This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.
Jim Diederich was listening to the radio on a fall day in 2003 when he heard a word that made him freeze.
The word, which snuck its way in on the tails of a rap song, is not printable here. Suffice to say it was an expletive. Ten years later, Diederich doesn’t remember exactly which word and which song it was.
But the South Caldwell High School teacher had just launched the school’s first broadcast radio station, the Rockit. So as soon as he heard the word on the air, Diederich braced himself for the phone calls he knew were coming.
All of the brand-new station’s music had come from a DJ who played wedding receptions. Diederich paid the DJ to copy his hard drive. But he didn’t think about the wide swath of music that would be in those files – some that was appropriate for a station run by a high school, and some that was not.
As it turned out, one of the first tasks the Rockit presented for its first staff – after that inappropriate word made it on the air – was sifting through those files of music to figure out which songs could stay.
But that task was tackled, and now the Rockit is celebrating its 10th anniversary. South may be the only high school in the state to have a station licensed by the FCC and broadcasting throughout the county instead of on a closed circuit within the school, Diederich said.
Some students come to the Rockit when they sign up for Diederich’s broadcast classes; others simply show up and get involved. For many, the music is the draw.
“I really like that part of it,” said Matt Thomson, a South student who has worked at the station for two years. “I like being able to play stuff that people like to hear, but they don’t get to hear (on commercial radio) anymore.”
Other students get started as recurring guests on their friends’ shows, or siblings who worked on the Rockit in their own high-school days will suggest it.
The station broadcasts on two frequencies, 92.9 WSEQ and 100.1 WSER, because when Diederich was applying for an FCC license, he submitted two applications just in case, one in the school’s name and one from the Caldwell County Schools. As it turned out, both were approved.
Today, the station broadcasts a variety of other programs in addition to music, from football and baseball games to talks with the superintendent. But the style, what Diederich calls “classic hits by classic artists” have played the same. The station plays everything from ’80s pop to classic rock — but if you hear a brand-new song on the Rockit, it’s probably because Bruce Springsteen released one.
“We have people call in or email in and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that song in a long time,’” Diederich said. “It’s not just songs you would hear every single day.”
One of Diederich’s students, McAulay Renfro, was interested in broadcasting and started looking for opportunities within the county when he realized his school had a radio station.
That happens more often than not, Diederich said – students and teachers don’t realize there’s live radio broadcasting from a room upstairs.
But those who do know – the sibling referrals, the music junkies, the people who get registered for the class without quite realizing what it is – come together in a tiny room (about the size of a particularly sumptuous closet) to make radio.
For some of them, it’s just for fun, another elective on the list. Others, including Thomson, hope to make broadcast a career.
It’s a good place to start, Diederich said, gesturing around at the tangle of mics and wires that twist into a little digital rainforest in The Rockit’s closet-sized space.
“This stuff isn’t toy stuff,” he said. “This is the real stuff.”
Some of these kids will go on to college, already having learned to work the equipment that will form the digital current of their careers. Others will just remember it. But other students will come after them, too, and keep spinning music.
And, hopefully, people will keep listening – hearing songs they haven’t heard in a long time.