WUTK 40th anniversary

UT’s college radio station 90.3 WUTK The Rock turns 40 this year. Their “Rockin’ Ears for 40 Years” anniversary slogan headlines a campaign that will be a year-long fundraiser and celebration for one of the most successful college stations in the country.

The “Forty for 40” fundraising campaign, with a goal to raise $40,000 by year’s end for a new transmitter and tower site, has become a reminder of how many local bands have been brought on air over the years and have made their mark by playing their music freely on the station. Not only has WUTK brought up local talents’ big breaks, it has also brought many career opportunities and experience to students throughout its existence.

Over the years, WUTK has won multiple awards such as "Knoxville's Best Radio Station" 2006-2014 by Metro Pulse Best of Knoxville Awards, 2015-2021 Blank Newspaper's Knoxville's Finest Awards, 2015 & 2016 Knoxville Mercury's Top Knox Awards, "Sixth Best College Radio Station in the the U.S." by Value Colleges in 2016 and one of the "Top 20 Best College Radio Stations" in the U.S. in 2020 by Best College Reviews.

Throughout 40 years, dozens of students have come to the station to try something different and have come out of it with a passion and a career at the ready. Being among the top-20 college stations for the last 16 years gives an idea of how the station has impacted the undergrads at UT.

Joseph Bonnano, a junior and associate producer for WUTK’s sports segment, “Rock Solid Sports,” talked about his start at the station.

“Well, my freshman year, when I got a work-study position, I was just kinda looking for something. And I knew I was gonna be into journalism and wanted to look into if campus offered any work-study for journalism,” Bonnano said.

“Someone had mentioned radio so I came down here, and I fell in love with it. I started doing live shifts, voice tracking, and once I was here for a semester and got more comfortable, I was finally put on the sports show — what I originally wanted to go into. And since then, everything’s just been awesome.”

Dylan Becker, a junior and analyst for “Rock Solid Sports,” had a slightly different experience.

“For me, I guess it was mainly being from out of state,” Becker said. “I just wanted to find something to do where I felt welcome. I showed up here one day and Benny was very welcoming. He gave me a live shift and that evolved into a brief stint in the music department before the pandemic. And then I switched to the sports department in fall of last year.”

With all the opportunities WUTK has given students for the last 40 years, it was time to celebrate. Benny Smith, general manager and program director at WUTK, has played a large role in maintaining WUTK’s success. With his vision and passion for radio, he has brought WUTK a long way from where it was 40 years ago.

“So with this campaign, we wanted to capitalize on our birthday, and on 40 years of making a difference, 40 years of placing students into jobs and careers,” Smith said.

Smith, a UT alum who also spent two years after graduation as a non-student volunteer, has been a part of the station for 17 and a half years now.

You know, Mike Keith, the voice of the Tennessee Titans, will tell you he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing now if he didn’t start down here. Ryan McGee with ESPN and SEC Network, and Melanie Hutsell was a member of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast in the 90s,” Smith said.

“We’ve got an amazing list of alumni that we want to make sure to keep that going. We want more alumni for the next 40 years. And to do that, we want to ensure that our signal reaches more places than it’s ever reached before. That our students’ voices are heard in places they’ve never been heard before.”

Though the station is available on multiple streaming platforms, Smith wants to raise another $40,000 on top of their average $175,000 revenue to plant a new off-campus transmitter and tower sight to increase signal even further in the Knoxville area.

At first glance, $40,000 sounds like a large profit to make in just a year based off of donations, but Smith’s underwriting and developing director, Jimmy Holt, has been able to help spread the word and put things into perspective with the thousands of listeners and donors WUTK receives each year.

“I’m basically the fundraising guy,” Holt said. “So we’re not funded by UT in our daily operations so someone has to raise the money by listener donations or our local businesses, national business, that can donate in exchange for underwriting announcements and other things we can provide that remotes on campus.”

“I have been here since December of 2019, so just before the pandemic, and if you’ve ever tried to fundraise during a pandemic, it’s a little difficult. So, luckily things are getting a lot better with more events, festivals and concerts and those sort of things. That’s the meat of our budget.”

Smith also said that there will be special events once a month for the entire year to help raise money for the new tower and transmitter from local sponsors to musical guests. Within the last week, WUTK has already had musical guests get interviewed and do live performances on air.

