High School Station Fine-Tunes Students' Broadcast Skills on Air


With a fluid, silky voice, disc jockey Eric Calhoun begins to speak into his microphone as the rhythmic throbbing of the group Tears for Fears draws to an end.

"You're listening to 89.7, KNHS, the rock of Torrance. Oh, yeah," Calhoun intones, blending each syllable with the closing beats of the song.

Nearby, fellow disc jockey Cynthia Ericksen flips the switch on a second turntable. "Sexy" by Klymaxx begins beating through the studio speakers.

Just another day in the life of an FM radio station?


Calhoun is 15. His radio colleagues, all juniors and seniors at North High School in Torrance, range in age from 16 to 18.

The youths are carrying on a 34-year tradition at the school, which boasts one of the few fully operational high school radio stations in the nation.

The Federal Communications Commission does not keep an official count of high school stations, but one woman who has worked in the commission's Washington headquarters for five years said KNHS is the first high school station she ever had encountered.

Although the equipment at KNHS is ancient by today's standards and its signal woefully weak at 10 watts--about one-hundredth the power of many commercial FM stations--its young disc jockeys and their audience ignore those shortcomings.

Parents who can pick up the signal, which often fades within one mile of the campus and rarely reaches beyond three miles, sometimes tape the day's programming for the students to review.

"It's one of the few things on campus that's real," said Carol Shakely, the teacher who oversees the station. "It's really a radio station. We're really subject to the whims of the FCC. We really have to read public service announcements every half-hour. People really can pick it up on their radios."

KNHS has no format, unlike commercial stations, many of which play only one type of music or focus on talk radio or news. Each of six radio classes has four students who provide their own records and do their own programming, usually an eclectic mix of classic rock, heavy metal and rap.

But because the music industry has embraced compact discs and is making fewer records, the station's programming has become slightly dated. KNHS has neither a compact disc player nor a working tape player, so it cannot broadcast some of the latest popular music.

The young disc jockeys hope to figure out soon how to patch a compact disc player into their 1950s console.

Each new crop of disc jockeys learns the art from the previous year's students. After a couple of brief introductory sessions and applying for a broadcast license, the novices are on their own--and on the air.

"We learn by our mistakes," said Nicole Pollaccia, 18, whose mother, a 1970 North High School graduate, also worked at KNHS. "It's a lot of responsibility because we don't have a teacher up here. It's a lesson in real life."

As the students gain confidence, Shakely begins demanding less music and more talk.

"They're very scared at first," she said. "I tell them, 'Nobody is listening. Nobody can see you. You're just talking out loud by yourself.' "

As they get used to working with the microphone during the first part of the school year, the students also must learn to write public service announcements. A federal regulation requires all radio stations to air free notices for nonprofit groups.

By the middle of the school year, the young disc jockeys must shift away from music to begin conducting on-air interviews. At year's end, they produce radio dramas and "discumentaries," detailed histories of rock groups and singers.

Although it is against school rules for students to carry radios on campus, fellow students manage to listen in anyway.

"Saying you can't have a Walkman at school is like the speed limit is 35 and no one does 35," said disc jockey Tom Roach, 17.

The few radios allowed on campus, such as one in the auto shop, and radios at homes surrounding the high school often are tuned to KNHS.

"My mom will listen and say, 'Hey, I heard you today and you're doing great,' or 'You were mumbling,' " said Paula Culver, 17.

Several North High School graduates became so enamored with the air waves during their time at KNHS that they went on to careers in radio.

A 1982 graduate, Cindy Avakian, recently became program director at KBRT-AM, a 10,000-watt talk-radio station with its transmitter on Santa Catalina Island.

"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now without (KNHS)," Avakian said in an interview from the station's Costa Mesa studios. "Even for the kids who don't go into (radio) later, they gain a sense of confidence in themselves. . . . It took a while, but that station really helped me come out of my shell. In a personal way, it was marvelous."

Avakian said she still listens to old recordings of her KNHS days "to remind myself how bad I was and to have confidence today."

Some in the current crop of KNHS disc jockeys dream of fame in broadcasting.

Calhoun, a blind special-education student who travels to the school each day from his home in Inglewood, wants to go to journalism school and become a talk-radio host.

He practiced on the air recently by mixing a visiting reporter's questions and his own responses with his regular rock program.

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