What started as a lab experience for students in the Department of Broadcasting has been rockin’ Knoxville and giving UT students hands-on experience for four decades.
First known as Album 90, WUTK 90.3 FM started out playing a mix of alternative rock and jazz. Todd Steed—now music director of UT’s public radio station, WUOT—was then a local music icon as guitarist and vocalist for Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes and other bands that drew crowds to hangouts like the Library and the Pilot Light.
“I had been working at WUTK for about a year and was promoted to music director,” says Steed, “not due to any particular skill set but more likely because I had basically moved in. This was a dream job because every day a bag full of albums would arrive just waiting for someone to listen to them. At that time, the format was smooth jazz and assorted indie music shows. There wasn’t a single person on that staff who liked smooth jazz, so one day I went in to the station manager and said, ‘I think we should change the format!’ He said, ‘You can’t do that without a written proposal.’ So I went home and wrote one. The response was ‘OK. Do it.’ That was that. It was like a dog chasing a car and catching it: what do we do now? The next day we changed the format to indie–alternative.”
Steed and the other DJs started playing songs by local bands. Some were demos on cassette tapes. “Anything by a local band got into rotation, and heavy rotation,” says Steed. “WUTK New Rock 90 became the musical tastemaker—local music’s best friend,” inspiring dozens of groups. Some, like the Judybats and Superdrag, got major record contracts. “WUTK didn’t have the most watts, but we had the most fun, no doubt,” says Steed.
In 1985 Professor Sam Swan became the new head of the Broadcasting Department. “We integrated WUTK into the academic mission of the department by requiring all students in their first few courses to work at the station,” says Swan, now professor emeritus. “For many years, every broadcasting major worked at WUTK-FM as part of their program—some in news, some in production and programming, and some in sales and management.”
Benny Smith, now WUTK’s general manager and program director, walked into the studio as a sophomore in 1985. “I knew when I set foot in this place, it was over,” he says. “This is where I would be.” And so he was. His WUTK preparation prepared him well for his career at local stations.
In the early 90s, WUTK upped its power to 1,000 watts, covering a 30-mile radius around UT and showcasing a new generation of indie performers.
“I heard all this music that I’d never heard before,” says Christina Horn of the innovative Hudson K. “It changed the course of my life.”
In 2004 Smith returned to WUTK as part of an effort to upgrade its business model to match its ever-vital programming: “We offer something that no one else in this market provides, and that’s an eclectic musical mix,” said Smith in a podcast interview with student DJ Gus. “We play local music, new music, and a variety of genres in between. We have specialty shows devoted to hip-hop, grunge, Americana, classic rock, and alternative rock. That gives us an incredible spread—socially, culturally, and politically—all of which is expressed through our music.”