At Stu­dent Sta­tion, a Grown-Up Les­son in Playlist Pol­i­tics

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - Marc Fisher

The monthly mu­sic meet­ing — the cru­cible where de­ci­sions are made about which songs will be heard on the ra­dio — opens with dis­cus­sion about the re­cent duet fea­tur­ing Bey­oncé and Shakira, and the re­ac­tion is un­der­whelm­ing.

“That’s a re­ally weird com­bi­na­tion,” says Maria Ralph af­ter a cho­rus of “ughs” from oth­ers sprawled on a long couch.

“A lot of peo­ple will like it, but we don’t,” says Molly Hor­rocks. Re­luc­tant nods around the room.

So con­sen­sus is reached: We think the song is lousy, but be­cause our au­di­ence is likely to go for such trash, we’ll play it.

This is not a gath­er­ing of Clear Chan­nel ex­ec­u­tives but rather a meet­ing at North­wood High School in Sil­ver Spring, where the stu­dents who run WNHS choose their playlist. The sta­tion is heard inside the school — and soon on the In­ter­net, pos­si­bly by the end of the aca­demic year.

But whether the choices are made by pro­fes­sion­als or teenagers, the in­stinct ap­pears to be the same: The dee­jays be­lieve their role is to re­flect pop­u­lar taste, not to be tastemak­ers or even ed­u­ca­tors.

As 15-sec­ond snip­pets of re­cently re­leased songs fill the room, so do de­ri­sive com­ments about the tunes. Bow Wow’s “Outta My Sys­tem” draws groans and a grudg­ing “Peo­ple will like it.” Kelly Row­land’s “Like This” elic­its a de­fin­i­tive “Not at 6:50 in the morn­ing,” fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by a col­lec­tive shrug and this de­ci­sion: “You’re go­ing to have to play that.”

Con­versely, af­ter a quick spin of Rob Thomas’s “Lit­tle Won­ders,” the room bright­ens, heads nod and sev­eral stu­dents praise the pop star’s gen­tle, melodic bal­lad. But im­me­di­ately, Bari Turpie quashes the en­thu­si­asm: “Yeah, we like it,” he says, “but it won’t ap­peal to other eth­nic groups.” The stu­dents at WNHS are keenly aware that all but a cou­ple of them are An­g­los — a mi­nor­ity at a school that is 67 per­cent black or Latino.

The kids at the sta­tion tend to fa­vor a less-pop, more-indie sound, but they know their tastes are not broadly shared on cam­pus, and they even posit that there’s a cer­tain amount of ado­les­cent pos­ing go­ing on in their own mu­sic choices.

“What­ever you lis­ten to,” says Andrew Bos­ton, “there’s this idea that be­cause I lis­ten to the Shins, or what­ever, I’m some­how bet­ter than you.”

WNHS staffers see their job as putting to­gether a playlist that will keep things rel­a­tively peace­ful and happy in the school lobby be­fore classes each morn­ing. So those meet­ing put aside per­sonal pref­er­ences to try to plant them­selves in the hearts and minds of their school­mates. “To keep our au­di­ence, we go to­tally on what we think ev­ery­one else will like,” says Leighann Kern.

The stu­dents’ teacher, sta­tion man­ager Aaron LaMere — who built WNHS last year as the first of sev­eral planned Mont­gomery County high school sta­tions — en­cour­ages kids to think as pro­fes­sion­als do, weigh­ing their re­spon­si­bil­ity to play the hits against their de­sire to lead their au­di­ence to­ward a dif­fer­ent, per­haps more so­phis­ti­cated taste. (There are at least 200 high-school ra­dio sta­tions na­tion­wide, al­though very few ex­ist in this re­gion.)

LaMere, who pre­sides over more than $200,000 in ra­dio, TV edit­ing and broad­cast equip­ment, sub­scribes to a pro­fes­sional mu­sic ser­vice that pro­vides discs filled with top hits in the main­stream pop, rhyth­mic and trop­i­cal (Latin) gen­res.

“We def­i­nitely try to rep­re­sent the eth­nic makeup of the school,” says stu­dent Emily Her­man. When the sta­tion polled North­wood stu­dents about what they lis­ten to on the ra­dio, the re­sponse heav­ily fa­vored the pop hits on Hot 99.5. The stu­dents who run WNHS there­fore try to keep their sta­tion close to that taste, al­though the stu­dents re­peat songs less fre­quently and of­fer their school­mates a wider variety of mu­sic than is played on lo­cal com­mer­cial sta­tions.

The stu­dents sound re­mark­ably like ra­dio pro­fes­sion­als in dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween good mu­sic and mu­sic good enough to put on the ra­dio. “It’s not like we’re pick­ing what’s re­ally good,” says Daniel Pierce. “We’re just pick­ing the best of what we’re given.”

The goal is for WNHS to avoid the kind of con­flicts that some­times erupt on school buses over which sta­tion to play on the way home. If the North­wood stu­dents seem re­signed to ac­cept­ing a menu of pop tunes they don’t par­tic­u­larly care for, there are still some voices ar­gu­ing for tak­ing a stronger hand.

“This is the cul­ture that’s given to us,” says Bos­ton. “But while peo­ple may like what they’re given, there may be some­thing deeper and more mean­ing­ful out there. Dee­jays were once ed­u­ca­tors and we should be, too. Ev­ery day a dee­jay goes on, he should be mak­ing a mix tape.”

“But that’s not what the pub­lic wants,” replies Hor­rocks.

Where­upon the room falls into a spir­ited de­bate, with Bos­ton, the ra­dio rene­gade, stand­ing his ground and ar­gu­ing, “There’s no harm to ex­pos­ing peo­ple to mu­sic they’ve never heard be­fore.” Turpie moves closer to that view, say­ing, “If you could get peo­ple’s at­ten­tion, you could break out of what we play now and try some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

Fi­nally, Kern ex­presses the ex­as­per­a­tion of the mu­sic lover who has crashed into the rules of ra­dio and bounced back with a bit of young hope still shin­ing through: “You know, we have an in­fi­nite num­ber of as­sump­tions we’re mak­ing about what peo­ple want to hear. We could just ask peo­ple to bring in their fa­vorite CD and we could play them.”


Lacey Wil­son, left, and Leighann Kern watch as Molly Hor­rocks works the sound board at WNHS.

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