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WVIK gives a public alternative

ROCK ISLAND -- WVIK is a public radio station, but that doesn't mean it always plays what the public wants to hear.

At 90.3 FM, the Quad-Cities' only classical music station -- and the only radio station in the area locally owned and professionally operated -- has a different mission, even compared to other public-radio formats.

``What we're trying to do is open doors for people, take them from where they are to someplace better,'' Don Wooten, WVIK's general manager, said. ``By listening to WVIK, you should be a richer person.

``We're trying to change people's lives. You can't do that if you say, `What do you want to hear?' and then play it,'' he said.

However, the station does play requests from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays.

``The big thing is, you don't let serving a mass audience become a driving force,'' station manager Lowell Dorman said. ``If your goal is a mass audience, you end up with the lowest common denominator and music that's not terribly exciting, not a lot of new, adventurous things.

``We try to play things people haven't heard, interest them in different pieces,'' he said.

Mr. Dorman worked in commercial radio for more than 20 years before joining WVIK when it was professionally launched in 1980. He said commercial radio is driven by ratings and stifles all creativity.

Unfortunately, public radio nowadays is influenced more and more by ratings and reliance on National Public Radio programming, Mr. Wooten said. NPR wants individual stations to primarily play its offerings, with scant locally generated fare.

However, funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to WVIK has dropped by $90,000 over the past three years, while the cost of national programs continues to rise -- and CPB offers more money to stations with high ratings, Mr. Wooten said.

``That is exactly the wrong way to go in public radio,'' he said. ``It seems to me a public radio station owes its community something other than just being a conduit for national programming. We try to be a vital presence in the community.

``We do local news that has the same substance and style as the national news. We promote our cultural market all day long, and we do social service in reading for the visually impaired,'' Mr. Wooten said.

WVIK programs offer a stunning variety of choices -- from the worlds of classical music, jazz, folk, opera, Broadway, film and ballet, as well as news and public-affairs shows that examine local, national and world issues.

``I want our classical-music listeners to pay attention to the real world and our news junkies to wake up to the glories of classical music,'' Mr. Wooten said, noting that he's been asked to broadcast all news or all music.

The station also offers off-air special events, such as an annual London tour, sponsoring opera films and a ``Presenters'' newspaper page that promotes local cultural groups.

``We're always looking for ways to increase people's knowledge and appreciation of the arts,'' Mr. Wooten said. WVIK even has a local program on the visual arts on Thursday evenings.

Mr. Wooten and Mr. Dorman are on the air every day, which Mr. Wooten feels is very important as ``administrators.'' Mr. Dorman is on weekday mornings, while Mr. Wooten is on during the noon hour with theatrical and light classical music, Friday nights and Saturday mornings with interviews, and late Saturday nights with jazz.

``Most managers get on the air only at fundraising time,'' Mr. Wooten said.

``The whole operation seems as natural as breathing,'' he said. ``It has a nice rhythm all its own. But the thing about radio is, it never stops. You finish one program and think, my God, I've got another one coming up.''

``Radio has a voracious appetite. It's day in and day out,'' Mr. Dorman said. ``It takes a little getting used to.''

``My biggest satisfaction is turning on the radio and hearing a radio station you're proud of,'' Mr. Wooten said. He has received letters that are ``profoundly moving'' about how WVIK has affected people.

``There's a quality in classical music that can't be found in any other form of music,'' he said. ``It's expression of spiritual richness and nobility, the things that really count.''

``I think it's just knowing that I'm part of making available, for anybody who wants to come and find it, the world's greatest music,'' Mr. Dorman said. ``It's not carrying a torch or proselytizing.''

The biggest change in the station's history was the move to broadcasting 24 hours a day, from 18, in 1983, Mr. Wooten said.

A big change over the past year was the station's move from the old biology building at Augustana College in Rock Island to a new state-of-the-art broadcast center on 38th Street, on the college campus.

The new quarters are 500 square feet smaller, but the station has two more studios, a larger library and more storage space, Mr. Dorman said. The station has more than 6,000 CDs.

``It was actually designed to be a radio station. That makes a big difference,'' he said. ``It's just a lot easier to work in. Things go more smoothly.''

Mr. Wooten also has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for another frequency on the dial, in part because two other stations have applied for it but are not planning original or locally generated programming. Mr. Wooten envisions devoting much of the second station, if approved, to folk and jazz.

-- By Jonathan Turner (January 22, 1998)

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