Forced to find their own funds, N.C. State's college radio station expands its audience and ambitions | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Forced to find their own funds, N.C. State's college radio station expands its audience and ambitions 

Studio kids: The audacious leaders of Raleigh's WKNC 88.1 FM.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Studio kids: The audacious leaders of Raleigh's WKNC 88.1 FM.

Derek Torres surrenders the first song of the biggest set of his life for the radio station that inspired it.

Standing at center stage of the Cat's Cradle on a recent Friday night, Torres pushes the buttons that produce one long, sustained tone. "Well, it's a tired summer morning/And the days are so long," he sings, his voice gasping and fighting above the major chord roar.

Though Torres recorded and released this song nearly three years ago under the band name T0W3RS, he has never played it onstage until now. Called "Summertime," it's actually a cover of a tune by Lonnie Walker, T0W3RS' eventual labelmates and, when Torres decided to record the number, one of the most exciting young acts in North Carolina.

"Summertime" has never really fit into Torres' own set, but he says he owes tonight's performance to WKNC 88.1 FM, the student-run radio station of N.C. State University. This show is the first night of the station's Double Barrel Benefit, an annual fundraiser that has allowed WKNC to become one of the most aggressive arms of outreach for local music in North Carolina. Without WKNC, Torres insists, not only would he have never recorded "Summertime," but T0W3RS might not exist at all.

In the summer of 2011, Torres had just finished If All We Have Is Time, the album that eventually became the band's debut. But he had no idea how to release or promote it, no special secret by which to transcend the static of another anonymous local band making yet another album. One afternoon, as he was riding in the car, WKNC played Lonnie Walker's "Summertime," a bustling and deranged seasonal anthem. Beneath the acoustic guitars, Torres imagined a roaring drone in the key of C. He began pounding out a new rhythm on the dashboard. In three days, he'd finished his cover and uploaded it to the music-sharing service Bandcamp.

WKNC started to spin "Summertime" the next day; suddenly, people started to request more music from T0W3RS.

"It's invaluable," says Torres of the support that WKNC has given not only to T0W3RS but to the surrounding music community, too. "No other radio station is doing things like this."

Perhaps the scene sounds rather insular and self-congratulating—a musician playing a song inspired by a radio station for a crowd gathered by the same radio station to raise money for themselves. But, remember, this crowd of 500 is the biggest for which Torres has played; the most he can draw for his own headlining shows, he calculates, is about 100. And as he admits onstage between songs, all beaming and breathless, "This is the best lineup I've ever been a part of. Thanks, WKNC. You're killing it."

Torres is a piece of the roster for the 11th Double Barrel Benefit, which WKNC launched in 2004 to raise funds for necessary station improvements. These annual fundraisers have allowed them to build an increasingly well-equipped local music flagship.

They've got a portable studio, and their 25,000-watt signal, subsidized by funds raised at a Double Barrel Benefit, is 10 times more powerful than that of the area's next strongest college rock station, Duke University's WXDU. The transmitter sends their sound more than 50 miles outside Raleigh in every direction. They're expanding into online video. Their programing mixes the new with the old, the local with the international.

"We're trying to reach all different kinds of people," offers station manager Bri Aab. "It's not just the nerdy kids that come into KNC all the time."

If your image of college rock radio consists of kids mumbling into microphones about obscurities, WKNC hopes to shatter the preconception. At the Cat's Cradle, Aab—an ebullient 21-year-old senior, who currently interns at a record label and a rock club—bounds through the crowd, doling out bumper stickers and matchbooks to attendees. Accompanied by the station's staff, she climbs onstage to shout out winning raffle ticket numbers.

WKNC's unlikely extroversion stems, at least in part, from financial necessity: The station is part of N.C. State Student Media, a school-funded organization that manages a biweekly newspaper, a daily newspaper, a yearbook, a literary journal and the radio station itself. Of those five entities, WKNC operates on a median budget of nearly $60,000 per year. Aside from the self-sustaining Technician newspaper, however, they are the only one to support themselves primarily through funds they raise and not through a paltry student fee collected alongside tuition. (That's at most $19.20 per student, split several ways. WKNC receives only about 20 cents of that.) Their projected 2013 budget hinged on raising $10 for every $1 they received from the university. In Chapel Hill, WXYC's budget is the inverse: Nearly 90 percent of the station's $51,000 budget arrives via student fees.

"People really align us with N.C. State athletics, which probably just bought Chick-Fil-A for the whole school because we scored a point," Aab quips. "The university gives us some money, but it's specifically to pay for licensing fees."

