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all photos Eva Gray/Catalyst

In mid-October, WSLR ,“Sarasota’s Own Community Radio,” made the long-anticipated move from an unsuspecting house on Myrtle Dr. to a full-fledged community space at 525 Kumquat Ct.

WSLR’s board of directors seriously considered a location on Central Ave., but Kumquat won out in the end. “We really liked this space for a number of reasons,” station manager Arlene Sweeting recounted. “It is right downtown, it’s easily accessible to a lot of different areas – basically, the outdoor patio space really sold us on the building … and the set-up, the structure of the building was such that it was easily adaptable, we thought, to our needs.

“We bought the building in Aug. 2010, and we thought we’d be in in two months,” she laughed. “But it was in bad shape, structurally … we basically had to steel reinforce the entire building so it wouldn’t fall down. That was supposed to take one month, but it took five months.”  And that just was phase one.

Phase two, as Sweeting described, was getting the studio remodeled and the process of moving in. While the actual move-in still happened a couple weeks later than hoped for, “we’re here now and we’re already realizing the potential for this space just in terms of the number of people who are coming into the front door and checking us out,” she said. “The sound is better, all the programmers are real happy with that … and there’s central air, but it doesn’t get into the studio real well … so there’s still things that have to be done, little by little.”

Phase three will be developing the backside of the building as a community venue.  Sweeting described that the current goal is “to do as little as possible to get the space open and make it comply so we can open the doors and do things there.”

WSLR’s origins date back to 2000, when a low power FM license became available in Sarasota. Five different organizations put in an application to the Federal Communications Committee (FCC), including a group called the Sanctuary, a number of church groups, and the New College Student Alliance (NCSA.)

After having joined the board of the Sanctuary, Sweeting and partner, David Beaton, decided to merge the application with the NCSA. New College obtained the construction permit in 2004, and then started an 18-month countdown to get on the air. WSLR was formed as a 501(c)3 non-for-profit, and board members included both students and those of the community.

Two weeks before the deadline, building owners did not approve of the expected location for the antenna (a 15-story bank downtown). After a community work-weekend, a 35-ft. antenna was erected in community member John Craner’s backyard.

18 months after that, the station’s antenna was moved to a 187-ft. tower, which WSLR rents, located behind a strip mall on Bahia Vista and Beneva.

“Technically, we’ve been illegally operating out of the location at Myrtle because it’s zoned as residential, it wasn’t meant to be a long-term situation,” Sweeting described. “Everybody knew we were there, the neighborhood association was really supportive of us, they didn’t want to see us move … all the city commissioners had been there, people saw that it was a good thing in the neighborhood, because what used to be there was not good for the neighborhood. It really did used to be a HUD house a lot of drug dealing and prostitution … Just having [the station’s] presence there was good.”

Although the station began with New College, these days “we’ve had trouble getting student positions, even on the board,” she said. However, there are currently four student programmers, and there is always a space reserved for a New College student on the board.

New College thesis student and WSLR programmer Kelly “Kefira” Baron started volunteering at the station two years ago. “I grew up in Miami where they didn’t have a community radio station, and I liked the fact that there was one here, it provides a lot of ways for people to socialize and connect with each other,” she said. “They do a lot of good work for the community and it’s a very positive environment.”

Baron, whose show, Sounds and Zounds, features music of “all different genres… funk, jazz, soul, rock, and modern stuff.” She emphasized the benefits of student participation, “Students should get more involved, since it’s run by the people who are involved, it’s a great experience and you meet a lot of cool people.”

The station is run almost 100 percent with the effort of volunteers. The only paid staff members are Sweeting and two grant-funded student interns, thesis student Elizabeth Bennett and this correspondent.

“My favorite part is helping out the programmers,” Bennett said. “Meeting new people, meeting real people – sometimes it’s nice to get out of ‘the bubble.’”

“I manage my time better when I have something to do,” Bennett said, referring to working several odd jobs while thesising. “And [here] I get to talk with people about my thesis, and they all think it’s really neat. When you talk to people about archeology they think it’s really cool … it’s a good way to trade stories with people.”

The station’s existence is dependent on the coexistence and cooperation of community listeners, neighbors, volunteers and donors. The weeklong biannual fund drive took place this month. The goal of $28,500 was surpassed by $1,200, which will help see some of the proposed sustainability projects through in the backspace, like planting a garden and making use of rainwater collected by donated cisterns.

WSLR’s programming is directed towards a community audience of diverse interests, viewpoints, and music tastes. Shows range from talk shows addressing health and women’s issues, to music shows spanning the taste spectrum from experimental to du-wop to bluegrass.

Sweeting described what keeps her so dedicated to the station and its goals. “We have incredible people … It’s nice to be with people who enjoy what they’re doing, well they’ve got to enjoy it or they wouldn’t be doing it because they’re all volunteers! We really believe that community media can make a difference, and we’ve seen it make a difference… in the lives of the individual programmers and for youth to realize they have a voice in the community.

“I think we’ve built a really strong community, and I think this space will allow that to be even stronger,” she concluded.

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