Monday, September 15, 2014

Radio Station Field Trip 62 - WHHS at Haverford High School

WHHS Banner. Photo: J. Waits
Back in April, I visited a bunch of radio stations in the Philadelphia area during one jam-packed day. I've already written about visits to WXVU at Villanova University and WSRN at Swarthmore College. Well, on the same day (April 8th), I also ventured to see Haverford High School's radio station WHHS 99.9 FM in Havertown, Pennsylvania.

Plaque from WHHS' 60th Anniversary in 2009. Photo: J. Waits
I've been intrigued by WHHS for many years, largely because it was a long-time high school radio station just a few miles away from my college (and they had an FM signal and we didn't!). In recent years, I've become even more interested in the station, especially after learning about its lengthy radio past. The station launched over FM in 1949, making it one of the oldest high school radio stations in the United States.

Historical Tidbits on the Wall at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
The class D non-commercial FM station has moved around the dial over the years, starting out as a 10 watt station over 89.3 FM in 1949. In 1992 it moved to 107.9 FM and then by 2005 it had to move again, to its current home at 99.9 FM, in order to make way for a commercial broadcaster.

WHHS Lobby. Photo: J. Waits
I arrived at WHHS on a Tuesday afternoon, just as school was getting out for the day. Various students were in and out of the station during my visit and DJs were also in the studio doing live shows. The station's faculty sponsor, Ed Weiss, met me at WHHS and talked a bit about the station's past, present and future. He told me that many students like to hang out at the station after school and it's viewed as a "place to be creative."

Frisbee at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
Weiss has been at WHHS for 38 years and is now (as of last year) a retired French teacher. He told me that they were looking forward to the station's 65th anniversary this December. He said that it would be a "big blowout," in which graduates are invited back to the station. He said that alumni look back on their time at WHHS fondly and that for many, "this is their biggest high school memory." Weiss also pointed out that the alumni group is "supportive" of WHHS in general. A number of former WHHS participants work in the radio industry as well.

Old equipment at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
With my interest in radio history, I was glad to hear that alumni have also been active in maintaining an archive of WHHS history and that they hoped to do a publication in honor of the station's upcoming 65th anniversary.

Commemorative check above window looking into on-air studio at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
This active alumni network has helped keep WHHS chugging along over the years and is part of the reason why the station has been the recipient of some generous donations. In early 2013, the Kal and Lucille Rudman Foundation gifted WHHS with $10,000 in order to help with studio upgrades.

New board at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
When I visited, I saw the spiffy new studio, now named in honor of the Rudmans. I was told that in addition its main on-air studio, WHHS has a second studio from which it can broadcast. There are plans to turn it into a production studio, with hopes that in the future it can also be used as a recording studio for local bands too.

WHHS on-air studio. Photo: J. Waits
According to Weiss, WHHS has always been a student-run radio station. It operates like many college radio stations, with a student general manager and directors leading various departments. Directors interview prospective DJs, monitor the shows, pick music for rotation, promote the station, and handle engineering.

WHHS Studio. Photo: J. Waits
Live DJs are on the air at WHHS on Mondays through Fridays from 2:30pm to 10:00pm during the school year. After 5:30pm they are required to have adult chaperones at the station and parents tend to volunteer to do that. Weiss said that parents love to hang out at the station. When there isn't a live DJ in the studio, automated programming runs thanks to software that selects songs, legal IDs, and other announcements. Weiss said that the shows are "eclectic," and are driven by student taste.

Flyer for WHHS Coffee House Gig. Photo: J. Waits
WHHS also does live remote broadcasts from various locations, including shows at the public library and a large outdoor show in the spring with live bands. Weiss said that WHHS took "huge steps this year with the equipment" that makes these types of broadcasts possible.

WHHS as viewed from the Haverford High School hallway. Photo: J. Waits
Radio is a popular extra-curricular activity at Haverford High School, with around 125 to 150 students (at a public high school of approximately 2000 students total) involved with the station over the course of the academic year. Weiss said that students realize that it's a "unique" opportunity and told me that there's always a waiting list for shows. There are usually around 50 DJs on the air each semester.

Beach Boys LP at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
During my visit I watched a bit of the afternoon programming. The DJs (it was a team show) played digital music and also grabbed some old LPs from a bin in the studio, mixing in Beach Boys and the Smiths with their set. Sadly there isn't too much physical music left at WHHS, despite the station's history. The milk crate in the studio had a wide range of vintage records, including Madonna, Rolling Stones, Johnny Mathis, and a mariachi music LP.

Vintage Johnny Mathis LP at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
I was told that WHHS had a huge record library historically, but that it was moved 13 years ago when the building was refurbished and "went missing." Most DJs play digital music from a variety of sources, as well as CDs. At least one show plays pretty much all vinyl. WHHS has a digital library that had a rotation of around 2000 tracks at the time of my visit and I was told that they hoped to double that by the end of the year.

Banner at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
WHHS' Tech Director Greg told me that the station plays a huge mix of music, including show tunes, international music, dance, psych, experimental, metal and punk.  All of those genres are included in the station's digital library.

DJs leave their mark on old CDs on the wall at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
Surprisingly, at the time of my visit in April, WHHS could only be heard over FM or over speakers (including some just outside the studio doors) at Haverford High School. Weiss said that they did stream online for a short period a few years ago and although the plan was to be streaming again by this summer, it looks like WHHS is still fundraising in order to get a streaming broadcast up and running.

Door to on-air studio at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
Weiss told me that most students at WHHS go on to do some sort of college radio after they graduate from high school. Additionally, many WHHS alumni have successful careers in the arts, with some working in not only radio, but also the television and film industries.

Old cart machines at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
Thanks so much to Ed Weiss and everyone else at WHHS for the great visit. Congratulations on your upcoming 65th anniversary and I look forward to hearing about all of the festivities!

Chalk drawing at WHHS. Photo: J. Waits
More radio field trip reports are coming soon, featuring my visits to radio stations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, D.C. and Illinois. You can see a complete list of all of my Spinning Indie Radio Station Field Trips here.

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