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No corporate soldiers here

Radio station made up of volunteers

Published: Friday, Aug. 1, 2014 12:30 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Candace H. Johnson - For Shaw Media)
George Buchardt, of Round Lake Heights, and Tracy Spadola, of Chicago, join Paul Lepek, producer and host, on air with his morning talk show, "Lepek and Company", in the studio at 98.3 WRLR in Round Lake Heights.
Caption
(Candace H. Johnson - For Shaw Media)
Paul Lepek, producer and host of the “Lepek and Company” radio talk show at WRLR 98.3 FM at the studio in Round Lake Heights.
Caption
(Candace H. Johnson - For Shaw Media)
Paul Lepek, producer and radio host, on air with his morning talk show, "Lepek and Company," in the studio at 98.3 WRLR in Round Lake Heights.

ROUND LAKE HEIGHTS – You'd think a weekend morning would be a quiet time at a small radio station. But that wasn't the case on a recent Saturday at WRLR in Round Lake Heights.

About 9 a.m., people started streaming into the station to talk shop. In the studio, four men chatted about sports during a weekly program. For a time, the studio door was open. When voices got too high in the lobby, program director Cheryl Dunlap shushed everyone.

Everyone at WRLR is a volunteer.

The decade-old WRLR 98.3 FM has a low-powered FCC license, which is meant only for nonprofit groups. The station, which is in the building that once housed the village police department, is the only nonreligious-based low-powered station in Illinois.

These days, many stations belong to big chains such as Clear Channel. That's what makes ones such as WRLR – whose slogan is "The Voice of Lake County" – so different. Those working for it are hardly corporate soldiers.

On this Saturday, the volunteers gathered for an emergency meeting, which was set to begin at 10 a.m. It would take place in the village board's chambers next door on Pontiac Court. The station's president, Bish Krywko, asked a reporter to stick around.

The station was the dream of Krywko and Bob Powers, now the vice president. Krywko studied to get into radio, but life took him elsewhere. WRLR, he said, gave him the outlet to pursue his first love.

But the station is a work in progress. Half of the building needs renovation, and the upstairs is blocked off. The police department's old holding cell remains, housing radio equipment these days, not bad guys.

'We are community radio, not WGN'

The emergency meeting was called, in part, because of WRLR's financial situation. More than 40 volunteers showed up.

Dunlap began the meeting by saying that everyone there loved the station and wanted to see it grow.

The station needs to mature, Krywko said, adding, "We've just gone through our teen years."

Krywko reported that the station went at least five months with no "substantial" income. Expenses exceeded revenue, meaning the station had to dip into its capital projects fund, he said.

The bank account is now $3,000, up from a dismal $250, he said.

Volunteers said the station needs to find new partners, particularly businesses. But Paul Lepek, who hosts the morning talk show, pushed back.

"Business people may not have our vision," he said. "If you bring in business people, they have to share our vision. We are community radio, not WGN."

At the meeting, Krywko announced that Dunlap was being promoted from program director to station manager.

"She has been doing the work of the station manager. Now, she has the title," he said.

She held back tears.

"Now you can negotiate for raise," Krywko joked.

Her position is still volunteer.

The members also discussed the reach of the station's signal, which the weather influences. Its website says WRLR's signal typically radiates about 25 miles from the station. Some, though, said it only goes about 10 miles.

Krywko objected.

"We cover more of Lake County than we don't," he said.

'A passion for radio since I was small'

In an interview before the meeting, Tech Talk host Michael Kastler knew he was going to miss much of the meeting because his weekly program was set to start at the same time. He came in with his little girl, Olivia. They sat on the lobby's couch, eating McDonald's.

Like the other volunteers, Kastler, who lives in Vernon Hills, is proud of what he does for the station. He has interviewed both Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and Guy Kawasaki, an early Apple executive. He joined the station shortly after it started.

Carolyn Howard, a Texas native who now lives in Ingleside, hosts the late-night "Metal Mayhem" program on Wednesdays.

"I've had passion for radio since I was small," she said.

Stan Konik, a Highland Park resident, specializes in oldies going back to the 1940s – when he was growing up.

"It's relaxing for me to lock up in that room for three hours on a Friday and play my music," he said. "I play the music I want to play."

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