Rollins College students weren't expecting a decision on the fate of their beloved radio station, WPRK, for several weeks. Instead, Steve Neilson, dean of student affairs, pulled eight of the station's directors into his office Feb. 1 and gave them the news: After much angst, contention and debate, WPRK would remain an independent station, run for the most part as it was, by a team of student-managers.
Students affiliated with the station were naturally ecstatic. "It's great, great news," says Amanda Colbenson, WPRK's program director. "It's something that has been our main focus for the past six or seven months. Now it's paid off. The station is independent, and that's what we all wanted."
Since last summer, Rollins administrators had considered turning management of WPRK (91.5-FM) over to a professionally-run station, WMFE, one of two National Public Radio affiliates in Orlando. WMFE had proposed to upgrade WPRK's equipment and provide management consultants in exchange for WPRK's daytime programming hours.
WPRK supporters rallied around their station, confronting WMFE board members at a July meeting in which the college group all but accused WMFE trustees of corporate imperialism.
Last fall, in an effort to find middle ground, administrators considered a proposal from a Tampa public radio station that broadcast a different, more contemporary format than WMFE.
In the end, administrators decided to keep WPRK in students' hands mainly because of the heartfelt stories students had told them.
"I came to realize that first and foremost this is a student organization, not a radio station," says Neilson, who called the station a "laboratory for leadership."
Neilson also liked that more students had become involved at PRK. The number of students working at the station doubled from 16 to 32 since last spring.
Neilson's decision to leave WPRK independent, which was accepted by Rollins President Rita Bornstein and the college's board of trustees, does come with strings attached.
The college will soon hire a permanent, full-time general manager, whose first duty will be to define what the mission of the station will be. Once the mission is defined, then secondary goals and benchmarks will be established.
Administrators have given the station a deadline: three years. Then the college will re-evaluate WPRK to see if it has achieved its goals.
Rollins administrators would also like to see more college-related programming. WPRK has recently begun broadcasting Tars basketball games and Rollins-sponsored debates.
Neilson believes WPRK should take more steps to brand itself as a college station and less of as a community station such as broadcasting lectures or faculty discussions of theater openings and other cultural events.
Students have no problem with Neilson's suggestions. They'll continue to work on building a Rollins identity while they work on their Save WPRK campaign. The grass-roots group hosts music events at the Kit Kat Club and Sapphire, with proceeds going to an endowment fund earmarked for the station.
It's part of a renewed enthusiasm for WPRK, which turns 50 this year.
"So many people were supporting us, telling us, 'We have to get through this,'" Colbenson says. "And we did. It's a great relief."
Adds Neilson: "It was an interesting process. It's not the one I would have predicted, but I think it's the right one."