IT IS THE middle of summer vacation at Nathan Hale High School, but at least one corner of the sprawling campus hums with activity. Students try on headsets and tentatively push buttons on various radio switchboards. While their instructors speak, they are rapt, but when left to their own devices for a few minutes, giddy chatter and bursts of laughter echo down the hall.
This group comprises the summer session of the renowned program at C89.5/KNHC public radio, a student-run station broadcast from Nathan Hale’s campus.
For those involved, this feels like a legitimate milestone, as Seattle emerges from a year-plus of COVID-19 lockdowns, normal life resuming with the same sense of trepidation as these newbies in front of a mic. Although various student volunteers have helped out where they could, this July marked the first time since the early spring of 2020 that the program has resumed at full capacity.
The handful of full-time professional staffers kept the station afloat in the kids’ absence, but it wasn’t the same.
“They’re such a big part of it, and it’s designed for them,” says operations manager and morning show host Drew Bailey, who in the best of times has a pair of student co-hosts. “When I don’t have them, it’s different.”
The studio space that feels so full and lively now has felt awfully sparse throughout much of the past year; that happy chatter has been sorely missed.
“We practically teared up when we saw the first kids come back in the building,” program and music director JB McDaniel says. “So that’s what you guys look like!”
As novel as this scene feels at this stage of 2021, in the context of the longer history of Nathan Hale High, it’s anything but. Earlier this year, C89.5 celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is one of the longest-running high school stations in the United States, and certainly one of the most prolific talent producers. Hari Sreenivasan of PBS NewsHour; Eric Powers of HOT 103.7; and two people associated with the show “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” executive director James McKenna and videographer Myron Partman, are all notable alums.
Perhaps as telling — and as crucial — are the alumni who have stayed rather than those who left to pursue grand ambitions. Bailey and McDaniel are just a couple of the staffers who were once students here, who decided to devote themselves to paying it forward. The result is a community service that is a close-knit community in and of itself, one creating deeper bonds than ever as it begins its second half-century on the air.
THE ORIGIN STORY of what is now C89.5 begins with a longtime Nathan Hale electronics teacher named Larry Adams. This was in the early 1970s, and the genesis of the idea was more about hands-on practical experience than starting up any kind of public radio station. Adams had noticed that some kids tuned out when he started delving too deeply into the theory of electronics, and so this was simply a way to get them more engaged.
“Soldering wires together and making little transistor radios,” explains C89.5 general manager June Fox, “running a station so that they could see the other side of it.”
Those little transistor radios became the original, more-humble station elsewhere on campus, which gradually grew into the larger, high-tech whole wing of a building it is today. In the 1970s, and even well into the ’80s, high school radio stations were all the rage, a kind of education fad. There was a time when there were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of similar entities around the country.
“But it’s an expensive classroom,” Fox says. “And when school districts have to start making decisions about what they’re keeping and what they’re not — and in some cases, the station is valuable to the community in a lot of ways — they’ll just sell the station off.”
C89.5 hardly stands alone. There are seven high-school radio stations that remain functional in Washington state, from Aberdeen to Kennewick. What makes the station at Nathan Hale unique, Fox and others will tell you, is the level of professionalism demanded of its students — and the fact that, save a small stipend from Seattle Public Schools to cover operating costs, the station is self-sustaining and has to pay its own bills.
“There’s none like us, because the vast majority of those stations really are classroom programs,” Fox says. “So the format changes every year, or it’s whatever the kids want to put on the air.”
At other stations, there might be a high school football game on the air one Friday, Fox uses as an example, then nobody to staff it the next weekend. Where C89.5 is all dance music, all of the time, other stations will fluctuate between genres, depending on the time of day, or on who is managing the switchboard.
“It is interesting for the kids to explore that, from a different perspective, but it’s not a viable business model,” Fox says. “We’re like any other radio station in town; when you’re tuning in, you know what you’re going to get. It’s not Bill on Mondays or Sally on Tuesdays playing completely different things because that’s the type of music that they like.”
That reliability was crucial during a difficult time when the world was as unpredictable as ever. The station required fundraising drives to sustain itself during the pandemic, but that support came with a vice versa.
“So much of what we heard from the audience was that the upbeat nature of [the station] is what sustained them,” Fox says. “They knew they could turn to us and not get a doomscroll newscast at the top of every hour. We did a lot of messaging about self care and mental health, helping your kids deal with what’s going on.”
