Thursday, October 05, 2017

Fear and loathing in high-school radio


Who's the leader of the station that's made for you and me?

N-O-T  Y-O-U,  teen-age disc joc-key.

And when it comes to our public schools and the people who run them, the exercise of authority over the inmates students can, indeed, quickly become a real Mickey Mouse operation. This usually comes down to raw politics . . . and the sad reality that once they turn 18, the kids who sat in the back of the classroom are eligible to vote for school board.

Another other sad reality -- and this is one teenagers generally learn long before graduation -- is that what you learn in civics class is 75 percent aspiration and only 25 percent actual execution.

Take your constitutional rights as public-school students, for example. Despite the case law on, say, high-schoolers' First Amendment rights being pretty well settled since the early 1970s -- and since 1943 in the case of those choosing to not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem -- every year, some principal or some school board will try to show some dissident somewhere who the real boss is.

I think you can get the right answer to this question even without the benefit of a multiple-choice exam.

So, every year some principal tries to censor or shut down some high school newspaper or, this year, threaten prep football players with "fire and fury" if they take a knee against racial injustice during the Star-Spangled Banner on Friday night. And unless the student knows a really good lawyer. . . .

Because people are stupid, politicians feel the need to be even stupider. It's a matter of solidarity with the electorate. Mostly, though, it's a matter of getting re-elected.

WBRH bumper sticker, circa 1978
WHEN I was growing up in Louisiana, and on the student side of the power equation, things could get a little weird.  This had a lot to do with how politics pervade everything in Louisiana . . . and how politics in the Gret Stet tend to have this certain Venezuelan je ne sais quoi.

This is where the "fear, loathing and radio" part of the post kicks in.

In any banana republic, the first lesson one learns -- or else -- is not to piss off the Maximum Leader. This goes double for the party newspaper and state radio. When the party organ is your local high-school newspaper and state radio is, for instance, the student beacon of Hometown High, students may have their First Amendment rights, but the Maximum Leaders in the principal's office and on the school board still have leverage.

Like money, for instance. Like the power to hire or fire faculty, for another. Like just shutting this troublesome radio station the hell down. When push comes to shove, "freedom of the press" belongs to him who owns one.

Does the Maximum Leader have to threaten a thing? Nope. Sane employees with house notes to pay and kids to feed know who butters their toast. And Maximum Leader Is Watching YOU.

IN THE CASE of WBRH, the radio voice of Baton Rouge Magnet High School, the licensee isn't the Autonomous Students of Baton Rouge High. It is the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

Can the state exercise prior restraint against students who staff official, publicly funded media? Theoretically, no, if Maximum Leader cares to pay lip service to the U.S. Constitution.

But does the constitution require the state to fund a radio station or any other official organ? As far as I know . . . no. There's always an angle.

Especially in Louisiana, a state filled with geometry savants.

In banana republics, the peasants always are seditious, Maximum Leader always has an itchy trigger finger, and the employees on the bottom of the government's food chain always are nervous.

WBRH radio now takes you to the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, where Smiley Anders' universally read local column has just rolled off the press. It is June 1, 1981.


IT IS DELUSIONAL to think that everybody who was anybody at the East Baton Rouge Parish schools central office didn't either read, hear about or field jokesters' telephone calls about Smiley Anders' column that day.

It likewise would be delusional to think that the WBRH general manager, radio broadcasting and electronics teacher John Dobbs, didn't quite reasonably think "Oh, shit . . ." when he saw Smiley's column. Or was told about it in no uncertain terms.


We again take you to the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, where Smiley Anders' universally read local column has just rolled off the press. It is June 3, 1981.


MY LAST airshift at WBRH came a couple of years before that -- I graduated in May 1979. And it's true: It was a tradition and, thus, a coincidence.

But there's no denying that it was an epic and happy coincidence. Well, not for Mr. Dobbs, but still . . . coincidence or not, in the world of student media, you take your shots when you're able, and you count your victories when you can.


In my student-media days, I counted a few victories. I also racked up some defeats and collected a couple of battle scars.

First, there was the time I helped introduce Baton Rouge to the Sex Pistols when I brought my British-import 45 of "God Save the Queen" to the studios of 90.1 FM. Maximum Leader was watching. Or listening, actually.

After a few spins during the fall of 1977, "God Save the Queen" was as banned in Baton Rouge as it was on the BBC. Mr. Dobbs even confiscated my 45. I got it back when I promised never to bring it back.


State-Times, Sept. 12, 1977. Click for full-size version

THEN, maybe a couple of months later, there was the time we had Fannie Godwin on Teen Forum, the 20-watt, high-school FM radio version of Meet the Press. I'm sure it was indistinguishable from Bill Monroe's NBC program but for the acne.

