WKTL may no longer be fixture of FM dial

The tower at Struthers High School has marked the home for WKTL radio since 1965. Electronic image by Ron Flaviano.

By EMMALEE C. TORISK | Metro Monthly Staff Writer

Jarid Watson, a graduate of the Struthers High School Class of ’99, hasn’t lived in his hometown for nearly seven years.

Instead, he’s lived in places like South Korea, Italy and Afghanistan, working as a U.S. Air Force broadcast journalist — much like Robin Williams’ character in the 1987 movie “Good Morning, Vietnam.” And now, stationed in Las Vegas, Watson is a video production specialist for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, which he refers to as “the most awesome military jet demonstration team on the planet.”

None of this, Watson said, could’ve happened without WKTL, or without “two simple years at SHS in that radio classroom and D.J. booth.” It was the best experience he had in high school.

So, when he received a text message from his mom on July 17, relaying news of a meeting that evening to discuss “the possible all-out sale” of the radio station owned by the Struthers Board of Education, Watson knew he had to take action from 1,800 miles away.

He started the “Save WKTL” Facebook page that day. Two weeks later, the page boasts close to 300 “likes.”

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that radio station. I wouldn’t,” Watson said. “The entire genesis of where I am today starts with WKTL. Flat out. Bottom line.”

Watson said the news about WKTL’s uncertain future didn’t surprise him, though; he’s noticed the dismantling of the high school’s vocational radio program and the station itself, particularly in the past year.

For more than four decades, WKTL (whose call letters stand for “Key To Learning”) served as “a unique laboratory to put classroom techniques to use” — and also held the designation of being the first high school all student-staffed radio station in the U.S., according to the Struthers City Schools’ website.

But the 2010-2011 academic year marked the last hurrah for the school’s radio classes and, as a result, student-run programming on WKTL 90.7 FM.

The program’s downfalls included increased course credit requirements for high school graduation (which, coupled with declining student interest, led to diminished enrollment in the program) and the retirement of its sole instructor, said Struthers Superintendent Robert Rostan.

Now, for essentially “six and a half days a week,” WKTL simulcasts programming from WAPS 91.3 FM, or “The Summit,” which is owned by the Akron Public Schools system, Rostan said. But The Summit’s programming, he said, is just “a placeholder.”

Saturdays on WKTL, however, still begin at 8 a.m. with big band music and end at 11 p.m. with Slovak music — and they feature, in the intervening hours, 90-minute blocks devoted to volunteer-driven ethnic programming.

Rostan estimated that the vast majority of the 40-some people who attended July 17’s board meeting did so out of concern for Saturday’s ethnic programming. He’s also received feedback through phone calls and letters.

Although he appreciates “their interest and desire to keep it going,” he explained that “neither one of our current programming formats really meet the needs of the Struthers City Schools and Struthers High School.”

“There is no benefit to Struthers High School, which is where it all started,” Rostan said.

Rostan said that he and board members had discussed “in one form or another” what to do with WKTL, even prior to discontinuing radio classes. However, he explained that “it’s time to start having these discussions publicly.”

That’s why, despite being in “the infant stages” of discussion, the July 17 meeting featured an informational presentation by a representative from Patrick Communications, a Maryland-based brokerage firm that is, according to its website, “the nation’s top broker of noncommercial stations.”

Rostan said the purpose of this presentation was “just to discuss the procedures and what we might look to do” with WKTL’s license. If Rostan recommends to board members that they agree to a contract with Patrick Communications, they’d then put the license out for bid, he said.

“The brokerage firm would handle the bid,” he said. “They’d advertise. They’d handle the bidding process. They’d come back to us and say, ‘Here’s what we have. We could agree to sell the license or not.”

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 21, but Rostan explained that board members could still have questions about WKTL’s potential sale “that may or may not be answered” by that time. However, if the license is put up for sale at the end of August, the entire transaction could likely be complete by February or March.

“We have to look at what does the station do for the school district? I’m not sure that I’m able to answer that question,” Rostan said. “If there’s a source of revenue [from the sale of WKTL’s license], whether it be long term or short term, is it something that would benefit the district better?”

