Although FM over-the-air radio is getting a lot of competition these days with digital streaming and podcasts on the internet, WRIU is still sounding strong after 82 years.
Disc jockey, program manager and manager roles at the station are filled with students and volunteers who continue to provide unique programming for listeners in and nearby the University of Rhode Island.
“I love the connection of student and community radio and the impact that a station like WRIU makes on people’s lives locally and globally,” said Toni Pennacchia, who has been active in different areas over the years and is currently involved in music and programming at the station.
She also has coordinated and done rotational hosting of the World Wide Waves program on Sunday mornings and contributed to public affairs programming, including its MergingArts Pacifica Radio regionally and nationally syndicated and the Spoiler Alert Radio program that airs Sunday nights on WRIU.
“Being independent, means we have independent challenges and opportunities on or off the air, from programming, music, technology, and more,” she said about the station these days.
Chuck Wentworth’s 37-year run at the station went from 1978 to 2016 and he was the folk and roots music director and host of a three-hour program every Monday night.
“I established the folk and roots music format of five shows that run every weeknight in the early evening. That format is still in place today. I joined the station to share my love and knowledge of music,” he said.
A Well-Oiled Machine
This FM radio station, 90.3 WRIU, is a well-oiled machine, reaching out to all of Rhode Island, some parts of Massachusetts, Connecticut and sometimes, on a clear day, to the tip of Long Island.
WRIU features an eclectic blend of programming for its listening audience. In addition to the traditional genres of music such as jazz, country, rock, hip hop, reggae, and blues among various genres.
The brains behind the operation are full-time students who form a board of directors. The station is almost entirely student-run, except for some DJs who have been on the air for more than a decade.
Many of the higher-ranking individuals on staff spend upwards of about 30 hours per week in a small room, the station’s headquarters, which is covered in penned graffiti and lined with walls of CDs in the Memorial Union on Lower College Road.
Will Pipicelli, a senior from Colchester, CT, who has been involved since his freshman year and now is the station’s general manager, said that WRIU exists because of a mix of dedicated students and community volunteers.
“We have about 40 students active, and about 35 community members. Adults and community members have that taste in music that is not that easy to find in college students and that would appeal to large audience,” he said.
That appeal is one drawing card that keeps people listening, whether they are from the tri-state region or online through the station’s website at wriu.org.
Students, he said, mostly play a lot of rock and roll, top-40 songs and indie music.
Passion for music draws them to participate, many joining their freshman year and remaining for their four years at URI.
“To be in that studio for two or three hours and express themselves with their music is tremendous freedom,” Pipicelli said.
For sophomore Tina Munter of Madison, New Jersey, this freedom has connected her to friends and new faces at school.
“Starting at WRIU as a freshman at URI, I could come into the studio and do a show on a topic that was interesting to me and though it was broadcast online for anyone who wanted to tune in, I knew that some of my friends and family would be listening and it was almost like I was just hanging out with all of them,” she said.
Jacob Iacobucci said it was his chance to indulge in a passion and interest in music as well as express himself.
“The prospect of having my very own radio show, was a chance to share the music I loved with others under a program that I had complete creative control over,” said the sophomore, who also joined the station as a freshman.
Then there’s also a cadre of long-time community volunteers for whom music and programming interests reverberate from the stations’ airwaves.
Bill Parker has been at the station since 1997. He has been hosting The Children’s Show since that time and hosted a more “cult favorite” sort of show called The Frankie Stein Show.
“Behind the scenes, my slightly nebulous title is ‘Director of Information’ and the title and role has evolved - and increased - over the years, but it started when I was invited to come back about a year after graduating to design the station’s website,” he said.
His duties include running the station website, ensuring the streaming works, maintaining a Federal Communications Commission-required public file, helping manage the station’s annual fundraiser and creating “how-to” materials, he said.
“I wanted to join WRIU because as a high school student, there was a clear distinction between what non-commercial WRIU was offering and what compared to, say commercial WBRU, (that are) both local college stations,” he said.
“I sought out schools with non-commercial, student-run, real community stations (of which now there are sadly far fewer), but ultimately, I’d already fallen in love with WRIU, so I went to URI.”
Another long timer is Erika Huntley.
“I have been at the station as a volunteer for 17-plus years as a DJ for ‘Jazz Journey’ and one week a month as DJ ’R-I-K’ on World Wide Waves. I love music and enjoy the input of my listeners. It is a pleasure to share music that could easily be forgotten or not heard,” she said.
Tish Adams, who said she’s been at the station for “25 years and counting.” She’s the host of “The Vocalists and Localists Show.”
“I play vocal jazz - past, present, up and coming - and local jazz (that is) vocal and instrumental-famous and not,” she said she said, adding that she also lets listeners know about New England’s live jazz events and does occasional live interviews.
“I love doing my show! I’ve discovered songs and artists that I may never have learned of. On a more selfish note, my on-air presence has also enhanced my live jazz career. I’ve acquired new fans, increased the number of members on my email list and even gotten Live gigs, due to call in’s to my radio show,” she said.
For old timers or newcomers, the benefits are enormous for having the station and helping produce programs that keep it on the air.
“You can’t measure the worth of community radio or a radio station affiliated with a university if you only look at it as a way to train people for ‘viable careers,’” said Laura Travis who joined the station in 1982 at Wentworth’s invitation.
URI graduate William Berry, while a student and afterwards, co-hosted from 2010 to 2016 in the 9 a.m. to noon rock/freeform slot a show called “The Killa B’s Three-Hour Radio Hour.” It consisted of rock, indie, folk, and a smattering of other genres.
“Our music blocks were always punctuated with banter and laughter. With a spirit of an open revolving door, our program played host to more than 40 different ‘co-hosts,’ all of them friends and family that got to share the microphone with us,” he said.
Allan Lawton, who has been a DJ at the station for 34 years, pointed to the overall experience that students get by learning to get along with other staff members, follow the rules of the business, deal with the public and manage time.
“(It) involves learning and understanding principles of community service, and of seeing and being a part of the bigger picture, what you can achieve and benefit from, more than just “Yo, dude, I’m on the air!,” he said.
Being live on the air, getting people’s attention and responses - good and bad - as well as developing a popularity in a universe of listeners are the contagions that come when the radio bug bites someone.
Current URI student Iacobucci said that he feels very lucky to be able to be active at the station year-round and connect with listeners who tune in.
“Having that creative freedom to develop something all your own and then hearing positive responses to it is the best feeling in the world. Being a DJ, and board member at WRIU is something inseparable from my college experience and something I wouldn’t trade for anything,” he said.