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Rockin’ Ears for 40 Years: WUTK Celebrates Major Milestone

This year marks 40 years since the radio waves started broadcasting from WUTK 90.3 The Rock, and some things have stayed the same over the last four decades, but a lot has changed.

In 1982, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s brand new radio station was founded by now-retired Professor Sam Swan to provide news and music for students, and to give students a chance to work in a real broadcasting environment.

At that time, WUTK was barely able to broadcast beyond downtown Knoxville, whereas today people all over the globe can tune in via online platforms if they want to catch the variety of shows and music the station pumps out 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Any Volunteer who is feeling a tad homesick can access the station whenever they like, and that includes a plethora of alumni who gained hands-on experience in the WUTK basement studios in the Andy Holt Tower.

A UT Cornerstone

“We have so many alumni all across the country that use this station as a springboard to start their career… We have a wonderful track record, and that’s why it was started 40 years ago,” said Benny Smith, WUTK general manager and program director.

Smith is excited about the year-long celebration of WUTK’s 40 years of existence, and is looking forward to seeing the station’s fans—new and old—at various events it is hosting around Knoxville to commemorate the occasion. These events are also intended to raise funds for WUTK, which is self-funded.

Journalism and Electronic Media Professor and Director Catherine Luther oversees all the operations of WUTK, and she said the real-world experiences students can have at WUTK have been a significant draw for Vols of various majors.

“Although their time at the station might initially be a requirement, I have observed that students soon recognize the value that working at the station brings them and often elect to stay on in their positions at the station even after their class requirement comes to an end,” she said.
Luther also pointed out that many college radio stations are shuttering as media platforms evolve, and she’s proud WUTK continues to exist and provide opportunities. CCI does continue to change with the times and provide students with relevant tools, such as a new space that was built where students can record quality podcasts. She said donations from the community and UT alumni are what keeps the doors of WUTK open so students can continue to benefit from it.

Students with Mike Keith, Voice of the TN Titans

Students with Mike Keith, Voice of the TN Titans

Smith has been working at the station for 17 out of its 40 years, and has mentored hundreds of students who have worked at the station. He can rattle off the names of various College of Communication and Information alumni who worked at the station and have gone on to become leaders in their field including: Mike Keith, voice of the Tennessee Titans;  Heather Haley, Chief Meteorologist for WVLT News in Knoxville; Barry Rice, senior director of broadcasting for University of Tennessee Athletics, and his assistant director, Link Hudson; ESPN writer and sports broadcaster Ryan McGee; and many more. Included on that list was 2020 CCI graduate, Darius Williams, who recently landed an on-air job at Knoxville top hits radio station B97.5.

A Voice for Students

“I think 90.3 gives students a voice. When it comes to communications and media, that’s really what it is, giving people a voice, that’s the purpose,” he said. “It does a lot of good things for students who are interested in the media world, gives them a voice and confidence and a push to go out into the world and do what they want to do.”

Williams credits the many semesters he worked and volunteered at the station with giving him the skills he needed to go out into the real world and realize his dreams. While he was at WUTK, he was able to host the Edutainment Hip-Hop show by his second semester of college, an opportunity he noted isn’t available at every university. He eventually became hip-hop director and scouted opportunities to invite guests on-air and find new music to play.

“It gave me a chance to find myself and my voice and establish myself, just like hundreds of other people who have come through that radio station,” Williams said. “Even if you don’t have an idea of what you want to do and you want to see what it is like, it’s such a great place to find yourself. Because that’s what college is all about.”

Student on air at WUTK

Student on air at WUTK

He also pointed out that the behind-the-scenes work he learned at WUTK was just as valuable as his on-air time. He learned how to communicate with record labels and promoters, how charts work, and how to organize interviews and appearances.





Creating Career Foundations

Lelan A. Statom (’86) joined WUTK about one year after it first went live—in fact, one of the reasons he chose to go to UT was because a recruiter had mentioned the radio station. As a freshman, he became an anchor with the news department, where he would play music and then give a five-minute newscast. Later, he’d go on to be an assignment editor and news director.

“It was fantastic in a way that allowed me a foundation of having live experience with a broadcast. Granted it was a quick five-minute show, granted it was rip and read, but more than anything it put me in the process of rewriting AP stories,” Statom said.

He’d later apply that newswriting experience at various jobs, including as an intern at then-local Knoxville TV station WTVK (now WVLT). The station was so confident in Statom’s ability to write stories that they allowed him to go out with a photographer and write stories for a newscast.

Statom would later go on to work at WATE TV, another Knoxville TV station, and it was there where he was able to start slowly fulfilling a dream to become a weekend weather reporter.

“I had always had an interest in weather and meteorology if you want to go way back to my middle school years I had a little weather center in my backyard,” Statom said.

Landing the weather spot at WATE fueled his passion for meteorology and he would go on to complete a meteorology program and eventually become a meteorologist on the morning newscast for WTF Nashville, where he is also cohost of the station’s “Talk of the Town” show.

“For anybody that is going to communications, broadcast, and especially the multi-platforms we have today, WUTK is a great place to get a foundation in this business,” he said.