Everyone knows that high school students are some of the most ardent radio listeners. More remarkable is the fact that thousands of them actually run their own FM stations at school, carrying on a tradition that began fifty years ago. Actor Harrison Ford honed his skills on a high school station in Illinois. And the writers of Beverly Hills 90210 included school radio in their portrayal of California’s coolest teenagers.
Hundreds of today’s radio and television professionals began their careers covering school sports or playing record dedications between classes.
But high school radio isn’t just for aspiring broadcasters. Teachers and students agree that radio offers valuable lessons for anyone.
“Radio is one of the best ways a school can prepare students for the real world,” according to Brian Werner, former student manager of WHHS at Haverford High School in Havertown, Pa., near Philadelphia.
Werner, who graduated this year, says high school radio allows students to manage “something that most adults don’t even get the chance to experience.”
WHHS has been giving students “real world” experience since 1949. Listeners within ten miles of the school can tune in to “alternative” music, school sports, and a weekly news program “Haverford Happenings.”
WHHS is “completely student-run – except for the money part,” says Werner, who believes radio helps students build confidence. “Talking in front of a mike is much easier than in front of a room full of people, but radio really prepares students for that type of situation.”
Tom Marble, a teacher and adviser for KDXL at St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis, agrees that students gain confidence, plus a strong sense of responsibility and organizational skills from their experience in radio.
“I let kids know that I take this station seriously. If they sign up to do a show, that means they are there on time everyday and prepared.” KDXL, like WHHS, has a modest 10-watt signal but Marble says students know they must follow station rules and the broadcasting regulations. “If they screw up, it could cost us our license.”
High school radio demands a lot from students, but offers unique rewards. “The station has been a bonding activity for students who did not participate in sports or other extra-curricular activities,” reports Marble. “It gives these kids a greater sense of being part of the school. In some cases, KDXL is the only reason at-risk students come to school at all.”
The value of radio is also apparent in Lafayette, Indiana, where teacher Randy Brist directs a 250-watt station at Jefferson High School.
“The most important thing students get out of working at WJEF is learning to work well with others,” says Brist. “There is little room for hot dogs or individuals who want to run the whole show.”
After thirteen years in the job, Brist knows that students sometimes need help dealing with the pressure and responsibility of broadcasting. “In my first year, we broadcast the semi-state basketball final (in Indiana this is like the Super Bowl) and we lost our telephone connection,” he recalls. “The student in the control room yelled s— while his microphone was on.” “I was quite embarrassed, but it was a ‘teachable moment’.”
WJEF, which has been on the air since 1972, is unusual among high school radio stations in shunning contemporary music. The station plays “oldies from the 50’s to the 80’s” and the reason is simple. Because WJEF is only on the air during school hours, students do not have many opportunities to listen. “Our primary audience is the citizens of Lafayette, mostly adults driving around, at work, and at home,” says Brist. He believes students and listeners enjoy the format. “Our community loves listening to students learn on the air.”
Keeping a radio station on the air is a team effort. “Over 100 students were involved with KDXL last year,” says Marble. “By a pure numbers count, it was a more popular activity than any sports team in our school.”
“The ratio of boys to girls is probably four to one,” Marble continues. I believe boys tend to have a natural interest in the gadgetry of radio whereas girls tend to be intimidated at first.”
Brist cites the same four-to-one ratio at WJEF and agrees there may be a “technology wall” for some girls.
Whether or not they are directly involved, however, students can feel pride in their station and the publicity it brings to their school. Being able to relate to people they hear on the air is also appealing.
For a few students, high school radio is more than “life skills” – it is the first step toward a career in broadcasting. Although the working environment can be quite realistic, mistakes are forgiven.
Veteran television anchor Dave Michaels first took to the airwaves on WSHS at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, NY back in 1952..
Michaels, who later worked at CNN and KABC-TV in Los Angeles, fondly remembers WSHS for its emphasis on quality. “Radio dramas were done exactly like they were in New York – sound effects, lots of rehearsals, script marking and phonetics,” he says.
Sometimes, however, lessons had to be salvaged from disaster, as Michaels recalls. “When I was a freshman I had to do a recap of a football game. I diligently covered the side-line, taking notes of the highlights, and then ran back to Radio House. But, when I went on the air, I couldn’t read my notes. So… I made it up.” The incident proved “a valuable lesson” on being prepared.
Michaels also credits his first professional job in radio to an acetate audition disc he made while at high school and sent to a station in North Carolina.
Despite it’s proud record – WSHS was first licensed in 1947 and was a pioneer on the FM band – the station eventually lost momentum and went off the air in the 1960’s.
Another station that has produced a number of professional broadcasters over the years, and is still doing so, is WSHJ at Southfield Senior High School in Detroit. Vic Doucette, a student during the ’70s, says the most important things he learned at WSHJ were “discipline, discipline, discipline.”
Doucette, who has worked at stations in Michigan and Florida, says he was amazed to discover professional radio wasn’t much different from his high school experience. “At WSHJ we ‘worked’ radio. We had a tight format we were expected to follow to the letter.”
High school stations are well positioned to assist students wishing to make a career in radio. Until a few years ago, a student might have done odd jobs at the local AM daytimer, hoping to get some experience on the air. Today, many local stations have little need of staff, thanks to hard disk automation and syndicated programming. At high school stations, however, most of the programming is still “live and local.”
Regardless of a student’s career direction, getting on the air in high school is great fun and a chance to learn how the magical medium of radio really works. “Each high school DJ should consider themselves very lucky,” says Werner.
“Radio is one of the most fascinating activities any school could have,” says Marble. “I certainly wish I had had it when I was in high school. I probably wouldn’t have graduated – on purpose!”
* First published 15 Oct 1997 in the US Edition of Radio World