Around 2 p.m. on March 7, 1988, the University of Kentucky college radio station WRFL 88.1 first bounded onto the airwaves, with the track “C’mon Every Beatbox” by Big Audio Dynamite, a British group started by the ex-guitarist and singer for The Clash, Mick Jones. That first song marked a passageway for an alternative media outlet that has doubled as an iconic cultural concourse for many in Lexington over the past 25 years.
“A group containing punks from The Clash and rasta guys? With electronics? And sampling?? And turntablism?? Crazy. Unheard-of!” Mick Jeffries wrote in an e-mail recently (tongue planted firmly in cheek). Jeffries was one of the station’s first student directors in the late ’80s, and is currently the host of the station’s Thursday morning music, talk and trivia show Trivial Thursdays (7-9 a.m.).
The station, which has become well known (and sometimes infamous) among Lexingtonians for it’s diverse and eclectic programming, has certainly traveled a far piece, and continues to set itself apart from not only other local radio stations, but from public and college radio stations across the country.
“WRFL is definitely unique in its broadcasting via a live human DJ, 24/7, every day of the year,” Ben Allen, a former WRFL student director who now serves in a university faculty role as the station’s media adviser, wrote in an e-mail. “Also, the notion of a student managed, volunteer-based, non-commercial, public radio station presents an aesthetic and organizational situation not readily found anywhere else.”
WRFL’s airwaves are manned by over 70 DJs, who alternate 2-3 hour shifts each week with significant free run over what they play – i.e., the station very well might feature free jazz, Bengali folk, black metal, classic rock deep cuts and reggaeton, all in a day’s programming. The schedule features a wide mix of college students and seasoned community DJs, some of whom have been with the station since it’s early days and all of whom are volunteers. It is run almost entirely by a small staff of student directors, who oversee day-to-day duties that range from organizing the station’s massive CD library to keeping the current playbox up-to-date to planning the station-run music and art festival Boomslang: A Celebration of Sound & Art, which enters its fifth year this September.
To celebrate 25 years of providing “all-the-way-to-left” programming, the station will feature special broadcast events throughout the day Thursday, starting with Trivial Thursdays at 7 a.m., which will feature special guests appearances by station founder Kakie Urch and Scott Ferguson, the station’s first general manager. At 2 p.m., the station will play the first track ever heard on WRFL and will dedicate a significant chunk of time paying homage to the station’s first broadcast and favorite tracks played on the station over the years.
And finally, this weekend, on the evening of Friday, March 8 the station will host a free celebration featuring eight local bands – many featuring members who are current and former WRFL DJs – and a bevy of WRFL DJs on the 1s and 2s. Among the acts scheduled are noise pioneers Hair Police, bizarro-themed mystery performance troupe PezHed and psychedelic skater ring Jovontaes. For more info on the event, click here.
Fill disclosure: having spent the past 7 years or so as a volunteer DJ for the station (every 3rd Thursday, including tonight, from 6-8 p.m.), WRFL holds a very special place in this writer’s life. Below: watch a short documentary film about the station by Ayser Salman.