If you tuned into radio-station KECG recently, you may have caught an interview with the woman who runs the cafeteria at El Cerrito High. Some students at the school were complaining that food quality had fallen off, so they had “The Cafeteria Lady” in to give her side of the story.
Or maybe you heard the KECG show on teenage sexuality and sexually-transmitted disease. Or the one on the experiences of students recently immigrated to the United States. Or the broadcast that dealt with homicide in Richmond.
Or maybe you’ve never heard of KECG. I hadn’t.
KECG is the radio station that operates out of El Cerrito High School, also known as “Radio One.”
Their antenna is right there on the roof of the school, and they’ve had an FCC license for twenty-five years. You’ll find them at 88.1.
KECG programs are planned and coordinated with students, and (mostly) broadcast by students, focusing on what students think about and care about while giving airtime to adult concerns (school board elections, for instance, and city council meetings). There’s also vocational training that dovetails with the station’s activities.
KECG alums have gone on to land jobs in public radio, at other local stations, and in the movie and audio industries. Broadcasting both on the Internet and over the airwaves, the station routinely field calls from as far away as Minnesota, and the most common question asked is how to set up a student station like KECG.
So a question arises. Since Bay Area high schools have a standing invitation to broadcast their own programming through KECG, why don’t they do it?
If you guessed money (usually a safe answer when it comes to education in California), you’re wrong. Berkeley High—which has an audio studio in their music building—was briefly connected to KECG five years ago. Then the staff and principal changed, and somehow, despite the whirring, well-intentioned machine that is the Berkeley School District, the signal was lost. Since then, no one has answered Phil Morgan’s calls.
Philip Morgan manages the station. He grew up in Pasadena and Los Angeles, where his mother was an elementary school principal and his father a Seventh Day Adventist minister. He’s bearish, lumbering, with an easy smile. He seems to move without fear of deadlines, and when he speaks, it’s obvious that he’s not so interested in quick execution and delivery as in a clear thought, a well-crafted sentence.
“The piece of equipment that a school would need to be a part of what we do here, it’s called a Hotline,” Phil tells me, pointing to a thin, black box with a few blinking lights. “It costs $2800. With that, a microphone, a stand, a pair of headphones, any school around here could pipe in their own programming. Announcements, interviews, live sports coverage of school athletic events, concerts in their auditorium, whatever they wanted to do.”
“Is it worth it?” I ask him. “Would anyone hear the broadcast?”
“We’ve got a signal that reaches all the way down to Oakland, over to San Francisco, to Mill Valley. I’ve picked it up in Sebastopol. We go as far north as Pinole on our second frequency, 97.7.”
“And you’d like to broadcast programming from other schools?”
“We already do it. Pinole uses our station for their morning announcements, so parents can hear what’s going on at the school. We’ve had Richmond, too, and North Campus.”
“Hercules. We’ll be broadcasting for Hercules High School pretty soon. Believe me, we’re trying not to be secret. We want the community to know we’re here.”
“Okay,” I say, “so why aren’t schools lined up to do this? Just to get coverage on who’s running for school board in a particular town—that’s free publicity. Then there’s kids who want to talk about what they’re excited about, what’s tormenting them, get some job-training at the same time … this seems like a whole lot more than free coffee and donuts you’re offering.”
“Tell me about it. We went to Albany High a few years ago to talk about the station. The kids were excited, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But we never heard from the school.”
“Have you hooked up with other schools?”
“Fremont. But their studio was broken into and they never came back to us after that.”
“But any Bay Area school could broadcast through your station without charge. Just the couple of thousand for the modem connection, which it sounds like some schools, like Berkeley High School, already have.”
“Our studio here, this is hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the license from the FCC. Our situation would be almost impossible to replicate. But getting programming on the air from kids, from schools—that’s what we’re here for. We don’t charge for that.”
I ask him how he pays for his own station’s activities. In these days of draconian budget cuts it seems a little too good to be true.
“It’s a basket of funds,” Phil says. “It’s not just one thing. We’ve got monies through something called R.O.P.—that’s Regional Occupational Programming. Then contributions from corporations and businesses. Other funds from the school district. The district decides how they want to spend what they’ve got, and, you know, I think they see this is something that more than justifies itself.”