“If you know anything about us, we like to have fun down here,” Smith said. “And so we’re doing it with events every month, where we’re gonna have fun every month that involve donations and fundraisers for the station.”

WUTK’s next event will be at Merchants of Beer in the Old City on Feb. 22 from 6-7 p.m. They will be relaunching their craft beer show, “Knox on Tap,” and plan to continue it every Tuesday. Smith will be bringing some live music and a few other surprises, as well.

Bonnano said that there will be continuous word of mouth coverage on the station and possible events in some of their segments on their shows, as well. The students want to make it known that this is an environment and opportunity that more people need to be aware of.

“We’re doing a lot of giveaways and a lot of events through fundraising,” Bonnano said. “Being on the air, just kind of promoting and just saying, ‘We’re here. WUTK is a thing. Listen to us. Students come join, come participate.’ And then you know, just being able to be with the community, it’s just those kinds of things that we’re really going to focus on as a whole.”

Bonnano said that WUTK is something that everyone should try at least once. It’s an experience unlike any other that some may not have expected they would enjoy.

“Try a live shift, because you never know,” Bonnano said. “Me personally, I never thought I’d be in radio, I always thought writing or maybe TV was where I was gonna end up at. And when I found radio, I fell in love with it, and this is really what I wanna do with my career. It was just jumping in and actually finding this place and trying is what started it all.”

Becker agreed that it’s worth giving WUTK a shot, especially if you’re looking for something extracurricular.

“Trying new things is better than not doing anything at all,” Becker said. “Because like, I’ve learned a lot of new things since I’ve been here even as simple as … I’ve only ever watched hockey, but thanks to ‘Rock Solid Sports,’ I’m now kind of getting into basketball. I understand football a lot more. You get a better appreciation for things that you’re exposed to while you’re here.”

The numerous students who come to WUTK say they come out with the electronic and social experience needed in the media today, and Smith capitalizes on working with students to better themselves from the moment they walk into the station. He prides himself with the hard work the students put in and how they are the heart of the station.

“(WUTK) allows students to figure out if this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And they’re passionate about it, that’s what this place is for,” Smith said. “That’s why it was put here by people much smarter than me 40 years ago.”

Smith values how much hands-on learning goes with learning in a classroom environment. He encourages students to find something that will give them the opportunity to have something on a resume that will go along with their college degree.

“What we tell students is, ‘You guys read it upstairs, you come down here and you do it.’ Same with The Beacon, same with VFL Films. You know, you gotta have that practical experience to go along with what you learn from our amazing professors, teachers and lecturers in the classroom,” Smith said.

“And that’s what makes you that complete student, that complete graduate when you’re ready. People are more willing to hire you when they know you have the practical experience to go along with the book smarts. So that’s why we’re here, and that’s our number one goal.”

Bonnano shared how he was able to receive the experience within the last two years. He said that anyone can learn how to produce radio with some effort.

“I had no idea how to edit audio, and just by being thrown into it I know how to use Adobe Audition, I know how to run a board in a radio station, I know how to act at press conferences and games and all of that can go on my resume. But it also goes to me, and I can use it whenever I go into a professional field,” Bonnano said.

“You can learn a thousand things in a class, but unless you come down here and actually do it, practice it — I mean, this is better than any class you’ll ever take.”

The 40th anniversary brings time to reflect on all the alumni, the accomplishments and the fanbase of WUTK. Smith said the amount of experience for students available for years to come will now hopefully be extended with the new antennae.

“I mean we signed on Jan. 4, 1982,” Smith said. “You know, we don’t just wanna blow some candles on a cake that day and say we’re done with it. Let’s party all year long, man. We’re on the air all year long, playing new music all the time. And again, it’s very valuable experience for our students. It all goes back to them.”

WUTK staff say it is the place to be for the ultimate hands-on experience whether it’s communicating, being in a studio, learning the business and marketing aspects or learning how to be a part of a team and working with equipment.

WUTK is located in the Andy Holt Tower and is currently looking to recruit more freshmen and sophomores to start building up experience. Even for students who don’t fit that category, the station encourages anyone to stop by and check out their sticker-filled, CD-enthusiast hub and see where all the action happens.

Go to wutkradio.com to see the station’s full schedule, the multiple ways you can tune in and listen to their variety of music chosen by fellow students.

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