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On the air — Thousands setting dials to Orem High station

SHARE On the air — Thousands setting dials to Orem High station

PROVO — It's 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and senior Sean Ashby has sequestered himself once again in a small room at Orem High School.

Stark and lined with foam padding, the room features a desk, a computer and a sound console that only a trained disc jockey could possibly understand.

Lucky for Ashby, that's what he is.

"Thanks for listening to KOHS," Ashby says, seemingly to himself, after finishing his biweekly radio show, which features local bands.

In reality, thousands of people in Utah County are listening to the 18-year-old student. They're also listening to the other 30 students who take turns at the mike as part of a radio performance program offered by the school since 1971.

Specializing in a unique musical blend of alternative, punk and emo — short for "emotional" — the Orem High School radio station has developed a cult following among Brigham Young University students and "twenty-somethings" from Provo to the Point of the Mountain, where the station's signal cuts out.

On any given day, requests for bands like Radiohead and Cake are sent out to "all the boys at Novell" or to "BYU students working in the science lab" — evidence that this high school project is being heard loud and clear.

"I am totally addicted," said BYU junior Dan Davis. "There are no commercials and they play the stuff that nobody else will play."

That secret formula has been the secret of success for KOHS 91.7 FM. It's also been an enticement to get students involved in a program unique to the state.

"Our music is alternative, but it can range all the way from A.F.I. to Dave Matthews. It kind of depends on the DJs and the cool thing is that our DJs are students," senior Mike Anderson said.

Though nine radio stations were once run by high school students throughout the valley in the '70s, only two remain today — the result of corporate radio buying out independent stations, said Ken Seastrand, who teaches radio courses at Orem High.

Both of the stations, KOHS and Pleasant Grove High School's KPGR 88.1 FM, are nonprofit and operate under the jurisdiction of the Alpine School District, which gives tremendous support and generous funding to the radio program.

"Our district remains dedicated to any program that can give students an outlet for their creativity," said Jerrilyn Mortensen, Alpine School District spokeswoman. "Not every student is meant to play football or sing in the choir."

KPGR differs slightly from KOHS since it has a smaller frequency and utilizes a Top 40 format. However, it has attracted its own audience and gives its students a similar opportunity to explore a future career in the radio industry. In fact, the current teacher there is a KPGR alum.

"I just think we need to expose kids to different activities, occupations, careers and technology — and this class does all of that," said Pleasant Grove principal Jess Christen. "The students are always on the air, and they just love it."

At Orem High, students interested in becoming DJs prepare by taking a radio history class, followed by a course on operating a radio station. Once both are completed, students are eligible for an advanced radio course, which requires each student to run the station several hours a week.

One student is chosen each year to put together a daily play list, which operates from a master computer where all old and new music has been downloaded. Most albums are sent to the school through a college music program, but repeat requests for certain bands often prompt Seastrand to go out and purchase an album himself. Every song is also approved first by Seastrand, who won't discriminate against raucous music but refuses to allow obscenities on the air.

DJs take requests throughout their radio shows and have the ability to interject those songs. According to Ashby, they also slip in their favorite tunes, which helps the students express themselves and gain a personal fan base.

Nearly all of the Orem High DJs credit the radio program with helping them come out of their shells.

"I was a little shy before, but now I have a lot more confidence," 17-year-old Jason Evans said.

"I've realized that I'm not just talking to myself. I'm talking to real people," adds junior Lacey Peterson. "I don't know why every high school doesn't give students this opportunity."

Seastrand said the majority of his students receive A's for their efforts, as long as they are on time and responsible. Most of them also offer to volunteer at the station over the summer, but Seastrand has found that their dependability decreases as summer goes on. As a result, the station goes off the air during the school's summer vacation.

For the legions of KOHS fans out there, however, the sound of silence is depressing.

"When I turn to KOHS and hear static, I nearly cry," Davis admitted. "And then when the school year starts back up again, I am the first to reset my radio to 91.7."