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Listener: At Tender Age, Picking the Hits By Pro Rules

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 student-run station is heard inside the school -- and soon on the Internet, possibly by the end of the academic school 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 the kids in the music 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 of the country.)

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 student Andrew 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 mixtape."

"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." Bari 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."

By Marc Fisher |  April 28, 2007; 7:56 AM ET
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$200k worth of equipment to mimic the 99.5 playlist? Even better, to ive kids a system to play their own CDs. Last I checked, a boom box was about $69. Wow, the schools there must be in great shape.

Posted by: No wonder | April 29, 2007 3:39 PM

This was a great story. It's terrific that kids have an opportunity to be involved in things like this at such an early age. I hope you told them to take courage and develop a playlist that will both respond to and expand the tastes of their listeners.

And, um, do kids really fight on the bus about which station to listen to? Sheeesh!

Posted by: THS | April 30, 2007 1:34 AM

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