Dennis Spisak — board member, host of WKTL’s “Slovak Show” and alumnus of the high school’s vocational radio program — said revenue from WKTL’s sale would go into the school district’s general fund and “basically help pay for operational expenses.”

He explained that WKTL’s license, if put up for bid, could sell for anywhere from $350,000 to $900,000, according to figures provided by Patrick Communications. This estimate, he said, is based upon WKTL’s potential listening audience of between 350,000 and 450,000 people.

“You can get anywhere from $1 to $2.50 per person,” Spisak said. “But it all depends on whatever [the] potential buyer thinks it’s worth.”

Spisak said his appraisal of the station’s financial worth is on the lower end of the estimate. He doubts that WKTL, a noncommercial station, would sell for $500,000, primarily because a local commercial station with a greater coverage area recently sold for that amount.

In addition, if WKTL’s license is sold outright, Spisak said, “there’s no guarantee to the public in terms of what programming will be … [and] technically whoever buys the license can do any kind of programming they want.”

“We can’t put any stipulation about keeping ethnic music on the air on Saturdays,” he said. “Once we sell it and they hand over the check, … it’s theirs, and we’re out of the picture 100 percent.”

That’s why Spisak said he “would hate to see the school system sell the station.” Instead, he favors a local marketing agreement, which would involve the board’s leasing of WKTL to groups or organizations. This agreement, too, could permit the stipulation that ethnic programming could remain on Saturdays, he said.

“A lot of people still like us, still listen to us. They don’t want to see it go,” Spisak said. “We’ve had people that have been basically listening now for over 40 years. … As long as they have a breath, they still listen. … They turn the station on first thing Saturday morning, and, basically, they keep it on all day and listen to a variety of different ethnic programs.”

Despite receiving a flood of letters, phone calls, emails and Facebook messages, not one has urged the board to sell WKTL, Spisak said, adding that the station is “basically the last oasis” of ethnic programming.

It’s something that just isn’t commercially viable. No station is going to get rich off playing polkas, he said. But that’s why it’s so necessary.

Plus, the station — at least in terms of the Federal Communications Commission’s purpose of noncommercial educational licenses — is “still doing what it was intended to do way back in 1965,” Spisak said.

“[They’re] public trusts that belong to the American people and are leased out to meet the informational needs of the community,” he said. “So, in that aspect, we’re still doing that. We’re meeting the informational needs of our ethnic community; we still have listeners.”

WKTL is the only station in the area that provides that particular service to the public, said Terry Check, host of WKTL’s “Souvenirs of Hungary” program. His program, which begins at noon on Saturdays, has been a staple of the station’s lineup since Mother’s Day 1979.

“If they cut that off, we’re done. There’s nothing,” Check said. “This is the only music and only news that thousands of people [have]. This is their only link to their music and events that their groups have. Their only advertising that they can do is through the station. This is their only way. … There’s no organization here that has the money to go to commercial radio and buy a slot to do their music.”

But Check said he understands the school district’s dilemma, in the sense that WKTL without student-run programming is “a liability” and “an expense that’s not serving any students at all.”

All he wants is time — and the “chance to maybe be able to do something” to preserve WKTL and its programs.

“There could possibly be some other solutions out there that could make it a lot better and make … everybody happy,” Check said. “Once the station’s gone, it’s gone. It isn’t going to come back. … We do this because it’s necessary.”

As a result, determining WKTL’s fate is a tough call, Spisak said.

“I understand the financial aspect of the money, and I understand that we no longer teach students per se in classes. I also understand the other part about the listenership, and the station still means a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “Is it still serving an interest of the general public, or do you just want to get rid of it because it’s no longer used as a classroom facility?”

But to Watson, the loss of WKTL would, unequivocally, “be an absolute shame.”

“If it made this much of an impact on my life, I know it will do the same for others. I feel like the people who are making the decisions … are the people who don’t realize what a valuable asset it is. It’s a powerful tool. … It’s to be respected,” he said. “And that’s the point of having this Facebook page. If I can get some folks to see it, to recognize it, to take heed to the fact that there are a lot of people who care about this station, then great.”

© 2012 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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