Feeling the Music

Blind students become radio deejays at a school for the deaf and the blind

By Erin Murray | 12/11/09

Romney, W.Va – Jess Childers, 19, picks up a song list and holds it an inch from his eyes, looking for the correct song number for the song he wants to hear next on the radio. His fingers skate across the keys on the computer keyboard, type in the memorized digits, and press enter. “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger comes over the radio.

Childers is a senior student in an elective radio class at the West Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind. This is his second year working at the radio station; he is one of the nine students in the school’s radio program.

He clicks a few more buttons by memory and the signature for the station comes over the waves, “This is the new underground radio 91.5 FM.” Though 91.5 is the rock ‘n’ roll station that students listen to around campus, it is only one of the stations the students get to deejay for. The other station, 104.1 FM Classic County is the station that most people in Romney listen to on their way to work in the morning and during the day.

Through the 45-year-old radio program, the students learn to talk on air, choose songs and work with the radio equipment. But the love of music is what has really brought these kids to the station.

“I just love music, I mean being able to sit in a whole class period, for one class period and listen to music, and not getting in trouble, that’s a good thing,” said Childers. “Music is a good thing. If you don’t have, you know, love, or whatever it is that makes you happy, music is the next best thing.”

Reid Tomczewski, another senior in the program, sits next to Childers at the radio desk. Tomczewski is tall and has long dark hair that runs down past his shoulders. He has more favorite songs than he can list, so when he deejays he brings in his own personal CD case that is overflowing with various CDs. Tomczewski says hands down the music is what draws him to radio.

“The music. I’ve been playing since I was little, but I do listen to it a lot,” said Reid Tomczewski. Tomczewski runs his hands through his binder and selects the next CD then pushes it into the CD deck in front of him. Childers hits the play button and “One Last Breath” by Creed fills the airwaves in the station and across campus.

Sitting at a desk facing the window that looks in on the radio station sound booth is George Parks, the radio teacher. Parks is a radio and music buff, who grew up in Romney. He has worked with the radio program for 28 years.

Parks discovered his love for radio through this very station. When he was a kid he attended a 4-H camp on campus. Parks is not deaf or blind, but in the 1970s the school had summer camps for all the children in the area. Parks was able to get into the station during this camp and from then on he knew he wanted to learn about radio. When Parks grew up he worked as a musician and found a job at a radio station in Keyser. But after a few years the deaf and blind radio station drew him back and the school offered him a job.

“The folks that ran the school, they asked me if I could come over and take over the station and get it running and get some students back in here again, because they had a little dry spell there where they didn’t have a teacher,” said Parks.

Christening the Air Waves

The original station began in the fall of 1964 when Ed McDonald took his small AM transmitter to the dorms at the age of 14. McDonald, now 60 and living in Keyser, WV, convinced the house parent in the dorm to clean out an old bathroom that was currently being used as a broom closet. This bathroom became the first radio station at the School for the Deaf and the Blind.

With the help of a few friends, his roommate Ed Greenleaf and friend Roger Williamson, wired up the first radio program at the school called Radio 83 AM. The audience was the student body because that was as far as the transmission reached.

McDonald was a blind student at the school. He says growing up blind gave him a lot of time to listen to radio. As a child listening to radio, the idea to work in the medium grew. He now runs his own syndicated station out of the basement of this house in Keyser, WV.

The same love that drives the students today, motivated the students in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that was music.

“We got our music where we could sometimes. We, you know, people bought records and we could afford them and play them, but mostly we just kind of pirated our music and recorded it from other sources,” said McDonald. “So we got our music where we could, and put it on tape, and played it.”

In the early 1970s the radio station grew and people within a few blocks of the school could hear it. This caught the attention of a local police officer, Mike Freeland. Freeland knew that the station was operating illegally, so he helped the boys get a FCC radio license. Over the years, the station has transformed into a class, regulated by the school.

”But it’s not a situation like it was when we were doing it. We were creating it and our audience was the student body and anybody out in the community that wanted to listen to it,” said McDonald. “You know, it’s grown beyond that to the point where it’s a local radio station and the sound is a lot more tightly controlled, because you can’t just turn kids lose to play radio when thousands of people might be able to hear it.”

The Station Today

Even with the regulation, the students run the airwaves.

“I like being on air and being in full control of the station, because usually I’m the only one (student) here,” said Childers.

The students that work at the station are blind students, or partially blind. The program allows for hearing impaired students, but they must have some level of hearing.

“I haven’t had much of a good life with my parents, you know, like any normal kid would want, but I’ve risen above it. I’ve done what people told me I’d never be able to do because of my sight,” said Childers. “I am finally in a school that I know there’s people here that can take care of me when I need them.”

As a blind student learning to work in the station has its challengers. Parks says that most of the students are familiar with computers, but the sound equipment is new to everyone.

“There’s a lot of repetition to it. When they come in, we keep acquainting them, actually sometimes laying their hands on the different equipment, showing them just exactly where those controls are,” said Parks. “Then once they learn the general area that the controls are at, they are pretty good on their own, and they start to individualize the equipment.”

Childers and Tomczewski sit side by side in the little radio room. They both talk about what they want to play next and bounce ideas off each other about what to say on air. Then Childers presses the stop button on the radio and moves his mouth closer to the microphone. He lets the listeners know the station call letters, the time and the next song.

The school has the radio class set up as an elective. Most of the students choose the class as a fun, extra to complement their harder classes.

“Some of them take it, maybe not out of the seriousness of making a career out of it, as much as it’s kind of a neat elective to be able to do during the school day,” said Parks.

Through the course, the students improve their writing and speaking skills, they learn about managing a 24/7 radio station, they help programming and scheduling spots, and they learn a little about electronics.

Parks keeps a good eye on everything going on in the station by peeking through his office window. The radio provides background music for Parks as he works in his office. He tries to give the students space, but he has at least an eye or an ear on the students at all times.

“I don’t hover over the students when they are on the air,” he said. “I do have a window that I can see everything that’s going on, and I hear everything that’s going on, but I find that when I am in there and I am overtop of them, they’re more inhibited, as to what they are doing on the air. I find when I am away, and I am watching from the sides, that they open up a lot more, and they do better.

Parks says that many have made a career out of this program, and an equal number have not decided to go into radio, but he says each student takes something away that helps them later in life.

“It’s rewarding, I’ve seen a lot of kids get a lot of good out of this program,” said Parks.

As the live programming ends, Tomczewski leaves first to go to class. He slides through the small space behind Childers chair. He opens up his cane and tucks his CDs under his arm as he heads back to his dorm to store them before class.

Finally Childers starts running through his routine to close down the station. His fingers glide to each perfectly memorized key effortlessly. As he finishes re-automating the station he swings by Park’s office to let him know he’s leaving. Then Childers walks out of the old dorm and goes on his way to his next set of classes for the day.

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