Tucked behind the gymnasium at Mendocino High School is the most magical building full of audio-visual delights. Home to high school radio station KAKX 89.3 FM; the warehouse-like space is a hub for all media arts at the high school. Just blocks away from the quaint seaside village of Mendocino, California, the school and its radio program exemplify some of the best aspects of small town life. With an enrollment of around 200 students, the tiny school’s radio station impressed me with its work and collaborations both on and off campus.
General Manager Marshall Brown greeted me as I walked past the school’s athletic field en route to the station. A Mendocino High School graduate; he’s also an enthusiastic alum of the radio program.
A Sense of Community
Throughout my visit after school on Friday, September 7, I heard anecdotes about the ways that other nearby commercial and community radio stations had lent a hand to KAKX. Program Director Angela Carpenter is also interning at commercial radio station The Skunk (KUNK 92.7 FM in Fort Bragg) upon Brown’s suggestion. A high school senior, she’s about to have her own solo weekend program on the Skunk. The youth-oriented show will focus on music and talk and she hopes to bring in students and coaches from the school for on-air interviews.
Clearly part of a tight-knit radio community, KAKX has also been the beneficiary of equipment hand-me-downs from nearby locally-owned commercial radio station KOZT-FM The Coast (which I rhapsodized about in a post in 2010). A 20-year-old plaque perched in the on-air studio gives thanks to the KOZT owners.
Touring the Studio
The spiffy new studio has only been in that particular room for around six months. For ten years, the same space was a remote outpost for community radio station KZYX-FM (home to one of my favorite shows, “Trading Time” and the topic of a 2010 tour report).
Today, the room contains a small collection of CDs, audio equipment, music-poster adorned walls, and a vintage dot matrix printer for KAKX’s EAS messages. A handful of additional studios in the building have tools for editing, music production and video production, as well as musical instruments (I spotted a piano, several keyboards and guitars) and Brown’s prized LaserDisc collection.
Having spent much time in Mendocino County over the years, I’m not surprised to hear these reports of stations helping each other out in these rather remote locations. Although I’m well aware that Mendocino is several hours away from larger population centers like Santa Rosa; I hadn’t really comprehended what that might mean for a music-obsessed high schooler. Kids in Mendocino might have to drive three or more hours to see big name acts touring through San Francisco. I was told that the nearest record store was two hours away in Santa Rosa. Music can of course be found in shops in and near Mendocino, but one may have to scour miscellaneous music stores, gift shops, book stores, vintage outlets, and thrift stores or search online to find specific titles.
In just the production arts classes alone, 75 students gain experience with the station. Additionally, a new collaborative live news show will be produced with help from students in classes in the History, English and Journalism departments. A few weeks into the school year, Brown and the KAKX student staff were enthusiastic about an upcoming meeting of the KAKX Residency Program during which they would begin to plot out this year’s schedule. Essentially a radio club now, this means that any student at the school can join up with and volunteer at the station.
Music of all Types
KAKX also airs a broad range of music. Carpenter told me that last year’s shows included a mix of oldies from the 1970s and 1980s to EDM to original music by students to country. She relayed, “it’s really for everyone,” sharing an anecdote about a baby even asking to listen to KAKX. Student Manager Henry Thomas (also a senior) explained that working at KAKX has expanded his taste in music and gave specific credit to Tito, a former DJ who influenced music at the station in general.
A fan of aggressive EDM and glitch metal, Tito’s mark on KAKX had led to participants labeling certain types of music “Tito music.” Because of that legacy, I was excited to randomly catch an archived show hosted by Tito while listening to the station after my visit. Throughout my time tuning in, I heard a great deal of interesting music, some of it familiar favorites (yay for Sleater-Kinney!) and some entirely new to me. I was also charmed by a Star Trek-themed station ID and intrigued by a bluegrass hour.
Students can play music from vinyl, CDs, cassettes, and digital sources. Brown revealed that there is a hidden stash of KAKX vinyl and student interest in playing LPs. With that in mind, Thomas talked of his plans to do an all vinyl show this school year.
Live Sports Broadcasts
Beyond music, KAKX also produces live sports broadcasts, including basketball games and even a Quidditch match for homecoming festivities. Since the department does more than radio, students also film the games and play music during half-time from the studio. I was amazed to hear that not only does Thomas do sideline reporting, but he also is the school mascot. Deft at multi-tasking, he and his fellow students take on many roles at the small high school.
Live Shows and Recorded Shows from the Archives
KAKX, whose moniker is “student powered radio,” strives to have around five to six live programs a week during class time. When there isn’t a live DJ or host in the studio, the station has a stockpile of 106 hours of pre-recorded radio shows from mostly the last five years of the station. A deeper archive includes some shows from the late 1990s and early 2000s with “wicked playlists,” according to Brown.
General Manager is an Alum of the Program
KAKX launched nearly 25 years ago and Brown joined up while a student in 2006. After he graduated in 2009, he kept tabs on the station, telling me, “I was in love with this station and program and wanted to give back.” Eventually an opportunity to work at KAKX was presented to him and he returned in 2013 to oversee the radio program and more. Leading all of the production arts disciplines, Brown not only oversees the radio station, but also leads classes and activities in video production, music production, and the yearbook. His 4-hour live show, “Coffee with Brown Sugar” airs the second Friday of the month and features mainly lofi hip hop instrumentals as well as talk show elements.
Exuding enthusiasm for both radio and his students, Brown shared his optimism about the growing production arts program, with KAKX being the “heart of the program.” He likes to give students a “baseline” amount of knowledge about station operations, letting them “go at it,” telling me that doing radio “just expands their horizons automatically.”
Thanks to Marshall Brown, Angela Carpenter, and Henry Thomas for taking the time to meet with me and show me around KAKX. It’s always a treat for me to visit high school radio stations. You can peruse all of my high school radio tours and other high school radio news on Radio Survivor.