One might suspect that the lack of full creative license compared to other remaining high-school stations is a drawback rather than a perk, from a teenager’s perspective. Yet it clarifies the type of students who are drawn to the program. This is vocational prep, essentially, for kids who can see a future for themselves working in radio.
There were more applications for this summer’s program than ever before, according to on-air personality and instructor Harmony Soleil, and not just Nathan Hale students. They have kids from all over trekking up to Lake City, including a student from West Seattle.
The career path could sound questionable in a field that has been impacted by changing technology, but the curriculum evolved with it. The program is up for recertification next year, and answering those questions is part of the process: What are the job prospects for these kids? What is the station’s evolving purpose?
Fox says there has been a greater emphasis on podcasts in recent sessions, as well as in social media and in webcasting. Yes, radio stations themselves might be increasingly automated, but every theater in town still needs somebody to run their soundboards. Some corporations have their own in-house podcast teams, and social media expertise is valuable everywhere.
“What makes it super awesome for the kids is that when they walk out that door, they are hired literally sight unseen by any other station in the city,” Fox says. “I don’t know that that’s the case with any of the other student stations in the area. The reputation of our program is that our students, our graduates, they know what they’re doing. They know the rules, they know the equipment and they know how to present themselves on the air. They know how to prep for a show. Because we demand that level of expertise.”
THEN THERE ARE those who, as mentioned earlier on, never walk out that door at all — digging their heels in when asked to leave behind a program that has provided such meaning and guidance.
Soleil, class of 2008, can still vividly recall her first day within the program as a freshman. She grew up in Lake City, and her mom is also a Nathan Hale alum. Growing up, C89.5 was a kind of soundtrack to her young life.
“I remember being so excited taking the eighth-grade tour up at the old school, and the station being all I wanted to see,” Soleil says. “I made friends that first class, and went through all four years with them.”
She was a dedicated student, when it came to radio, at least — “Tell me what all of this does right now. I want to know. I want to be on the air.” — and recently unearthed some of her old tapes from when she was a junior: “I sound the same, but like squeakier.”
Soleil likes to say that she walked in on that first day as a Nathan Hale student and never left, but that’s not totally true. She went off to the University of Washington Bothell, although she still did volunteer at the station on weekends. She was a staffer at C89.5 only on an informal basis all the way up until 2017 — and she still works part-time at Hubbard Media over in Bellevue, as well — until she finally got her shot as an instructor.
She doesn’t come from a teaching background, and so she has had to kind of learn that part of her job on the fly, especially during the pandemic year. But in many ways, she is fulfilling the ambitions of her younger self.
“I think I just wanted to start here and learn everything that I could,” Soleil says. “The more I started to do it, the more I realized I had a future in radio, that I could do this as a career. And I have! Which is pretty cool, that you’re doing exactly what your 14-year-old self wanted to do. … I see myself in a lot of the students. A lot of our kids are so excited to be here, and they’re so hardworking. They just want to try stuff. I see that, and I understand how that was.”
McDaniel, class of 1987, and Bailey, class of ’97, have similar stories. McDaniel transferred to Nathan Hale before his sophomore year, and the radio program is how he met his new friends during a transitional period that might have been tough otherwise. He was a student music director back in the day — and later tabbed both Soleil and Bailey to do the same.
Bailey was not a great student, by his admission.
“I wasn’t a big fan of high school,” Bailey says. “Without [the station] I don’t know that I would have made it through. This was a different story. This was something I could do for a living. It was a path.”
Here McDaniel jumps in, with the practiced patter of longtime co-workers: “Yeah, I think we saved you.”
Bailey nods and continues: “This was a different story. This was something I could do for a living. It was a path. I was here in the morning, at lunch, after school. (McDaniel, interjecting: “We couldn’t get rid of him.”) I did my Saturday and Sunday shifts on the weekend. All my friends were radio kids. We were all the same. This is what we did, and a lot of those people I’m still close with.”
Bailey worked in commercial radio for a hot second after he graduated, but it wasn’t the same. He has an abiding passion for electronic dance music, referring to himself as an “old-school raver,” and working for a more mainstream station just wasn’t the same. He missed the camaraderie, and the sense of belonging.
So he, like Soleil, hung around on a volunteer basis until a more permanent gig opened up. And here he is, still passionate and still fulfilled, welcoming the students back on the other side of the pandemic, feeling as at home as ever.
“I love to give back,” Bailey says. “I want to give these kids a great experience because I had such a fun time. Obviously I’m still here, 20-some years later.”