Students dial up creativity while running El Camino High’s radio station

“DJ Dan The Man” Keenan cued up a song by Korn, then a little Iron Maiden during his shift Tuesday afternoon at KYDS 91.5 FM at El Camino Fundamental High School. The sophomore threw in “The Dreidel Song” at the request of a classmate.

The equipment around him was almost as old as the music.

One of the microphones used by the disc jockeys sometimes falls out of its stand in midbroadcast. An errant brush against the soundboard can stop a speaker in the studio from transmitting, and game broadcasts from the stadium studio are hit or miss.

KYDS 91.5 is the only student-run radio station in the Sacramento region that broadcasts off campus. The station, which first aired in 1979, broadcasts to most of the county. The closest radio station like it is KRVH in Rio Vista, which also is at 91.5 FM on the dial.

A number of local high school radio stations have stopped broadcasting in recent years, including KXHV at Sacramento High School and KRLK at Rio Linda High School.

On Tuesday, KYDS student DJs with pseudonyms like “Deejay Harvey,” “DJ Rottweiler” and “DJ Death the Kid” had an “on with the show” mentality.

“I picked it up and kept going, screwing it in while I was talking,” said senior Madison Lozano, who had to deal with a broken microphone stand while she was on the air.

Equipment problems also plague the students in Lo Down Productions – the school’s television class. On Tuesday, senior Reyna Wilcoxon read the script for a public service announcement from a piece of paper taped to a bar above a television camera. The camera operator made adjustments so the paper wouldn’t show on air – a difficult task considering the viewfinder was broken and had to be held up to look at the anchor.

The public service announcement will be used in a five-minute morning broadcast the class produces each day for the campus. During the news segment, the anchors read from pieces of paper held in their hands.

“People are complaining we’re reading the notes, but we have no teleprompter,” said teacher Ed Santillanes.

Most of the equipment in the radio station and the adjacent television studio was purchased 14 years ago by retired Principal Ernie Boone. Since then, the television program has been able to replace some equipment with an annual state grant, but the radio station must rely on fundraisers to pay for new microphones, computers and soundboards, among other things.

Students who sign up for the radio class know what to expect. In exchange for learning to work in radio, they have to make cold calls to businesses to seek donations that will be auctioned off during a 45-hour “Audiothon” each semester. They usually raise about $1,000 to pay for equipment and music licensing fees during each event.

Santillanes said the process is a good experience for students, who learn “soft skills” that are in demand by businesses.

“I’ve developed more confidence than I thought was possible, especially when it comes to leadership,” said Kiersten Mason, a senior who is a student DJ and the television station manager.

This afternoon, 20 students will pile into the large classroom that holds the radio and television studios for “a big giant slumber party” over the weekend, Wilcoxon said. Each will take two-hour DJ shifts to play music and auction off merchandise to benefit the radio program. Tuesday, the kids eagerly talked about the many items going up for auction including an iPod Nano, video games, gift cards, yoga studio passes, a grill, motorcycle gear and a model airplane.

Students on Tuesday recounted audiothons past that included a four-hour Monopoly marathon and 11 p.m. games of tag on campus that often bring out deputies summoned by security sensors that school officials forget to turn off. “It’s a blast,” Mason said.

Despite the fun associated with audiothons, the students are quick to quote Santillanes, who often reminds them that “the point is to make money.”

Many high school stations across the country have closed because of the cost of equipment, lack of interest by students and because private radio stations purchase or apply for their frequencies, Santillanes said. Businesses can challenge a station for its frequency if it isn’t on the air enough hours. KYDS went to a 24-hour format, aided by automated DJs, because it was receiving challenges for its license, the teacher said.

At El Camino High, only 15 of the possible 40 spots in the advanced radio class are filled. Nine students – many who also deejay for KYDS – are in the television program. Another 29 are in the beginning radio and television class.

Santillanes says not all of the students in his beginning class go on to be DJs at the station. Students must pass his beginning radio class and prove they can work independently before they can go on the air. Each student in the advanced program has a one-hour program each week, but they often join with classmates for ensemble programs or to record public service announcements.

The students run the show. Santillanes names station managers for the radio and television programs. Student directors head up departments that include public service announcements, sports, music and publicity. The directors assign work and evaluate the students.

“They learn responsibility,” Santillanes said. “They learn aspects of the job, and they actually get to practice it.”