Godwin was a local activist, vice-president of the Baton Rouge ACLU chapter and a "school board watcher," meaning "watchdog" in regular American English. In the fall of 1977, the organization had undertaken the controversial, nay, subversive practice of . . . passing out booklets to high-school students informing them about their constitutional rights.

In 1977, this was a full-blown, red-alert controversy in Baton Rouge. I'm sure it would be today, too. 

The Other Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook informed East Baton Rouge Parish students, right there on the cover, that "You are not in the Army. You are not in prison. It only seems like it. . . ." This was because 40 years ago in my hometown, in most high schools, it seemed like you were in the Army. In a few, notably Zachary High School under Obergrüppenführer Jerry Boudreaux, some freethinkers swore it was a lot more like a prison.

This seems to be the part that got folks the most riled up. Naturally, it involved the First Amendment.
You can speak your mind, wear buttons, and arm bands, hand out literature, picket, form clubs and invite speakers, all on school grounds as long as you don't clearly interrupt the normal school process. It will be up to the administration to prove disruption. You do not need prior permission (even though the parish handbook says you do) to speak, wear buttons, hold meetings, and form clubs.
THE PARISH school board called the Zachary High administration, parents, students and good Christian townspeople of Zachary before it to mount a defense against the horrible allegations with which the American Civil Liberties Union was filling reporters' minds -- and stories.

Obergrüppenführer Boudreaux denied all. Parents decried the civil-liberties troublemakers. Students took the microphone to pull what we'd later come to recognize as total Tracy Flick moves.

"A former Zachary student, who did not give his name, said he was 'unlucky enough' to have also attended other high schools," State-Times reporter Linda Lightfoot wrote in the Sept. 16, 1977, edition of the evening paper. 
"Nobody makes us salute the flag," he said. "We are proud to be a Christian community.“

He added that the "ACLU is dead wrong if it is saying Jerry Boudreaux is running the school in a totalitarian manner."

Darwin Williams. a senior at Zachary, said a "glint of Communism" shows through in the ACLU literature.

Jill Wilson, editor at the Zachary High school paper, said that the ACLU leaflet seemed to imply that she could say anything she wanted to say in the school paper. “Well, I don't want it that way," she said.
State-Times, Sept. 16, 1977. Click for full-size version

IN ZACHARY, obviously there was no pravda in Izvestia and no izvestia in Pravda.

This was the milieu amid which WBRH had Fannie Godwin, second-ranking "commie" in all the parish, on Teen Forum. Charles Knighten was the moderator; I was one of the panelists.

We were keen to know about these constitutional rights students possessed. And we talked much about the ACLU's alternative student handbook.

A just-graduated friend -- a former WBRH staffer -- had dropped by the studio as we were about to tape the program. He told me of pre-performance prayers by the drama students and teacher, suggesting that would make for a good line of questioning.

It was a good topic to quiz the local ACLU vice-president about. If you were (1.) an independent journalist at (2.) a news-media outlet (3.) somewhere in the United States of America.

My journalism and civics teachers would have told me I was, WBRH was, and Louisiana was. Facts on the ground would come to indicate (1.) no, (2.) no, and (3.) "What have you been smoking?"


We thought the show went swimmingly and that Fannie was a great guest. After all, her needling of members during school board meetings surely was high performance art before anyone had heard of performance art.

Someone somewhere in the Maximum Leader ranks thought otherwise. Apparently, I had passed classified material to the enemy.

I was off the Teen Forum panel. And I don't think Teen Forum was back for a second season.


SO, what have I learned in these 40 years since my high-school radio days?

Well . . . I'll tell you.

I've learned that WBRH is made of sturdy stuff. Baton Rouge High's FM station has survived many Maximum Leaders in the school board central office, has endured the politics that infest every single damn thing in my home state, and has grown exponentially despite it all . . . by sticking to the music. Teen Forum still is dead as a door nail, though.

I've learned that digging through old hometown newspapers from one's salad days sure knocks the rose color off your glasses right quick. Ugliness in black and white beats the crap out of nostalgia and sentimentalism every time. (I also am reminded of why I got the hell out of Baton Rouge -- for the last time -- nearly 30 years ago. According to contemporary headlines, things there haven't much improved.)


I've learned that even though I disagree with the ACLU on some things, America damn well needs the ACLU.

Finally, I've learned from the latest effort by "good, Christian Americans" to vilify and intimidate those who, in protest of injustice, take a knee for the national anthem that some things never change. At all.

I have learned that, in this country, there is a wide gulf between the rights society tells people they possess and the rights society permits them to exercise in peace.
 

BATON ROUGE HIGH,  God bless it, was not the Army and was not a prison. Despite the best malevolent efforts of Louisiana's various Maximum Leaders, my old school was a great old school . . . and still is. There, I learned pretty much everything I needed to know in life.

College was just for the advanced degree in drinking.

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