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WRFW celebrates 50 years on the air

WRFW has always had a commitment to broadcasting all UW-RF major athletic events home and away -- football, basketball and hockey. Shown are student sportscasters covering a football game at Ramer Field.1 / 2
Mike Norman (front), WRFW's first news director, and Lorin Robinson, station founder and first faculty manager in the station's first studios on the old basketball floor in the basement of North Hall. Photos courtesy of Lorin Robinson.2 / 2

River Falls area residents have been turning the dial to 88.7 and tuning in to WRFW-FM since the station launched in November 1968. UW-River Falls launched the station on a budget of $9,000.

Lorin Robinson was the station's founder and the first faculty manager. He said there was an effort made to start a radio station at UWRF in 1966, but the project ran into two problems: budget and finding a space that could hold the station.

When Robinson started teaching at UWRF, the university asked him to look into creating a station the next year. Robinson found a location for the station in the basement of North Hall, where the old basketball gym had been. He also proposed a "bare bones" budget.

"I think I came in with a price of $9,000 for the station including the renovation of the station facility," Robinson said. "And $9,000, even then, was not very much money to start a radio station."

Robinson saved money by purchasing primarily used equipment for the station. According to a news release, Robinson and student engineer Al Murray completed the FCC license application paperwork themselves.

When it first started, WRFW-FM was on air from 4 p.m. to midnight every day, as those hours allowed students to get to class, then come operate the station.

88.7 FM broadcast a variety of music, as well as local news and sports coverage. WRFW was also a member of National Educational Radio Network (NERN), the predecessor of National Public Radio.

On its second day on air, Nov. 5, 1968, WRFW began extensive coverage of national, state and local elections, including the Nixon-Humphrey race, Robinson said.

"The station was on the air until 3 a.m. and had 20 reporters in the field located at both party headquarters in Minneapolis, at the county courthouses and city halls to report live results," said Robinson. "Coverage of the state races was provided by the station's UPI wire service."

Robinson said this helped establish WRFW's commitment to news coverage.

"It was the first time local residents had the chance to hear local and state results in real time since Twin Cities media did not provide adequate coverage of western Wisconsin," he said.

WRFW and UWRF conducted a formal listenership survey in the later part of 88.7's first year on air, said Robinson. He said WRFW was the second most-listened to station in River Falls, just behind KSTP-FM at the time.

Over the years the station continued to grow. In 1976, WRFW was relocated to a new suite on the third floor of North Hall, and its antenna moved to one of the school lab farms, giving WRFW a broader range. In 1998, WRFW joined the Wisconsin Public Radio network, and became its far western Wisconsin affiliate.

WRFW, in addition to serving students and the community with news and music, offers journalism and communication students hands-on training.

"What I'm most proud of, I think, of the station's accomplishments over these past 50 years," Robinson said, "is the number of students who have gone on to highly successful broadcasting careers."

Two examples, he said are:

• MPR's Cathy Wurzer, who was on air at WRFW in the late 70s and early 80s. Wurzer is now the morning host of Minnesota Public Radio's "Morning Edition." She also hosts "Almanac," a Twin Cities Public Television program, every Friday.

• KARE 11 TV's Boyd Huppert, who was a member of WRFW staff in the late 70s and early 80s. Huppert has had a long career in broadcast news, and is an Emmy-winning reporter.

Robinson said they are just two of many whose careers began with broadcast training at WRFW-FM.

Celebration

"I'm really happy with the fact the station's lasted 50 years," said Robinson. "In our society things don't often last very long. They come and they go, and that's especially true at universities."

Particularly, he said, with changes in funding and in what academic subjects schools emphasize.

"For the station to have lasted 50 years is quite an accomplishment," Robinson said. "Any institution in our society that lasts 50 years is quite an accomplishment."

WRFW's anniversary year is being celebrated in several ways:

• Station alumnus, current and former faculty will come together Nov. 3 for a 50th reunion and birthday party on campus.

• An interactive exhibit on WRFW's history will open Nov. 1 at the Kleinpell Gallery in the River Falls Public Library lower level during regular hours. There will also be an exhibit of antique and vintage radios on display.

• UWRF will completely renovate the WRFW facility as a "birthday present." A fundraising campaign to upgrade equipment has been started.

Find out more at WRFW-FM at www.wrfw887.com.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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