenic Gagliano, who hosts a radio show every Sunday night called Grooves Move in Circles, and also serves on the station’s staff advisory committee. A fan of radio himself, Gagliano first started volunteering with WRFI two years ago, and said it only made sense to combine his love of radio and music.
“I love music so you know it makes sense to bring two together, plus you know free-form station right in our backyard here is a pretty rare thing, so it’s a great organization and a great opportunity to make radio,” he said. “It’s basically the one place where you can really express yourself without having that kind of stuff get in the way, whether it’s the music or talk or local issue.”
To reflect the station’s commitment to independent programming, WRFI is a non-profit educational organization, as well as a commercial-free station. However, Teitelbaum said what distinguishes WRFI is that the station does not take underwriting, which is an announcement made on public broadcasting outlets in exchange for monetary funding. He said while the station can accept money and legally mention sponsors, it chooses not to. Instead, the station receives money from grants and local donations, which Teitelbaum said keeps the station free from any type of influence.
“The points of view represented on this station are informed by the perspectives of the people doing the programming, live local people and the choices that we make in terms of syndicated programming,” he said.
As a community radio station, Nicholas Hill, a member of the station’s board of directors, said this aspect in and of itself distinguishes WRFI from other stations in the area, since people in Ithaca are less familiar with community radio due to the bevy of other public stations in the town and its surrounding towns.
“The difference is that community stations are operated by the community on the community’s behalf,” he said. “So we’re not getting funding from a college, we’re not getting corporate funding and we don’t sell underwriting to businesses, so virtually all of our direct funding comes from listeners.”
Another point of distinction is the WRFI mission statement, which Teitelbaum said the station always adheres to when making decisions regarding programming and asking how well the proposed program fits into its mission. Within the mission statement is the promise to always be community owned and operated, promote programs that share local and underrepresented perspectives, and provide the opportunity to learn the craft of radio while serving the general well-being of its community.
WRFI broadcasts a range of content, from left-leaning news during the day to live local music from DJs at night. Democracy Now! and Capitol Pressroom are just two of the many newscasts the station offers, and Teitelbaum said the live local DJs generally try to play music that wouldn’t normally be heard on other stations. While some hosts choose to pre-record their programs, he said volunteers are encouraged to broadcast live.
The radio station also partakes in remote broadcasting, one such example being its live coverage of the Ithaca League of Women of Rollers during their roller derby matches at the Cass Park Rink. Teitelbaum said it is this type of coverage that separates WRFI from other radio stations.
“That’s the kind of unique programming that a community station will bring you,” he said. “You’re not gonna hear that, you might hear college football or something on another local channel, but who’s doing roller derby? It’s kind of a niche thing.”
While most radio stations are either committed to entertainment or news coverage, Hill said the station is committed to both these aspects.
“The mission statement includes the word ‘joy,’ that we’re committed to it. So it’s not meant to be all doom and gloom and bad news. But we also, you know, really look forward to hearing things that they’re musically passionate about or theater or geology or whatever people are interested in broadcasting,” he said. “We’re sort of half eclectic music programming and half news and information and progressive.”
In comparison to the two college radio stations in Ithaca, Cornell University’s WVBR and Ithaca College’s WICB and VIC, Hill said the station can afford to be nonprofessional, in that its programs are not the typical, standard radio programs. For instance, Hill said in past years he has seen a program where teenagers made fake news and another that lasted for a year which was simply the popular role playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.
“There’s room for sort of things that wouldn’t necessarily find a home anywhere else,” he said.
While volunteers contribute to programming and the general maintenance of the station, it is the contributions from listener donations that sustain it. The station’s biggest fundraising event is its annual Fund Drive, which lasts over several days and includes performances from live local bands as well as prizes, all to raise more money for the station and potentially invite locals to volunteer. Teitelbaum said the station has seen strong support from members of the Ithaca community even prior to its official birth.
“Long before the station even opened its doors people were giving money to keep the idea alive and now people are giving to keep the station alive, and that’s been really good,” he said.
WRFI is also committed to educating people on learning the craft, regardless of any prior experience they may or may not have. Both Teitelbaum and Hill said this dedication to teaching allows room for mistakes for beginners and having them learn and improve from their errors.
“We’re trying to get people to learn about radio and the best way to do it is just get in there and turn on the mic and start broadcasting,” Hill said. “So we try and keep the barrier low to getting on and getting your own thing basically.”
As WRFI grows and improves as a station, its dedication to the local community and providing education for those interested in radio continues. For volunteers like Gagliano, WRFI will continue to be a place of community devoid of commercial influence and provide the opportunity to hear different kinds of programs whose perspectives would otherwise go unheard.
“It’s like a real community gathering place essentially for ideas and a great place to express those ideas,” he said. “It’s basically the one place where you can really express yourself without having that kind of stuff get in the way whether it’s the music or talk or local issues.”
Celisa Calacal is a sophomore journalism major who isn’t about to turn the lights out on guerilla radio. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.