In August 2008, a little-known singer with the given name Stefani Germanotta confidently strode though the halls of Nathan Hale High School wearing nothing but a red, skintight leotard, black leather boots, and sunglasses. Months before she'd ascend to the top of the pop-music food chain, Lady Gaga was merely the latest in a long line of extravagantly dressed dance-superstar wannabes with a hot single to peddle to the students of Nathan Hale, aka Hitmaker High.
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"At the time, it was normal," says senior Madeline Presland, who walked in on Gaga during warm-ups before she performed in the school's cramped, sweaty auditorium. "But now, it just seems nuts."
Such is life at the Lake City school whose in-house radio station, C89.5 FM, has become a juggernaut in the world of dance pop.
The premise seems plucked from a TV pitch meeting: Saved by the Bell meets WKRP in Cincinnati. But the numbers suggest that C89.5—one teacher's side project that's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year—is more a broadcasting force than just a room full of plucky teens.
Each week the station reaches more than 160,000 listeners around the world. It's one of only six whose playlists make up the Billboard Dance Chart, and according to Cary Vance, vice president of a New York–based company that markets bands to radio stations, it's regularly courted by major labels to get their clients' songs in heavy rotation. "As far as high-school stations go, C89.5 is the only one in the country with that much credibility," she says.
Ambitions inside most high-school audio-visual rooms don't usually extend much beyond reciting the day's lunch menu. So how did C89.5 turn into such an influential station? By embracing the guilty pleasure.
Like many schemes hatched by teachers, C89.5 founder Larry Adams says the station originally began as a way to trick students into learning. Now retired, Adams first proposed the idea of a 100-milliwatt transmitter as a non-textbook way to inspire more enthusiasm in his electronics classes.
"It was hard enough to get these kids out of bed in the morning," says Adams. "But the idea of being on the radio got them excited."
Nathan Hale's administration was less enthused. There wasn't money in the budget to support a station, and Adams says the most common response he got when people heard he wanted to put high-schoolers on the air was "How many lawyers do you have?'"
Undeterred, Adams looked for funding elsewhere, and piqued enough curiosity from local businesses that he was able to raise $4,000 for a license. In January 1971, Communications 89.5 FM made its debut, operating under the call letters KNHC and covering only a 2.5-mile radius in Seattle's north end.
The station's rules were simple: no politics, no religion, and no sex. As long as students adhered to those three commandments, they could play whatever records they liked—a free-for-all policy that C89.5's current general manager Gregg Neilson, then an assistant teacher, says led to a catalogue that was all over the map.
"We were playing Wayne Newton during the day, Aretha Franklin at night, and classical music on the weekends," says Neilson. "The students didn't care if anyone actually tuned in, as long as they had a good time."
By the late 1970s, Nathan Hale's staff and students agreed the station needed a more cohesive format. But they struggled to settle on a genre that would appeal to the diverse North Seattle demographic, not to mention a school full of finicky teens. Then came Grease.
"Nobody would admit to it as their favorite thing," says Neilson of the Travolta-as-Zuko musical. "But they would admit it was their second-favorite thing."
C89.5 now had a format, and a calling. While the rest of the world would continue to toe-tap to "Summer Nights" in private while publicly claiming they dug only Zeppelin tunes, the station run by kids not only admitted to liking the catchiest songs, they also played them until others had no choice but to sing along.
"The process here is much different than it is for our peers playing pop music," says operations manager and teacher Richard Dalton. "We don't need approval to add a record to our playlist. We just have to hear the students say, 'Hey, this sounds cool!' "
That play-whatever-we-like attitude has served C89.5 well. By the mid-'80s, its wattage had increased a thousandfold. In the '90s, it leapt ahead of the curve by embracing an all-digital stream. And as C89.5 unapologetically continued to blast synth- and bass-heavy tunes, the station gained even more traction. In 2004, Billboard made it the first noncommercial station in the country to contribute to its dance rankings. And after decades spent educating teens on the finer points of producing and broadcasting, C89.5 can now boast of alumni in studios all over Seattle, from on-air veteran Mike West, formerly of alt-rock favorite KMTT, to hip-hop station KUBE's influential program director Eric Powers.
"People ask me if I went to college to do this," says Powers. "I say no. I went through four years of training at Nathan Hale High School."
Today, C89.5's success can be seen in its recently renovated headquarters, which feature $1 million worth of equipment, including five recording studios and a performance room. Meanwhile, its growing influence is visible on a white wall plastered with signed photos of rising artists who've made the pilgrimage: La Roux, a British electropop duo who went on to receive two Grammy Award nominations after their visit; Rihanna, then a teenager with only one hit, who has since sold more than 25 million albums worldwide; and the icon formerly known as Ms. Germanotta, whose glossy 8 x 10 is inscribed, "Thank you for spinning my record, babe."
With only four full-time employees, the station is powered by alumni volunteers and students, like the ones milling about on this freezing morning shortly after winter break. They arrived an hour before the first bell to deliver traffic and weather reports, write PSAs, and take listener requests. Enrolled in one of nine courses that cover everything from FCC rules to production basics, they will all eventually be introduced on-air, like the Gaga- interrupting Presland, who had her own morning show last summer and who still makes occasional appearances during the week.
"I kind of feel like a star sometimes," she says. "It's amazing to have listeners—real listeners who don't know you—calling in to say hi and request songs."
It's a far cry from the days when Larry Adams struggled to find a way to get his students interested in electronics—an enthusiasm gap best represented by a shaggy-haired senior named Henry Antupit, who talks a mile a minute and, appropriately, serves as the station's student promotions director.
"There are people who have been in this industry for 30 years, and I'm getting to do the same thing they are," he says. "And I'm only 17!"