I teach an after-school program myself, one day a week, at Berkeley High. It’s a class in composition, funded by the American Composers Forum. In the five years I’ve been teaching it, I’ve been struck by the inability of the school to absorb the fact that we exist. Once or twice a year, I have to visit the main office when we’re locked out of the classroom. I am always met by the same bafflement. Who am I? Do I belong here?
To an extent, it’s understandable. Berkeley High’s a big school. They have their hands full, and we’re beyond the periphery of their day-to-day concerns. Yet, hearing Phil tell how KECG fell through the cracks and reflecting on my own experience, I had to wonder if this is a system that is inadvertently chasing away valuable programs because it doesn’t know what to do with them.
Is it possible that the school district—and not just ours—is it possible that they are inadvertently discouraging people and programs that would be invaluable adjuncts to our educational system, a system that everyone agrees is struggling to be viable? Could it be that these extracurricular activities are being set up to fail?
Phil Morgan responds like the pragmatist he is. “I’ve got a background in school administration,” he told me. “When I make calls, pay a visit, and nothing happens I move on.”
I call Albany High School. Principal Ron Rosenbaum has never heard of KECG. I tell him about it, then ask who’s assigned to work in something that’s not a standard part of the curriculum.
“I don’t know whose job it was in the last administration,” he says. “But in this one, it’s my job.”
Would he be interested in hooking up Albany High with KECG?
“We would certainly be open to that,” he says.
Berkeley High is a tougher nut to crack. I get Assistant Principal Mike Hassett on the phone. He’s clearly not interested in talking to either me or KECG. “Rick Ayers has some idea about doing something with the studio in the New Year,” he tells me. “You’d have to talk to him.” I get a number. [Later, neither Mr. Ayers nor Mark Copland, the Public Information Officer, return my calls.]
“Is the studio being used at all right now?” I ask Hassett.
“As a classroom.”
How, I ask, are new programs worked in at Berkeley High?
Hasset says there’s something called a “Shared Governance Team” that meets twice a month and reviews ideas like this. It’s made up of teachers, union reps, and administration. I allow as how this isn’t really what I’m asking. I want to know if there’s someone who makes sure new programs are welcomed, integrated into the school’s activities.
“Look, guy, I’m busy here,” Hassett says. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Though many claims are made for the Bush Administration’s shake-down of public education—the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law—anyone who wades through the website at edu.gov will notice a void where there might be a call for fresh ideas. Programs that haven’t been tried and deemed worthy aren’t invited to the party. This is a curious omission unless one presumes, as those who crafted this initiative must have done, that the era of trying new things is over, that all the necessary experiments have been made; that, in fact, innovation is problematic.
Watching the struggle for simple day-to-day survival that seems to rule our local schools, it’s hard to avoid the notion that this aversion to change, to adding new pieces to the curriculum, has become esconced at our own schools.
At KECG, the excitement of the control room environment speaks for itself. Philip Morgan gives his broadcasting class from 8:15 to noon every day at El Cerrito High, and once students are ready, they’re put before the microphone. Perhaps the last word should go to one of Phil’s students Tashiana Scott-Cochran, who, with a partner, created and hosted a blues program for KECG in the late nineties:
“On Tuesdays from 9: 32 -10:32, my partner, Frederika Valle, and I conduct a lesson in the blues. Our show consists of musicians such as Big Mama Thorton, Elder Roma Wilson, Katie Webster, and Clifton Chenier. Each Tuesday we try harder to bring our listeners something better than the week before. I feel that is why our show has been a success.
“Many of the older people who listen to KECG find it hard to believe two seventeen-year-olds find old time jazz and blues so uplifting. Well, for all of those in doubt, the Tashi and Rikki show is serious business and we treat jazz and blues with the utmost respect. For me, the jazz and blues segment of KECG is the most universal aspect of the radio station. Everyone knows what it is to ‘have the Blues.’ When you hear songs like Katie Webster’s ‘When Something’s Wrong with My Baby,’ you feel her heartache. We all love and feel loss and music helps to heal us. That is why I feel our show is so important.
“We discover hidden secrets about ourselves, such as that music moves us and calls us to dance and that music can also make us want to cry… I told my mother about our blues show at school, mentioning Big Mama Thorton. My mother exclaimed, “I know her! She used to play on the corner of West Grand Avenue by the California Hotel. She sung the blues.” These are life’s hidden treasures which are found at KECG.”
Believe me, we’re trying not to be secret. We want the community to know we’re here.” Phil Morgan, KECG Station Manager