It began in 1947, with kids at Haverford High sitting around at lunch, spinning records, and pretending to be on radio. Principal Oscar Granger had an idea: Why pretend? Why not start an FM station?
FM was new. The first FM station had begun only in 1941. But Granger applied for a Class D educational license, and on Dec. 6, 1949, listeners in the school auditorium - and elsewhere - heard this:
"Friends and patrons of Haverford Township schools, good evening! You are now tuned to radio station WHHS, at 89.3 on your FM dial, your own Haverford Township broadcasting studio, located on the second floor of the senior high school building. . . . Tonight we are realizing a dream come true."
Through frequency changes and other bumps in the air, WHHS has remained, staking a claim to being the oldest student-run high school FM station. And on Friday night, station alums from as far back as the '50s, along with current student DJs, will celebrate six decades of WHHS.
That first night of broadcasting made the front page of the Upper Darby News. Tickets were sold to the public for the then-substantial sum of $1, for a show that included a band concert, skits, and choral performances.
The 10-watt station covers a 5-to-10-mile radius. Student-run, it always has been a cherished community project. The 1949 article stressed the shared expense, with the local grade school, junior high, and adult school kicking in money to help. As of 2009, constant fund-raising continues amid cranky equipment and a bad economy.
The WHHS story also involves the travails of local radio. The station has had to fight to find a place, any place, on the FM dial, getting shuffled from one end to the other. Its first home was 89.3, but the Federal Communications Commission moved it clear over to 107.9 in 1992. There WHHS reached its largest audience, estimated at 2,500 listeners. In 2004, however, the frequency was sold to Radio One's WRNB. WHHS fell silent for the 2004-05 school year.
But - with some good-guy help from WRNB - the next school year the station set up at 99.9 under an FCC exemption. (Usually stations are not allowed to be too close on the dial to others; WHHS was allowed to have such close neighbors after a study showed it wouldn't interfere with their broadcasts.)
Ed Weiss, since 1977 the faculty adviser for WHHS, says that "the kids see the station as their home away from home at school. That's the heart and soul of their high school experience. You can't get them out of the studio."
You'd expect the kids to do music shows, and they do, all sorts. But they also do news, live performances, drama, sports, and even foreign-language shows.
Senior Chris Capriotti, 17, manager of WHHS, says, "We do on-campus events, coffeehouses, concerts, and a big all-day festival at the end of the school year."
As part of its community service, WHHS has produced election-year specials, interviewing candidates such as Rep. Joe Sestak and former Rep. Curt Weldon. Students work with faculty and parent advisers, as well as radio professionals who help develop programming.
Creative ideas abound, such as the all-night New Year's Eve show in which students at parties could call in to get rides home. Until 1966, most music played was classical. That year, rock arrived - but only on Friday nights. That, of course, has changed.
Mikes and couches
WHHS is two rooms with boards, mikes, and computers, and an anteroom dominated by the obligatory ancient, overstuffed couches. Believe it or not, the Beach Boys are playing. One wall bears a 2001 student rendition of van Gogh's Starry Night. Cased in ironic glass is an April 12, 2005, letter from FCC secretary Marlene H. Dortch notifying the station that it was being discontinued at 107.9.
Senior Dylan McElhaney, 18, says, "The students do their own shows and are responsible for their own FCC logs, which we do through Google Documents." Sean-Erik O'Donnell, 18 and a senior, says, "You learn organizational skills, which become life skills."
Of course, there's the coolness factor. Senior Alexsia Brown, 18, says she was hooked when she helped a friend with her show: "When I finally got my own show, it felt cool." All the students interviewed say they want to do college radio.
WHHS broadcasts from 2:30 to 10 p.m.; faculty and parents supervise after-hours shows. A group of two to five students gets a weekly, 90-minute show for a semester. This semester, 71 students (plus friends) are doing shows. Student directors manage programming, sports, news, and other administrative duties.
Directors meet weekly, and the staff keeps in touch via Facebook.
Several WHHS alums have gone on to notable careers in media, including Oscar-nominated movie producer Ross Katz and Inquirer editor Bill Marimow (sportscaster, 1965), formerly vice president of news at National Public Radio.
Katz (station manager, late '80s) produced films such as In the Bedroom and Lost in Translation. The station, Katz writes by e-mail, "helped me to tap into my passions, my creativity, and my great desire to be an artist. . . . I remember sitting with a group in 1986, listening to the news of the space shuttle Challenger's explosion. We shared our devastation, through the prism of being broadcasters. We, together, agonized through Tiananmen Square in 1989. We shared the triumph of the Berlin Wall coming down. History was happening, it seemed, every day. And a small group of us were able to express ourselves, share our reactions, and speak our minds about these events."
A tie that binds
Helene and Michael Berkowitz, like several other couples, met at WHHS and ended up getting married. They have stayed in Havertown, with children going to Haverford High. Michael (program manager, 1977) has had a career in media sales, including 10 years at KYW, and is now account manager at NBC10.
"I spent all of my free time at WHHS," he says. "It led me straight to Temple's radio, television, and film department, and from there I went right to work for WWDB."
Helene, an accountant, says she was a sophomore when she started doing news. "Mostly I remember the seniors, including Michael, trying to make me laugh during broadcasts," she says.
Friday's shindig is not technically a fund-raiser, but students and faculty are open about the need to secure better funding. The Haverford Township School District Education Foundation is considering matching all contributions totaling up to $5,000.
"With budgets everywhere getting tight," says Nick Rotoli, director of curriculum and former principal, "we're hoping to form an alumni association to provide some support."
Capriotti says the station needs a new digital board, a cellular remote unit to broadcast sports events and off-campus shows, and money to get back on the Web, where it once was heard 24 hours a day.
WHHS joins the school's newly opened local-access TV station in a planned media center. Rotoli says, "We're hoping to create an educational program in media studies, to teach students how you use different media to tell your story in different ways."
As Weiss says, "There's always a waiting line for WHHS." Rotoli echoes him: "Every year there's a new crop. Radio kids are totally devoted to radio, just as band kids live for the band."