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As WMNF-88.5 turns 30, the feisty station's loyal fans wonder: Will any young listeners take up their cause? - Eric
Published Sep. 11, 2009

Rob Lorei has a dream.

It's a simple one, shared on a recent Saturday with about 250 of his closest friends, piled into the posh eatery Maestro's above the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for WMNF-FM 88.5's First Annual Peace Awards.

"In 1986, Oliver North helped sell arms to Iran," said Lorei, the smooth, radio-ready vocals he usually employs leading the station's midday talk shows rising to a more urgent pitch. "There ought to be an arrow that pops up, every time he goes on Fox News. Imagine if, every time he went on his show, an arrow popped up saying, 'This guy sold arms to Iran.' "

North should be very afraid. Because when Lorei chased a dream 30 years ago, he and a few friends walked the streets of Tampa for a year, begging strangers for donations to build something entirely new:

A community-supported radio station.

Three decades later, as WMNF's longtime news and public affairs director, Lorei stood before a crowd that paid $75 a head to scarf down catered food, take in a concert by Steve Earle and fete a list of honorees ranging from novelist Connie May Fowler to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers farm laborers group.

"I felt so alone 30 years ago, suddenly WMNF comes along and I find I'm not such a freak anymore," said Fowler, an award-winning novelist who echoes a story you'll hear from many a WMNF fan. "Suddenly, I'm part of a community."

It's a community that officially convened on Sept. 14, 1979, when a small band of stalwarts first fired up WMNF's signal at 88.5 on the FM dial - beaming from a Hyde Park house so dilapidated, it eventually was featured in a local TV station's expose of decaying buildings.

These days, the group has slightly better digs: a $2 million-plus, 13,000-square-foot studio built in 2005 and funded mostly with listener donations. Drawing an audience of more than 100,000 people each week with a budget of about $1.6 million, WMNF has earned status as one of the country's strongest community radio stations. And along the way, it has become an institution - perhaps the one outcome its founders didn't quite expect.

"Even we weren't sure we were going to pull it off," said Lorei, 54, who came to Tampa straight out of college in response to an ad in Mother Jones magazine, unaware he'd be soliciting donations door-to-door to pay his own $62-a-week salary. "I thought I'd do this for 10 years and maybe go to law school."

But what happens if one of the station's biggest assets - its long list of graying, long-tenured volunteers - also clouds its future?

Loyal listeners, but for how long?

Lorei remembers WMNF connecting with its audience from the start, when their first fund drive netted $23,000 - an amazing amount for a station with no air conditioning and windows kept wide open, occasionally forcing DJs to just stop talking when a truck roared by.

Randy Wynne, a 24-year WMNF veteran and longtime program director, cited the station's wide broadcast footprint; a 70,000-watt signal snapped up before real competition began for FM frequencies.

Despite a wildly eclectic weekly lineup of shows supervised by a horde of longtime volunteer programmers - is there another radio station within 100 miles featuring a polka show, a Celtic music show and a number of R&B shows on the same channel? - each program seems connected to its own enthusiastic constituency.

Stories of WMNF fan loyalty are the stuff of legend. In 1997, when state Sen. John Grant got a $104,000 grant yanked from the station, listeners ponied up $122,000 to replace it in less than two days.

When a consultant suggested station management find a few big donors to kickstart fundraising for the new studio, former station manager Vicki Santa developed an alternative; asking 1,000 supporters to donate $1,000 each, Wynne said. Eventually, 1,700 people stepped up.

"People really stick around and give the station stability," said Wynne.

But Wynne knows the flip side of that coin. The station's median listener age is 50 and it can take a new volunteer two years to see a new show proposal reach the air. The army of devoted listeners who pay to support the eclectic programming make it tough for shows that might reach a casual listener to survive, as younger-skewing sounds such as electronica and hip hop are pushed to late hours.

Worse, younger listeners don't have the same bond with radio. Raised with iPods and streaming audio, this generation didn't spend its adolescence waiting by a tiny transistor radio for their favorite song - and may not have much patience for a station dominated by fiftysomething boomers.

"There's too many different Web sites out there," Wynne said. "If that ever replaces radio ... The long-term future is kind of a question."

The spirit moves forward

Piled on station manager Jim Bennett's cluttered desk at WMNF, is a reminder of the huge shoes he's filling: a stack of battered, old 45 records with Santa's name stenciled on the side.

Santa, known as WMNF's "heart and soul," died in December. The next month, Bennett, 57, headed east after nearly 30 years at the country's first community radio station, KPFA-FM in Berkeley, Calif., to succeed her.

The problems were daunting: A tanking economy had hurt contributions enough last year to force $90,000 in budget cuts.

But Bennett has cooked up an ambitious slate of new projects, including the Peace Awards, a new secondary HD radio channel that debuted Sept. 5, simulcasting USF's student-run Bulls Radio station and a third HD channel coming in January featuring public affairs programming.

Bennett expects to finish this fiscal year with a $10,000 surplus. And he's hopeful technology will provide extra channels for new programming and a way to engage young volunteers.

"For us to have a future and be relevant, we have got be in as many forums as possible," he said.

"When you have lots of choices, it's easy to take what you have for granted. Here, people don't take WMNF for granted."

Contributing: Carolyn Edds.

Five key moments in WMNF history

Sept. 14, 1979: The first broadcast from the station.

May 22, 1982: The first annual Tropical Heatwave concert, inspired by the Artists and Writers Ball in Ybor City. The event featured seven local bands and a Carmen Miranda look-alike contest, raising $10,000.

May 1987: The station offered gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Iran Contra hearings before the age of 24-hour TV newschannels, starting a trend which included confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.

April 30, 1997: The 28-hour fundraising marathon to replace a $104,000 grant yanked by state Sen. John Grant after hearing an Iris DeMent song on WMNF. Fans gave more than $120,000.

Feb. 1, 2005: WMNF moved into its current, 13,000-square-foot digs.

Happy Birthday, WMNF

The station's 30th anniversary concert begins at 6 p.m. in The Ritz, 1503 E Seventh Ave. Tampa, with artists including Paul Thorn, Samantha Crain and Midnight Shivers, Barely Pink and Sarasota Slim. Get details on Page 29. Tickets are $20. (813) 247-2555.