Radio Station Field Trip 20 - WGBK's Glenbrook South Radio
A few weeks ago I was driving around near Chicago, scanning the dial for interesting non-commercial radio stations when I suddenly became riveted by what I was hearing. The voices were young and it seemed clear to me that it must be a high school station.
As I continued to listen, I heard a public service announcement about depression, an ad for a high school newspaper, references to a recent loss by the girls volleyball team, a restaurant review for McDonald's, an investigative piece about a new trash pickup system, and a series of technical snafus and dead air. In terms of the music, it ranged from metal to Bob Marley to Tom Petty.
I was charmed and made it my mission to learn more about the station.
Broadcast Studio (Studio K) at Glenbrook South High School
As it turned out, the station that I was listening to, WGBK, was indeed a high school station located in the suburbs of Chicago near where I was staying with family. The Saturday morning programming that I was treated to was produced by students at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Illinois. I later learned that Saturday mornings are reserved for DJ trainees; so the on-air struggles and dead air that I heard could be attributed to that.
From the archives... a cart machine at WGBK
WGBK broadcasts in the Chicago suburbs over 88.5 FM. Their FM programming is split between two high school stations: Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South; with each school handling programming on different days of the week. Each station also has their own separate webstream.
The school district purchased the station in 1997 from a Christian day school (Midwestern Academy) which had run the previous station under the call letters WMWA. In the period prior to the sale, WMWA offered the district air time and this began with broadcasts of sporting events and evening programs by radio students at Glenbrook South beginning in the 1980s.
WGBK's Original Board from the 1980s
Thanks so much to the students and staff of WGBK for welcoming me to their station on the afternoon of November 16, 2009. I sat down with station adviser/broadcasting teacher Dan Oswald (known to his students as "Doc") to talk about the radio program at Glenbrook South, with which he has quite a history. Dan was actually a student at Glenbrook South from 1988 to 1992, starting his "radio career at 13." He has been in charge of the station as a faculty member since 2004. Dan told me, "it's nice to come back to a program that I got a lot out of." During his tenure as a faculty member he's been able to take the station online and 24/7.
Some Vintage Vinyl from their Collection
This was my first visit to a high school radio station and I was both jealous and impressed, since I didn't have the opportunity to do radio at my high school. Glenbrook South is a large suburban high school on Chicago's north shore with gorgeous facilities. They have a broadcasting department, with a number of radio classes available for students. Between 130 and 140 students participate in radio classes and/or work at the station. Right now the majority of those kids are boys, with girls making up only about 10% of radio participants. Dan said that he's been working on increasing partcipation by girls, saying, "I would like more young ladies to take radio."
The Glenbrook South station, which broadcasts over FM on Mondays, Wednesdays, every other Friday, and on Saturdays is programmed like an "alternative rock station" with a "college radio feel," according to the station's adviser Dan Oswald. Like many college stations, they report their charts to CMJ.
Generally the station is live on the air in the afternoon and evening, from 3:30 until 10 or 11pm. They can be on the air as long as they like on their scheduled days, with the one stipulation being that an adult supervisor must be present. Many retired radio teachers from the program stick around as supervisors, including Mr. Weiss, who I met on my visit.
When they don't have live DJs they broadcast automated programming. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternate Fridays the broadcast transitions to the station at Glenbrook North High School beginning at 6am. Each high school has their own studios, but they share a frequency. Dan said, "we're one station...our programming complements one another." He noted that the station is a "window" into the school community since it airs both schools' sporting events, a range of music, documentaries and public service announcements.
Glenbrook South's station is the result of a rigorous radio program, which Doc says he teachers like a college course. All advanced radio students also have jobs at the station, much like one would in college radio. They have been recognized with numerous radio awards and according to Doc, the station has won numerous John Drury High School Radio Awards.
Their online stream (facilitated through Live 365) has seen listeners from Ireland, Canada, Argentina, and Belgium. Alums from the program include not only the station adviser, but also Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump and the young music journalist behind MissExclusive.
DJs at the Glenbrook South station do still play CDs and vinyl, but mostly use mp3s. I was very impressed to see that they do maintain a vinyl library and the students who toured me through it noted with pride that they value the station's history and music collection. The Radio Club began at Glenbrook South in 1981, so there is some music dating back to the 1980s in their library. Additionally, when the station was purchased from WMWA they also aquired that station's music.
I talked with a few of the student DJs, including Alex (one of the station managers) about their take on the future of radio. Alex said, "when I do my show...I like to do radio the way....I would want to hear it...playing more music....less talk....[for a] classic radio vibe." He also admitted, "I still like to listen to my iPod," saying that he does more iPod listening than radio listening.
New Music Director Blake said, "I had no idea that radio was dying at the time that I joined [the station]," but isn't particularly focused on the "movement to change that" either. Like Alex, he told me that he wanted to do radio that represents what he'd like to hear, including a "balance of talk...music...and news."
It was clear from my visit that WGBK was a special place and that the students in the program had a great deal of respect for their adviser and pride in the work of their station. It brought back memories for me of my experience on my high school newspaper, as we also had an inspirational adviser with high expectations. That combination can be magical and I was happy to see students who had this opportunity to do radio.
According to Doc, many graduates of WGBK go on to work in college radio; and the DJs who I spoke with also expressed interested in continuing their work in both radio and music production.
Thanks again to everyone at WGBK for showing me that radio is alive and well on at least one high school campus.
The requisite radio station couch in the "employee lounge" at WGBK
Previous Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips: