This Week's EditionMay 17, 2014
Story by Claire Moorman
Photos by Carolyn Van Houten
Headphones on. Volume up. The room floods with sound.
Ben Fromme and Robin Evans bob their heads to Guns N’ Roses version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” When the guitar solo kicks in, Fromme lets loose and pretends to drum on the table. A countdown on the computer screen in front of him shows exactly how long until the song ends.
Fade out. Music volume down, microphone volume up. Game faces on. You’re listening to 93.7, The Scratch.
Fromme and Evans get serious.
“You kind of get that butterfly feeling when you first open the mic and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s my voice on the radio and people are listening to me,’” Fromme, a junior at Jasper High School, says, leaning into his microphone. His voice rings out across the JHS cafeteria where he sits, in classrooms throughout the school where students and teachers have turned on their TVs to listen in, on phones and computers across Dubois County where residents have logged on to Scratchradio.org.
“(I think) ‘Oh, I’m going to stutter. I can’t think of the next song,’” Fromme continues “But you know what? I think I’m getting the hang of this now.”
It’s National High School Radio Day. Fromme, Evans and their classmates will spend the entire school day taking shifts at the makeshift radio station set up on the cafeteria stage. Here, on these hard plastic chairs with the smell of chicken nuggets and fries wafting around them, many of these students’ future careers will get their start.
Until two years ago, it would have been crazy to suspect that JHS would become one of only about 60 schools in the country to coordinate a daylong broadcast in honor of the radio holiday. It would have been unlikely that a fledgling half-hour radio show dubbed The Scratch would be poised to grow into a citywide source of entertainment completely run by students. And it would have seemed silly to suggest that each week during homeroom, the school’s students and staff could watch a 10-minute episode of well-produced, student-anchored JHS news complete with interviews, skits, commercials and footage of sporting and club events.
The JHS media empire is young, but it is strong. It’s fearless leader is Evan Elrod, 31, whose voice could likely be recognized by many as an afternoon DJ on radio station WBDC. He is married to a JHS science teacher, the former Brooke Kieffner, and the couple is expecting their first child. Elrod originally hails from Kentucky, but he arrived at the high school at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, ready to start a new era of reporting, filmmaking and editing.
Evans, a senior, hadn’t thought about a film career yet when he struggled to find a class to fill a gap in his schedule at the beginning of the year. He found himself by happy accident in Elrod’s Radio/TV 2 course, and everything changed.
“It was an explosion of discovery about things that I never even knew I liked. I love video now. I love being on camera. I love entertaining. I’ve discovered that’s my niche,” Evans said. “I love to entertain people. I want to do that with my life, whether it’s being on the radio, whether I can be an actor someday. This is what lit the spark that will light the fire for the rest of my life.”
For junior Christian May, the story was much the same.
“We were planning on taking photography,” May said of himself and friend, senior Jared Coller. “All of a sudden, (Principal Brian) Wilson walks in the room and says we’re going to switch this class. I didn’t know a lot about video at the time. I love it now.”
Evans, an outgoing, comedic personality, May, an aspiring broadcast journalist, and Coller, a music lover, have all found outlets for their varied creative needs in Elrod’s program. Students in the two sections of Radio/TV 1 and one section of Radio/TV 2 take turns directing, anchoring, reporting and producing each installment of the Wildcat Weekly television news show broadcast on Wednesday mornings during homeroom. They DJ early-morning radio shows which reach students arriving in the parking lot between 7:30 and 8 a.m. They update a blog with written news pieces and upload videos. And between all these recurring responsibilities, they film and edit video projects, adding layers of special effects and sound to hone their skills.
“Media is becoming more than just what it used to be, and these kids need to be exposed at a younger age. The competition is outrageous,” Elrod said. “It’s amazing what our field is doing, and the better prepared they are, the more they’re going to be ready for the careers they’re interested in.”
Choosing to enroll in Elrod’s classes can mean extra work outside of the typical school hours, but when students are willing to show up in the classroom in the evenings, Elrod is there as well. For each Wildcat Weekly episode, the students elect a director who compiles a list of school-related news stories and assigns them to student reporters, and a producer who edits video clips submitted by the reporters. The director and producer together often frequent the media room on Tuesday evenings, working furiously to finish their projects.
“They need a longer period of time to edit videos, so if I need to come in at night, so be it,” Elrod said. Each class period at JHS is less than an hour long. “They’re here, they’re doing something productive. I’m not going to be mad about that at all.”
On April 14, the Radio/TV 1 class was tasked with creating the weekly news show. Elrod typically assigns show duties to the more advanced students for the first half of the school year, eventually giving the beginners a few shows to produce in the second semester once they have learned the basics of iMovie, their editing software of choice. That week’s show was more stressful than usual: Homeroom was moved to Monday, leaving the students with two fewer work days than normal.
In the back of the room, in front of a makeshift green screen, was director Ronnie Schepers, or Ronnie Mahogany as he is better known when channeling “Anchorman” character Ron Burgundy.
“Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather, yellow leather,” he repeated over and over, warming up his mouth and vocal chords as he waited to record himself reading his script from the class’s new teleprompter, an iPad mounted to a special lens. An app allows the anchors to read scrolling text while looking at the camera.
Across the room, junior Ted Boeglin, that week’s producer, received flash drive after flash drive loaded with clips from his fellow students. He quickly dragged the files into iMovie, cutting out mistakes, adjusting volumes and, of course, checking the ever-ticking clock on his desktop.
