KNHC-FM 89.5 turns 40, celebrating with a party at Neighbours on Capitol Hill.

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KNHC-FM 89.5 took a chance on Lady Gaga when few radio stations would.

It was 2008, and the students at Nathan Hale High School who run KNHC were raving about the “next new thing,” said station operations manager Richard J. Dalton. “They told me to listen.”

“No other stations would play her; they thought she was weird,” said Dalton, 38, known to his students as Mr. D. “The kids know the trends; I have to give them credit.”

The students booked Lady Gaga in their school performing-arts theater, promoted the show on the air, and 400 people showed up to see it. They witnessed a blooming star — before the Grammys, the arena concerts and Billboard-chart-topping singles.

That’s how KNHC rolls. A small paid staff of adults handles logistics, while the students call the shots. They choose the music and sharpen their chops in state-of-the-art digital studios. And because they’re hooked into new sounds (they played Rihanna when she was a one-hit wonder; Blake Lewis before he appeared on “American Idol”), they often shape national music trends.

“They are clearly an influential player in the dance-radio business,” said Gordon J. Murray, Billboard dance-chart manager. The station is one of only six Nielsen-monitored stations that make up Billboard’s Dance Airplay chart.

Dalton is content to leave the station’s fate in their hands: “They just take it and do much better than me. I trust them,” he says.

Back in the day

It all started in 1971 when former teacher Larry Adams wanted to make an electronics class more interesting. His students were falling asleep at their desks, and he thought radio would be a fun option. There wasn’t material out there for him to follow, so Adams wrote his own textbook.

He remembers flipping the switch in 1971, and running around the school, telling other teachers to tune in to hear room 219 on the air. What started at 10 watts, covering about a 5-mile circle in the north end of Seattle, is now in HD, with a signal stretching north to Arlington, east to the mountains, south to Olympia and west throughout Kitsap County. Currently, there are 2,500 active, paying members, and an average of 165,000 listeners a week. Online, an additional 165,000 to 180,000 listeners stream in monthly.

The station is all about dance music, a genre popular in clubs and in Europe. Internationally, Brazil, the UK and Berlin tune in the most. Station manager Gregg Neilson said dance music was a conscious choice, because it crosses racial boundaries, and brings his students together. The school district pays for only one teacher and one assistant, so the rest of the costs — a staff of four and a total budget of half a million per year — is up to the kids to fundraise. They run a telephone membership campaign every fall and spring, meeting their goal of $140,000. The remainder is made up with sponsorships.

Sometimes, the fact they are teens helps. Now and then, the station gets calls from angry listeners about mispronounced words, but Neilson explains they are an educational station with a staff of high schoolers. The listeners sometimes respond by donating.

KNHC also profits from a vast alumni network that stretches across many big stations. Many wrote letters asking the city of Seattle and the Seattle School District to save the station during budget cuts.

The station “was a lifesaver and career maker for me,” said Mike West, class of 1975 and retired morning host of KMTT-FM (103.7) The Mountain. “I am dyslexic, and I was totally frightened to speak in front of class, but I got in front of the mike in the little room, and learned it was not so bad.”

These rooms are far from little anymore. The setup of the station is a bit of a labyrinth, with a network of “Alice in Wonderland” doors. First, there’s a room for radio class — where first-year students learn about the basics of broadcasting, like FCC regulations and mass media history. Then a door leads into a conference room — where there are open cubicles for the adult staff, a conference table, and a long line of computers that can edit sound. There are a total of nine studios — one can fit a band for recordings, another for DJs.

The setup is a lot nicer than a lot of professional studios, says Eric Powers, class of 1991, who’s now a program director for KUBE-FM 93.3 and KBKS-FM 106.1.

The students’ view

Henry Antupit was just a freshman when he started in promotions, managing a concert for 2,500 at Sandpoint Naval Base.

“Picture a 14-year-old trying to handle a manager of an artist, as she comes rolling in with three SUVs,” said Antupit. The teachers “taught us that if we set our minds to it, people will come. … They taught us that teenagers can make the difference.”

Everything at KNHC is built on trust. Trust that the students will try their best — not to swear on air, not to recommend music with explicit or derogatory lyrics, and not to bring in food or drink into the studios.

There are slip-ups, however. The songs, said Neilson, are 99 percent appropriate. Neilson remembers pulling two songs — Madonna’s “Hanky Panky” and Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch.”

During a meeting, seniors Madeleine Keyser and Madeleine Presland stand at the front of the classroom, prepping their classmates on the upcoming concert. They put an overhead up with meeting details while the rest of the student staff munch on baked frozen pizza. At the very end, student program director Presland asks, “Do the adults have anything to add?”

They say no.

Like West, Antupit says he is dyslexic and the radio class format helped him to learn. Now, he works with local artists, helping them promote their work, and is looking into pursuing photojournalism.

That’s the sort of story that Adams finds very rewarding. “It’s just the satisfaction and passion of knowing that I helped a lot of young boys and girls of all ethnicities to go into the broadcast industry,” he said, looking back. “It opened doors and opportunities that would not have been there.”

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or mliu@seattletimes.com