Sometime toward the end of the 1967 school year, two juniors at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Illinois, requested a meeting with the District Superintendent. They had an idea that the school should establish its own radio station, in-house and student-run.
The Superintendent agreed. Radio, at that time, was flexing its strength. AM frequencies in the Chicago area were being snapped up; FM radio was just starting to define its future.
The students of Lyons Township went to work, winning one of the much sought-after new FM licenses; and, on January 8, 1968, they put WLTL on the air.
Today, that station is not only the voice of its La Grange community, a community some 150,000 strong, but also a successful educational project.
General Manager Chris Thomas explains, “It’s kind of fun to say it’s really been a student-led effort from the get-go here at WLTL…Fifty years later, we’ve one hundred plus students involved, doing podcasting, doing live radio shows, doing music reviews, blog writing, I mean things that the founders never could have imagined existed back in 1968….And that seems weird when you think radio. Kids are interested in radio.”
Shaped by a school district’s commitment to student empowerment, to supportive instruction and to hands-on experience, WLTL, for half a century, has inspired teenagers to appreciate the power of community radio.
Continuing the Work
Now in his 17th year with the station, Thomas himself is an example of the program’s success. While in high school in the 1990’s, Thomas worked at the station, and that experience led him first to college radio and next to a career in commercial radio.
Then, sometime in 2004, Thomas heard that WLTL’s manager/teacher was retiring. He recalls, “I reached out to her and said, ‘Wow, that sounds like a fun job,’ and history speaks for itself. Here I am. It is a fun job.”
Express Yourself: Student Run, Student-Operated
While Thomas may be officially designated General Manager, he is very clear that the title of Faculty Advisor more accurately reflects his actual work.
“Students really, truly operate the station,” Thomas explains. “It’s the way it should be in a student-run radio station; the students should be running the show.”
There is, he lists, a student program director, a student promotions director, a student music director. A student management board creates the programming schedule; student production directors make promos, ids, and liners. Hosts design the content of their shows. And student voices are the voices listeners hear.
Each semester, students audition for 30 on air time slots. Tryouts, which include both written and spoken portions, are student run and student scored, a process, Thomas says, that insures “we’re really getting the kids who have put the most effort in or maybe put the most research into their shows and their applications.”
Those who receive weekly slots are allowed to include three or four friends in their programming, giving more people a chance to be involved. Lyons Township, Thomas notes, is a big school—some 4200 students are offered 110 clubs and 40 sports teams; and not every student is available every semester.
At the end of each semester, everyone gets cut; everyone has to tryout again.
While most programs are music programs, the station also airs a sports talk show and covers student athletics. Headline news is offered daily, and other specialty news and political programs cover local, national and international events and student opinion. Occasionally, hosts interview reporters from the school newspaper staff, adding depth to their common work, or feature conversations with local and school officials.
Recently, some students have developed podcasts. These are mostly original content; and these students, Thomas explains, are always encouraged, when they graduate, to take the programs with them. “We tell them that’s their creative content, not ours,” says Thomas. “We’re just happy to play the incubator for them in their high school days.”
Respect Your Medium: Radio is an Integral Part of the Instructional Day
While students broadcast live from 3PM until 10PM every weekday and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, during school hours, the in-house studios are used for instruction.
Lyons Township High School maintains two campuses—a south campus for freshmen and sophomores and a north campus for juniors and seniors;–and the District has built radio studios for each.
Fundamental media arts classes, television and radio production classes are offered to all students, while an upper level radio management class is offered only by application.
Thomas reflects, “You can tell from their freshman year those who have chosen us as their main activity. They’re the ones that are doing a little bit of everything at the station, so you’ll see those students kind of grow from just a freshman who just walked in and thought this might be kind of fun to all of a sudden their senior year is discussing programming philosophy.”
This educational rigor, Thomas believes, is important because, while many students are initially attracted by interest in music, instruction and experience feeds the realization that radio is so much more.
Students discover, says Thomas, that “there’s more to it than just playing songs on the radio. I can do news; I can do podcasts; I can interview people; I can write blogs, I can do research. And I think, once they get in the door and find out there’s more than that, they kind of fall in love with it, just like I did when I was a student.”
Hard Work and Good Radio Rewarded
Instructional efforts and student enthusiasm for a station that belongs to them have produced award-winning programs.
Since the 2003 creation of the John Drury Awards to recognize excellence in high school broadcasting, WLTL has been named Best Station in the Nation a record-setting seven times, most recently in 2020. Individual broadcasters have also been recognized for news feature stories, specialty music programs, on-air promotions, social media campaigns, and website design.
Thomas, commenting on their achievement, says it’s nice to win primarily because it helps students with college admission and scholarship applications.
But, Thomas emphasizes, awards are never the programming goal. “We always tell our students, ‘We don’t want you to make any programming to win an award. We want you to make award-winning programming.’ The award is going to find you if you’re telling good stories and making good radio.”
Radio Strengthens Community
Over the years, WLTL has earned strong community support. An old school—the first campus was built in 1888–, Thomas notes that many of the students are “at least second, if not third, fourth or fifth generation….People go away but they tend to come back when their kids go to school.” And, Thomas goes on, “We always say our goal is to be a bridge between the school and community.”
A currently running podcast entitled “So That’s Why?” illustrates his point—“There’s an old telephone booth in one of the foyers of the school, like from the 1920’s,” Thomas explains, “and we’re looking at the history of how was that built and why was it put in there and what was the purpose of those things back in the day. We try to educate the community about the school as well.”
The community is in turn responsive and supportive, running an annual fundraiser that provides generous donations from local businesses and community members. Residents report that they particularly like hearing the student mix of music, the exposure to new music, and hearing about what it’s like to be in high school now.
…And Radio Connects Community to the World
In 2020, Lyons Township High School, like many other schools, closed its doors. Station workers struggled to produce programming from home; original programming shrunk from 60 hours a week to five or ten. The student staff, looking for partners, discovered a number of candidate networks, including the Pacifica Affiliate Network.
Now beginning its second trial year, Thomas says he hopes the greater normalcy of this school year—students are back in the buildings—will allow the station to better explore the new programming at their disposal.
A major emphasis of the radio education program, Thomas says, is that affiliation expands the variety of programs a station can offer. He notes that, while he likes that community radio is very local, “we [also] try to tell our students that the difference between WLTL and someone’s iPod is the programming that we can do. The thing that makes a station like WLTL or any college or community station stand out is the ability to provide something that can’t be found elsewhere.”
Affiliations also allow the station to move toward twenty-four hour community service.
Currently, because student programming ends at 10PM—and because high school students are not up and about on weekend mornings, the station is not live during those times.
But, Thomas points out, the community is up and about and ready to listen; and, “So one of the things we’re looking to do is say…how can we connect you to the greater world as well?…We are able to provide programming that you’re not going to hear anywhere else in our area and to expand our worldview, our knowledge base of what’s going on outside of our community as well….There’s just not an outlet for that kind of programming on the commercial dial in many cities; so as a noncommercial station, we thought that seems like something we could do with the extra time that we have when students aren’t creating the shows.”
Welcome to the Network
Pacifica welcomes new affiliate WLTL to the network and to the rich diversity of programing now available to young students first exploring the possibilities of community radio, to these young broadcasters who represent the future of community radio.