FLEMINGTON, N.J. -- Even with CD players and iPods, America's teens still listen to the radio. And they tune in even more when the DJs are their own age.
Their unwavering devotion has meant that high school radio has managed to survive -- even thrive at the margins at the low end of the FM dial.
In New Jersey, high school radio epitomizes what is characteristic nationwide. WCVH, out of Hunterdon Central High School, celebrated its 30th anniversary last month. WJSV, based at Morristown High, has been broadcasting since 1971, and West Windsor-Plainsboro High's WWPH has been on the air 28 years. Other stations operate out of Atlantic City, Piscataway and Brick high schools.
At 78 watts, WCVH can be heard as far as 20 miles from the school. The student-run shows are done in two-hour shifts, with three DJs on each shift. The banter can get silly but stays safely within the boundaries of good taste.
"They have to keep it clean," said David Kelber, WCVH's faculty adviser since 1975. "They have limited free rein."
David Connolly, who does an afternoon show with classmates Jacob Lewandowski and China Ejim, gets to play his favorite music while learning about the radio business.
"We have an order to the show, but as far as the music goes, it's kind of skewed," Connolly said.
There are about 300 high school stations nationwide, said Fritz Kass, chief operating officer of the New Windsor, N.Y.-based Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, an organization that serves mainly college stations. There are about 2,400 stations classified as educational by the Federal Communications Commission.
There is no national organization specifically for high school stations, and the FCC does not maintain statistics on them. But Kass said high school stations have made up most of the growth in his organization's membership in the last few years.
Kelber has overseen the growth of WCVH from a one-room operation manned by six or seven students to one that features radio and television studios with state-of-the-art equipment used by about 100 students. He and engineer John Anastasio designed and built most of the furnishings themselves.
Students broadcast from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday. The rest of the time, the station offers computer-programmed music and taped public-interest programming.
Wayne Cabot, an afternoon newscaster on New York's WCBS AM, cut his teeth in radio at WCVH while a student at nearby Voorhees High in the early 1980s and remembers "spending every spare minute" at the station.
"We had a lot of fun, but it was a great place to learn," he said. "You learned everything about programming formats, engineering, what rules you had to follow to keep your license."
Federal legislation passed in the 1960s set aside the frequencies between 88.1 and 91.9 for non-commercial stations of 100 watts or less. Those airwaves have become increasingly crowded in New Jersey, which has more than 130 AM and FM stations, according to FCC statistics. The Hunterdon Central and Morristown stations use the same 90.5 FM frequency, as do WBJB in Lincroft and WXGN in Egg Harbor Township.
Even well established high school stations operate largely at the mercy of the larger outlets. FCC rules require smaller stations, categorized as Class A, to make way on the FM band for larger stations in Classes B, C and D if conflicts arise.
For example, when Radio One, the country's seventh-largest radio conglomerate, bought 107.7 WSNJ in the Philadelphia area, it moved the location of its tower and also moved the station's frequency to 107.9 to fit into the Philadelphia market.
That amounts to a death sentence for WWHS, which has broadcast on 107.9 from Haverford High School since 1949 and is considered the longest-running high school station in the country. The station is expected to go off the air before the end of the year, a Radio One spokeswoman said.
One solution would be to stream audio over the Internet, an experiment WCVH tried two years ago but later abandoned. Kelber and Anastasio cited the cost involved, on top of what the station already pays to music licensing agencies ASCAP and BMI.
"We don't compete with the commercial stations," Kelber said. "We're not in the business of making money or for ratings. But we do care about service to the community."