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WMNF 88.5 FM doesn't let size cramp its style

If the Sixties seem like the distant past (actually, we who were there refuse to admit it, but they are the distant past), and you need a reminder of the way things were, drop in at any WMNF event.

Last Saturday afternoon, Tampa's community radio station (88.5 FM) had a "Meet the Building" fundraising party in the vacant lot next to the station's home on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in southeast Seminole Heights.

In the parking lot, a bumper sticker read: LEAVING FLORIDA? TAKE A DEVELOPER!

You have to walk a few blocks on MLK to the studio, because there's no parking there, and you pass Freedom Ministries ("Jesus Will Fix It") and the Imercy Beauty Salon. The rest of the street is mostly small older houses that have seen better days, which could pretty much describe the radio station's current headquarters also.

It's cramped beyond belief _ we're talking single-file hallways _ for a station with a staff of 17 plus 200 volunteers that broadcasts 24/7. Not that size ever cramped its style. The world beat band Bioritmo _ all nine of them _ played live in a performance studio that's about the size of a walk-in closet. And the music library has 45,000 CDs and an unknown number of vinyl crammed into shelves in a warren-like space.

But this day it wasn't the station building that people wanted to see but the building-to-be, a nothing-funky-about-it $1.3-million (WMNF has raised $610,000 so far) space-age structure that will be constructed on the vacant lot next door. The dirt lot was set up _ to scale _ with red tape delineating the rooms in the new "green" building and signs saying "Control Room," "Performance Studio," and so on. But before we could take the virtual tour, we were approached by a young woman with a clipboard in hand.

"Have you signed the pig petition?" she asked.

She was from Floridians for Humane Farms and explained that some pigs are caged in spaces so small they can't turn around (sort of like the staff and volunteers at WMNF).

In the crowd a guy who looked like original Sixties wore a T-shirt that said EXCEPTION TO THE RULERS, probably a politically incorrect thought in today's pro-government atmosphere.

Slogans aside, in fact, WMNF is about our only source not just for some of the strangest and most intriguing music on the air but also for alternative news and opinion. Its schedule is crammed with talk shows including Counterspin (from media watch group FAIR), Radio Nation (from the Nation magazine) and Pacifica's Democracy Now!

News and public affairs director Rob Lorei brings to his show a politically eclectic raft of guests. When WMNF brought Ralph Nader to Tampa, he kicked in a generous sum toward the building.

At WMNF, liberal is not a dirty word. In the station's 2001 listeners survey, 51 percent described their political orientation as "liberal" and 17 percent "radical left." Seventy-three percent have college degrees; of those, 29 percent also have graduate degrees.

So this is a pretty smart bunch, but they're also out for a major good time. These are the people who sponsors Tropical Heatwave, a rabidly popular event with more bands than you can count that has packed 5,000 to 8,000 into the Cuban Club and environs. There are plenty of other events and concerts, like last Saturday night's fundraiser at Skipper's Smokehouse with New Orleans band the Iguanas that, along with the virtual house-warming, brought in about $10,000 for the new building.

But Saturday afternoon the Iguanas played real good for free _ set up in the old building's driveway, the virtual building's breakroom.

It felt good, sitting on scattered folding chairs, on this warm day listening to music. The wall of the old building was set up as a graffiti wall, with writing in pastel chalk.


_ Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.