“I think here in another five minutes we need to be exporting,” Elrod called out. “Mr. Director, what are we missing here?”
“All we have left is Ted’s (segment),” Schepers called back. “We’re looking good.”
A few minutes later, time was running short. Boeglin was hunched forward in his seat, quickly lacing clips together into an intelligible telecast.
“One thing we’ve kind of been lacking is good, consistent sound levels,” Elrod told Boeglin, leaning over his shoulder to inspect one of the clips. “Make it as tight as you can. How are we looking?”
“I think she’s done,” Boeglin said. There was a collective sigh of relief.
The bell rang. Boeglin’s mouse was still clicking away. He finished with seconds to spare.
After every installment of Wildcat Weekly airs, Elrod gathers the class for a review. Students must fill out surveys detailing what they liked about the show and what aspects they can do better.
The April 30 show wasn’t too bad, Elrod said, but it could have used some improvements. The audio levels on some clips were too high while the volume on the anchor spots was too low.
“That’s a good lesson to learn that you have to watch your stuff through,” he told the class. “I know you’re in a hurry a lot of time, but you have to watch your project through all the way.”
But being a media student doesn’t just mean getting critiqued. There is plenty of praise to go around too, and that praise was never doled out so liberally as at the first annual aCATamy Awards ceremony hosted in the auditorium last Saturday. The media students arrived at JHS in their black tie best and made a pit stop at a camera in the hallway manned by May, who quizzed them about their favorite aspects of the class. Then they grabbed some refreshments and took a seat inside to watch what amounted to “maybe a quarter” of the videos they had made all year, according to emcee Elrod.
“Here’s the thing guys and girls, you have created tons and tons of videos throughout the year,” Elrod said from onstage. “I want you to realize just how much work you guys have put into the class this year.”
The night was a laid-back way to cap a school year’s worth of hard work. In the best advertisement category, senior Nora Hopf’s TV spot for Cabana Tan was nominated. Hopf came up with the idea to sell ad space during Wildcat Weekly to raise a little extra money for the program. The work also helped polish her filmmaking skills in preparation for next year at Ball State University as a telecommunications major.
“Ever since this class has started, I’ve grown so much,” she said. “And I feel like I’ll be really far ahead for college compared to other students.”
The clips kept rolling. A stop-motion short using Post-It Notes to replicate the old video game “Block Breaker” captured the Best Animation prize. Boeglin came away with the Best Actor award for his part in a self-made music video. A half scary, half hilarious spoof on Discovery Channel animal specials featuring sophomores Josh DeWitt and Harry Seng dressed as a mole and an eagle was named Best Comedy. DeWitt’s second win in the music video category prompted senior David Birge to run onstage and steal the microphone in an impression of Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
Best Picture was awarded to “Gates,” a horror short written, directed, produced and acted by a group of Elrod’s students. The movie went on to take a finalist slot at the Western Kentucky Film Festival; so did a texting and driving public service announcement by Hopf and an episode of Wildcat Weekly. Last year, none of the class’s film festival submissions made it that far in judging.
“Gates” elicits gasps from Elrod’s students every time he screens it for them. May and senior John Gagmon star as two high schoolers who break into JHS late at night to steal test answers but are soon pursued by Evans, dressed in a trenchcoat and ski mask.
“What I really enjoyed was connecting with Christian and (producer) Nolan (Uebelhor),” Robin said. “Before then, I wasn’t super great friends with them, and now I am. It was a beautiful unison.”
As a result of the success of the media program, administrators have resolved to help Elrod set up a pathway for students interested in journalism and filmmaking. Beginning next school year, they can take Introduction to Communications, intended for underclassmen to learn the history and laws of media. Students will then move on to interactive media, a new take on the traditional yearbook course featuring even more photojournalism and blogging. Next comes Radio/TV 1 and 2. The cost of the program is split between the school corporation and the Patoka Valley vocational cooperative. The school’s journalism course and the publication of the student newspaper The Comet ended about five years ago
Additionally, The Scratch will get a long-awaited expansion. With its application to become a full low-power FM broadcast station approved this spring, the school has been able to purchase a 100-watt antenna that will increase the broadcasting range to reach throughout the city. The station — which was shut down for the semester while the changes took place and recently began broadcasting again online — will likely hit the airwaves again in the fall and begin generating some money to help the program pay for new equipment.
Elrod considers the station a low-risk way for the kids to learn proper radio techniques. Some of them have even parlayed their new skills into internships. Among that group is Hopf, who works as a control board operator at WBDC during broadcasts of basketball games.
“I know that dead air is probably the worst thing, so it’s better to be talking and rambling than not saying anything,” Hopf said of being on the radio. “Most of the time I just go on the fly.”
Every day is different in Elrod’s room. Every show gives a new student the chance to shine.
“You can’t help but kind of get close to them and see that they’re creative students. Some of them are top of the class and some of them aren’t, but they’re creative. They have something to offer,” Elrod said as he sat in the auditorium before the aCATemy Awards, clad in a tuxedo, sorting through the award certificates he had printed to recognize his friends, the students. “This class is going to be tough to let go ... but they should be excited to move forward, because most of them are probably going to do great things. I’m excited to see what they do.”
Contact Claire Moorman at email@example.com.