FCC licensing fees, of course, only afford you the right to be on air, not the cost of the people who put your programs together, the equipment needed to broadcast them, or the promotional force required to tell people they exist.

To cover the gap, WKNC has gone from merely resourceful to outright entrepreneurial. The Double Barrel Benefit is just one arm of the station's bootstraps-style fundraising and promotional strategy. They continue to generate revenue through proven methods, such as turning over large chunks of airtime to Wolfpack baseball and women's basketball broadcasts. Nonprofit status won't allow them to sell advertisements, but they can, much like NPR, solicit sponsorships, in which businesses pay for short air spots where the station noncommittally thanks them for support.

And as a rule, they avoid the charitable pleading of telethons: "We don't do the drives that you hear on NPR, where you tell people to call in for two days," says the station's program director, Michael D'Argenio. "Our way of doing that is asking for money but giving people great nights of music in return."

Indeed, during the last decade, WKNC has steadily grown into the business of concert promotion. For the first time, the Double Barrel Benefit spans two weekends and moves from small or mid-size rooms to the much larger Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh and Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.

That risk—spending money to book headlining acts in some of the area's marquee venues, especially one outside of your comfort zone like the Cradle—made Aab and her crew anxious, but WKNC has been building to this point for a decade. Since 2007, they've co-promoted a series called Local Band Local Beer at the downtown bar Tir Na Nog; on Thursday nights, several regional acts play a free gig. The groups keep a cut of the bar's take, as does the radio station in return for the use of its promotional engine. The series has helped WKNC foster the imprimatur of a tastemaker, a clearinghouse for upstart North Carolina acts.

And they've steadily parlayed that success into even more concerts: Their long-running program "The Post-Rock Block," which focuses on moody and largely instrumental music, has begun presenting weeknight gigs at the shotgun bar Slim's. When the weather agrees, WKNC ends the school week with a lawn party just outside their office in the middle of campus. Students drift by and, Aab hopes, take a seat on their way between their classrooms and cars. The station's staff doesn't shy away from its ambition to proselytize on behalf of the music they play.

That inclusive spirit does engender some criticism, though.

"A lot of people probably consider us the less hip of the three Triangle college radio stations," admits John Kovalchik, a junior who serves as the station's operations manager. "But we try to do it as underground as possible."

The station subscribes to "block programming," in which the days and weeks are subdivided into discreet stylistic sets, where the music is governed as much by genre as DJ idiosyncrasy. That system squeezes a variety of perspectives onto the air, such as the Sunday morning Indian music show "Geet Bazaar" or the five-days-per-week "Local Lunch" program.

But block programming also constrains what a DJ can play. Coupled with a school policy that all employees must be students, those restrictions limit the scope and depth of the playlists. The institutional musical knowledge fluctuates constantly, bowing to the pedigree of whoever is behind the microphone.

"We're just little young 'uns," says Aab. "The kids at KNC like music, but they're doing college, not music. This isn't a field they're going to work in."

Both UNC-Chapel Hill's WXYC and WXDU counteract that novice tendency. One of the Southeast's first freeform stations, WXDU opens its broadcast booth to those who have long since graduated Duke, if they ever attended at all. Many WXDU DJs have worked the station's microphone for a decade.

Students largely control WXYC, though the university does employ a few graduates for managerial positions. The station is aggressively freeform, meaning DJs play almost whatever they want. Its boundary-refuting programming is a point of pride for those who work there. The station's program director, Grant Bisher, explains that his goal as a listener is to have a baseline of neutral tastes, where all music can be approached as having the same aesthetic value. He praises a DJ who, earlier that afternoon, segued the sound of crickets into a heavy metal number.

"What we do, or what we claim to do, is to offer an educational experience in the spirit of the university—full of discovery, a growing opportunity," says Bisher. "The barriers to entry of freeform radio are admittedly pretty high, but we're trying to work to make those barriers nonexistent."

Sitting backstage at the Cat's Cradle, just after finishing his one-man show as T0W3RS, Torres acknowledges both sides of that programming divide. He attended N.C. State, and WKNC represented an on-campus education that he wasn't getting in class. But he lives in Carrboro now, close enough to WXYC's 1,100 watts to pick up the signal. That's the station he generally prefers, because they test his perception of what music might be.

WKNC, though, represents an entrée into independent and local music that's actively pursuing new recruits. That's essential to someone like Torres—and especially evident when he's standing in front of 500 fans for the first time.

"They do a really amazing thing," Torres says. "They get to afford next year now, and I get to play for 500 people."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Extended antenna."

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