COLUMBIA CITY — Thirteen public school systems in Indiana have their own radio stations.
That number may be reduced to 12 if Whitley County Consolidated Schools doesn’t find funding for its station, 91.5 FM, WJHS.
The station has been in operation since 1985. It is operated by students under the direction of their radio teacher, Dirk Walker, and broadcasts the district’s athletic events, including football, basketball, wrestling, baseball and softball, as well as the board of trustees meetings.
When there are no local events, the radio plays music, and is on air 24/7.
As school officials plan the construction of a new Columbia City High School, they are faced with a difficult decision: Keeping the radio station at a cost of $500,000, or switching to an online station, where games, songs and meetings could be broadcast via the internet.
“For many years this station has enjoyed success,” said WCCS Superintendent Patricia O’Connor. “The underwriting was adequate, and often more than adequate.”
Now, the station has operated with a budget in the red, and student interest has dropped.
“It has lost money for the past three years,” O’Connor said.
The superintendent told the school board at its last meeting that the radio’s tower is in “poor condition,” and will need to be replaced if the program continues at the new school building, which is expected to open in the fall of 2020.
“Broadcasting technology has changed significantly with digital streaming,” O’Connor said. “We can have updated, less-costly equipment in the new building, and also take up less square footage, if we consider selling the radio frequency.”
The station costs $30,000 to operate, not including the salaries of the teacher who oversees student work. Additionally, because the equipment is outdated, it has had many repairs. In the 2015-16 school year, repairs totaled $3,500.
O’Connor said the frequency, 91.5, is valued from $100,000-$200,000. If the station was sold, she said it would be replaced with an online service, that would continue to be a learning experience for students.
“The academic program will not change,” O’Connor said. “Students will have the same opportunities using different technology. It’s not about cutting back, but moving forward.”
A learning experience
O’Connor reported that there are 78 students taking broadcasting classes at CCHS this year. The class includes radio and television broadcasting. Additionally, there were six students involved in Radio Club, an after school group. The Radio Club was discontinued due to lack of interest.
“We still have some who help with broadcasting the games, etc., but we hope that more students will be involved,” O’Connor said. “The school supports the radio program and I hope it always will.”
O’Connor suggested the school board list the frequency for sale to see of any offers are made.
“If someone makes an offer, that doesn’t mean that the board has to go through with the sale. I think it would be good to see what kind of financial shape we are in. The board may get no offer, or an offer that’s low,” O’Connor said.
Another variable for the school district is the actual construction cost of the new high school building. Bids will be sent out this spring, which may come back higher or lower than predicted. The budget for the new building is $85 million, which was approved by a referendum November 2015.
Tim Moriarty, a retired radio teacher of 22 years at CCHS, was one of four people who spoke against the sale of the station.
Moriarty pleaded with the board to seek other avenues to fund the program, such as increased underwriting or renting a new tower, rather than purchasing one.
“I think the school’s architects need some more information from people who have been in business – broadcast engineers – and get some hard facts,” Moriarty said. “WJHS is an important program, not only to this community and your students, but to northeast Indiana.”
Others spoke against having the station via an internet stream, because some don’t have access to internet, especially in their vehicles.
Decision to come in three months
The board members were sympathetic to both sides of the discussion, understanding the community interest in keeping the station, but realizing the expense.
“I have always wanted to fight for this radio station,” said board member Deb Hiss. “I would hate to think that someday we’re going to turn on the radio, and our station won’t be there anymore.”
The board members said they wanted to make an informed decision, and are giving school administrators and the community time to come up with options.
“I don’t think this board is in a position to make a decision now,” said board member Tim Bloom. “It depends on a lot – the cost of the news school, but it also depends on the demand and interest from the community. If over the next months, people organize and come to us with ideas and an outline for making it financially stable, that that would go a long way toward convincing the board for an extended life of the station.”
The board agreed to table the discussion for three months to allow for bids to come back for the new school, and time for those interested in retaining the station to come up with some options.
“Now we have a plan – hopefully everything will work out to the satisfaction of at least a few,” said Don Armstrong, WCCS board president.
Since the meeting, the Facebook page titled, “WJHS 91.5 Radio Station” has become active, with a post pleading for people to get involved to #savewjhs.
“Please let us know if you’re interested in serving on a task force to determine options for the station’s future,” a post to the page reads.