Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
When you’ve been traveling the country for almost 30 years visiting broadcast facilities, it’s hard to be surprised. Wherever it is you’re visiting, the odds are there’s been something similar somewhere in your archives at some point.
A university building with a bunch of radio and TV studios in it? Yeah…we’ve seen those.
But when we pulled up to Weimer Hall on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville one morning last September, we weren’t expecting quite as much broadcasting activity as we’d see in the next hour and a half.
Walk in at ground level and you’re peeking into the windows of the TV studios here. The UF journalism students produce a daily newscast here that airs weeknight at 5:30 on WUFT-TV (Channel 5), the PBS station that went on the air from UF back in the late 1950s. It originates from a studio next to an even bigger studio filled with weather stations and green screens – this is the home of “FPREN,” the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network, which provides critical weather information statewide via all of Florida’s public radio stations and streaming video, and which now also provides a similar service to South Carolina public TV and radio. (We’ll see a bit more of FPREN later…)
Moving upstairs, a suite of studio and offices on a corner of the building provides a streetside view for “GHQ,” the student-run radio/streaming service that started here in 2016. It’s heard on the HD3 of WUFT-FM (89.1), on a Gainesville translator at 95.3 and mostly via streaming, where students originate not only radio content but also video and multimedia. That lounge area shown above? It’s also a learning space for students, who get support from Futuri in learning all the digital skills they’ll need after they graduate.
At the opposite side of the building, a curved wall of windows provides a view of the huge football stadium just across the street. This corner of Weimer Hall is the home of “Gatorvision,” where students are getting real-world experience doing sports TV in a control room that does live switching of feeds from the stadium (and other UF venues), much of it fed to ESPN and regional sports networks. (There’s lots of fiber running under the road between Weimer Hall and the stadium, as you’d expect.)
This being Florida, there’s a big sunny atrium (complete with a vintage printing press) that we pass through on the way to the newest part of this complex. The Innovation News Center opened here in 2012, combining all the newsrooms that were scattered around the facility. It’s a 14,000 square foot space on two stories, handling news for WUFT-TV, WUFT-FM and – oh wait, did we mention that UF also owns commercial broadcast stations?
As we mentioned in last week’s installment, UF got into the radio business right away in the 1920s. That original station, WRUF (850), is still here and still going strong, now carrying sports radio for this sports-obsessed town.
“ESPN 98.1/850” (it recently added a translator out at the AM site west of here) has a slick new studio complex just down the hall from the news center, nicely configured for the live college sports shows that originate here in the afternoon and on game days.
The talk studio is completely glassed in, looking out at a larger room that contains not only the usual control room area but also a second pod where students handle all the social media and video streaming that are now an important part of talk radio.
The AM studio looks out to a lobby area for the radio stations, whose hallways are lined with glass cases documenting the long and rich history of broadcasting here at UF.
Turn left down a long hallway and we’re now in the land of WUFT-FM (89.1), the public radio outlet that joined the UF broadcasting family in 1981. This was a big deal at the time, since it was the second FM station at the university, following commercial WRUF-FM (103.7) by more than 30 years.
The WUFT-FM studios extend down the hallway here, including a control room, a talk studio where a pledge drive is underway, and a performance studio that’s the home of “WUFT Classic.”
That’s the HD2 on WUFT-FM and its newer sister station to the west on the Nature Coast, WJUF (90.1 Inverness). It took over full-time classical programming as the main channel of “FM89” evolved into a full-time news and talk format a few years back. For local listeners in Gainesville, “WUFT Classic” also has an analog home – it’s on a 102.7 translator that rebroadcasts the HD2.
(As for WJUF, which signed on in 1995 to serve an under-radioed area that had no other NPR service, it’s mostly a WUFT-FM simulcast, albeit with some local weather and headlines piped in from a separate studio here.)
A glassed-in rack room down the hall includes an entire rack devoted to FPREN, with individual codecs connecting to each of more than a dozen local stations that can tap into the weather resources here when bad weather hits, as it does so often in Florida.
Across the hall is the master control for WUFT-TV (Channel 5), and you’ve probably guessed by now that it’s not the only TV station here, either. WRUF-LD (Channel 10/RF 5) brands as “channel 6” for its cable position; it’s mostly a 24/7 weather service these days, though it was doing a secondary public TV schedule in its earlier years as WLUF.
Heading upstairs, we find the original radio studio complex from when this building was first built back in 1980. After WRUF(AM) moved downstairs, its old studio space was taken over by the radio reading service that originates here; it, too, provides students with basic experience learning how to read copy and use a radio studio. (I think the students shown above were doing their very first shifts in front of the mic the day we stopped by.)
Across the hall is the studio of WRUF-FM (103.7), the huge class C1 commercial signal that dates back to 1948, when it was on 104.1 as more of a proto-public radio station, playing lots of classical and cultural programming. Once WUFT-FM took over that role, WRUF-FM became a rock station through the 80s, 90s and 2000s before flipping to country in 2010.
That’s the last time we’ll see that “Gator Country” studio in analog form; it was getting ready for a digital Axia rebuild when we visited, which gives us a reason to want to get back to Gainesville sometime soon to see the next iteration of this fascinating facility.
(As for transmitters, they’re mostly over at a university-owned tower in northwest Gainesville that’s home to WUFT-FM, WRUF-FM, WUFT-TV and WRUF-LD, plus the 95.3 and 102.7 translators. We didn’t see it on this 2018 trip, but we’d taken some pictures back in 2011 on an earlier Gainesville visit.)
Is there any other university anywhere that gives its students so many facets of real-world broadcasting and media experience under one roof?
Thanks to Rob Harder and Justin Tyler for the tours!
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Next week: Tampa Bay