Lauren Green is one of several student DJs at KEOM. The Dallas-area radio station recruits teens to broadcast 1970s music to more than 200,000 listeners daily.
Lauren Green is one of several student DJs at KEOM. The Dallas-area radio station recruits teens to broadcast 1970s music to more than 200,000 listeners daily. Wade Goodwyn/NPR
Bailey Wilson, another student DJ at KEOM, says working at the station has had an insidious effect on her musical tastes.
Bailey Wilson, another student DJ at KEOM, says working at the station has had an insidious effect on her musical tastes. Wade Goodwyn/NPR
Dallas is the fifth-largest radio market in the country — and the dial is dominated by the standard commercial and public formats.
But there is still one spot on the dial that doesn't fit the mold: KEOM-FM.
Although it has a signal that reaches most of Dallas, KEOM broadcasts from Mesquite, Texas, just east of the city. The first time you happen to land on it driving in your car, it takes a while before you begin to notice that it sounds a little different.
It might make you say, "What is this, bring your kid to work day?"
Owned and operated by the Mesquite school district, the 25-year-old station exists for the sole purpose of training high school students in the art of radio.
Seniors Bailey Wilson and Lauren Green, both 17, man the microphones from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays. For Green and Wilson, speaking to 200,000 fellow Texans at any given moment is both exhilarating and, as any practitioner of live radio will tell you, occasionally mortifying.
Listening to KEOM can be a bit like watching NASCAR — something spectacular could be just around the next corner. But Wilson says their audience, mostly age 30 to 50, rarely complains. Instead, listeners call in to tease and laugh.
"People know we're student DJs," Wilson says. "Basically, they know we're bound to screw it up."
To get on the air, you have to audition. And if you pass, you're off to a class called Radio 1.
Camille Turner takes her students through their paces in Radio 1. But in the age of the iPod, does terrestrial radio still have any relevance to young peoples' lives? Isn't this like training them to be steelworkers or something? Peggy Brooks, the station manager, says that many KEOM students are still going on to successful careers in broadcasting, iPod notwithstanding. The experience has also been beneficial to students who pursued other careers, she says.
"They will tell you this benefited them in their current career," Brooks says. "If I were to average it out, I would say about one student for every year we've been broadcasting goes on to do something in the industry."
There's no advertising — KEOM'S air is thick with community bulletin board announcements, the Texas State Network news, weather, traffic and that old-school groove.
The music is a cornucopia of the 1970s. Motown, rock, folk, disco — everything from Karen Carpenter to Parliament Funkadelic, a mishmash that ironically would never have been played together on a single station back in the '70s. The student DJs say they absolutely would not listen to this stuff of their own volition. But being forced to day after day, Wilson describes its insidious effect on her musical tastes.
"Some of it's like, 'Oh, I know this song,' " Wilson says. "Then you're singing it, and pretty soon you like most of the stuff on here."
For individuals of a certain age, who might have embarrassing pictures somewhere that involve 4-inch heels, tightfitting polyester and a certain John Travolta pose, KEOM is a missive from their youth — teenage DJs spinning the songs their parents listened to when they were teenagers.