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High school radio station WHHS

Where is the Oldest High School Radio Station in the United States?

Happy High School Radio Day! Because of my fascination with radio history, it seems like a great day to delve into the history of high school radio. As is the case with college radio, multiple stations lay claim to being the first on the air.

High school radio stations were launched in the very early days of radio in the 1920s, but I’m only aware of one station from that era that is still on the air. As with college radio, another batch of stations began in the 1940s during the early days of FM. Internet broadcasting has meant that streaming stations have also emerged on high school campuses. And, finally, the most recent low power FM (LFPM) licensing opportunity saw a flurry of high school applicants as well.

Here are a sampling of some pioneering stations, as well as a few of the oldest high school radio stations to my knowledge. Please let me know if you are aware of other high school radio pioneers that are still on the air.

High School Radio Stations in the 1920s

According to the 1937 work, Education’s Own Stations, some of the high schools operating radio stations in the 1920s included: Atwood Township High School (Atwood, Illinois) from 1926-1928, Dayton Cooperative Industrial High School (Dayton, Ohio) from 1924-1925, Gardenville High School (Gardenville, New York) broadcast commencement in 1925, Lane Technical High School (Chicago, Illinois) from 1923-1928, Moberly High School (Moberly, Missouri) from around 1924-1926, North Central High School (Spokane, WA) from around 1921-1929 (although it may not have broadcast until after 1923, see more history here), Omaha Central High School (Omaha, Nebraska) from 1923-1928, Omaha Technical High School (Omaha, Nebraska) from 1924-1928, Parker High School (Dayton, Ohio) from 1923-1925, Petoskey High School (Petoskey, Michigan) from 1924-1928, Savannah High School (Savannah, GA) had an experimental wireless station beginning in 1918 and a licensed broadcast station in 1923, Scott High School (Toledo, OH) from 1923-1927, Seneca Vocational High School (Buffalo, NY) from 1925 began as WJBP and changed to WSVS in 1926 and was in existence until maybe 1941, Technological High School (Atlanta, GA) from 1928-1929, Trinidad High School (Trinidad, CO) from 1925-1927, Union High School (Kellogg, Idaho) from 1927-1929, and the Ward-Belmont School (Nashville, TN) from April to November, 1922 (see today’s Radio Survivor Bulletin exclusive for some fascinating accounts of this station’s first broadcast).

In reading through the accounts of these early AM stations in the 1920s, it becomes clear that high schools and colleges faced the same challenges during that era, as they often were unsuccessful in gaining institutional support for their stations while simultaneously facing a growing radio landscape in which many stations were forced to either share frequencies or were denied license renewals by the government during an increasingly competitive time for radio.

The one surviving high school radio station from the 1920s that I’m aware of is KBPS at Benson Polytechnic High School and it’s my vote for the oldest high school radio station in the country.

KBPS logo

KBPS at Benson Polytechnic High School in Portland, Oregon Launched in 1923

This very well could be the longest running high school radio station in the United States, as it’s been on the air for 92 years. The Portland Public School District holds the license for KBPS 1450 AM, which operates out of Benson Polytechnic High School. According to the KBPS website, the station dates back to 1923. The website states,

On March 23, 1923, the student body of Benson was licensed by the federal government to operate a radio station using 200 watts of power at 834 kilocycles. The first call letters of the station were KFIF. The station made its formal debut on the air and was officially dedicated in early May of 1923, between the hours of 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., on the opening night of the 5th annual Benson Tech Show. In spring of 1930, the call letters changed from KFIF to KBPS, for Benson Polytechnic High School. In 1941 KBPS stopped sharing its frequency with other stations and moved to 1450 AM on the dial where it remains today.”

According to Education’s Own Stations, in the 1920s, the station could be heard for a typical radius of 100 miles during the summer and was said to have been heard as far away as New Zealand during night time winter broadcasts over AM.

Purported to be only the 2nd educational radio station in the country, KBPS has had very consistent management, with General Manager Patricia Swenson overseeing the station for nearly 50 years from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s. I was also interested to read that Swenson wrote her dissertation on the history of educational broadcasting in the Portland public schools, specifically focusing on KBPS.

Over email, KBPS’s long-time Operations Manager Kevin Flink told me of the station’s plans for High School Radio Day. Flink said, “We kind of feel like every day is high school radio day, we will just read some liners and have our announcers announce that it is National HS Radio day and KBPS is proud to be a part of the organization.”

When I asked if he knew of any high school radio stations older than KBPS, Flink said,

I really don’t know of any high school stations older than we are, that are still on the air. There is only one commercial station in Portland that is older than we are, and they have changed owners and formats several times over the years.  But being on the air since 1923 certainly makes us one of the oldest stations in the country and we are very proud of that.”

You can tune in to hear students live on KBPS from around 10am until 11:30am and from noon until 1:40pm Pacific time on most weekdays. Local listeners can tune in over 1450 AM and people from all over the world can listen to the online stream.

Here’s a short video about the station.

WNAS-FM at New Albany High School in New Albany, Indiana Launches in 1949

Claiming to be the first “FM high school radio station,” WNAS-FM launched at New Albany High School in May, 1949. According to the WNAS website,

The staff is made up entirely of students, which makes it unique among other local media outlets.  Currently, the radio / TV  programs at New Albany High School has over 100 students who receive hands-on training in radio and television production and broadcasting.”

WNAS plans to air special programming for High School Radio Day 2015. See the schedule here. I’m not aware of an older FM high school radio station, so please let me know if you know of any pre-1949 FM high school stations.

WHHS-FM at Haverford High School in Havertown, Pennsylvania Launches in 1949

While WHHS-FM claims to be the “oldest high school radio station in the country,” WHHS-FM is actually younger than both WNAS-FM and KBPS-AM, having launched in December, 1949. It celebrated its 65th anniversary last December. I visited the station last year and was impressed by WHHS-FM’s appreciation for its history. See some historical documents on its website, including the program from its debut broadcast.

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