It was in 1967 when the public address club first started operating out of Room 200 on the second floor of Samoset Middle School. The club read homeroom announcements and swirled their voices through the classrooms and hallways of the building – which was the original high school back then.
Rick Fearns, who was an advisor along with Bill Foulkes, and the students involved with the PA club wondered about the possibility of being on a real live radio station.
"But we couldn't get anyone enthused about that idea," he says. "Money wasn't plentiful."
After a year of toying with the PA system, Foulkes and Fearns applied and received a federal grant for $13,000. The Federal Communications Commission was offering educational organizations the chance to obtain a license as a way to promote FM because AM was king of the airwaves then.
"We never dreamed that we'd get it," Fearns says.
Like most of America, Sachem was changing with the times. The Doors and Jimmy Hendrix could be heard blasting from the stereos of fire red Camaros blitzing through the open campus in Lake Ronkonkoma. The nation was fertile and Sachem was a budding gem on the educational landscape of Long Island. A radio station was another medium to prove that one of the state's largest school districts meant business.
As part of the grant stipulation, the school district had to match the original fee – so Sachem had about $26,000 to start the station and WSHR-89.7 FM was born, kicking with 10-watts of power.
This was the day of Walter C. Dunham at the helm of Sachem and Richard Berger as the principal of the high school. Their conservative approach to the expansion of the PA club didn't last long when everyone jumped on the WSHR bandwagon thanks to instant success on the airwaves.
Today, Fearns speaks of the early days of WSHR as an "academic experiment," which sought to engage students from every grade level.
"English classes could have their students write and read over the air," Fearns says, "social studies could record public meetings, there could be board of education meetings, interviews, some of our students would go into the kindergarten classes and have a show called the "Kindergarten Report." We involved every student that we could possibly involve and that gave us a listener base, because mommy and daddy wanted to hear their children on the radio."
WSHR moves North
In 1971, the new Sachem High School North was erected directly behind Samoset. As part of the new construction, Fearns was invited to design a radio station in the octagon, which serves as an administrative hub in the building.
The Long Island Lighting Company donated a 150-foot telephone pole, which was used to anchor the main antenna. On a good day, the 10-watt station spread as far as 10 miles out. Just as the district was rapidly expanding, so was the radio station. It applied for a license to broadcast at 1,000 watts, at which point they switched to the current 91.9 – the highest and final educational spot on the dial. Some think Sachem took the spot that the United Nations occupied on the radio, but Fearns could not recall that specific fact and there is no proof at the United Nations or in any paperwork at the station today.
Fearns, who was a Ham radio operator, did all of the local engineering. He went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and grabbed old wire cabling, which allowed him to dig a trench – they used the gym classes – from Samoset to North. The tower was put up near the football field and the original antenna, though out of commission, still remains on top of Samoset today.
The station was makeshift at first, with Fearns using some of his personal tape recorders and money from the grant to buy the cheapest, yet functional, equipment.
This idea of an educational radio station was new to the world. Before long, Sachem High School and its fancy new dual-studio set up on Smith Road were making world news. From German newspapers to Popular Electronics and World News of the Week, a publication distributed in classrooms across the U.S., Sachem was marked as a pioneer in the broadcasting industry.
Students on the air
Fearns, who came out of his social studies classroom as a teacher to become the full-time station manager, traveled to every building in the district to promote WSHR and to see the wide eyes of students speaking on air for the first time.
"It was a labor of love," he says.
Back then Sachem did not offer a broadcast journalism class for regents credit, so Fearns wrote a syllabus for a communication class and proposed to use the station as a vehicle for broadcast media education. New York State liked the idea and granted Sachem approval to offer a class that was accepted by the Board of Regents.
Fearns said the FCC had more rules in the 1960s when it came to allowing citizens on the radio. He could record class presentations and broadcast discussions, but when students were tasked with actually operating the microphone and board, they needed to be certified by the FCC. A 10-question test would suffice, so the class took annual field trips to New York City where they could take the exam at the FCC building.
Fearns remained at Sachem until 1972. He was tickled by the radio industry. After a trip to California for a summer vacation, he was triggered by the experience he endured working at a commercial radio station during his brief stay on the West Coast. The station was KABC, so he tested the waters further with a leave of absence from Sachem for a year. That year hasn't stopped yet. He spent some time as a maintenance technician and worked his way up to chief engineer. Piggybacking off his time in radio, he was able to work in television and was part of 14 Academy Award ceremonies.
He was also a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Radio Advisory Board. One of the board's tasks was to pick which projects would receive public funding – and Fearns helped grant National Public Radio money, creating what is now an institution in broadcasting.
"I built a radio station the way I thought it should be built," says Fearns, who started teaching at Sachem in 1960. "I knew a lot about engineering and electronics, but there's nothing like being involved in a commercial radio station. They found a replacement for me at Sachem and he brought the station to the stereo world."
The instant success of the late 1960s and early 1970s wasn't something that picked up overnight in the Sachem community. It was because of viral marketing and a grass-roots platform that Fearns implemented that WSHR caught on and stuck.
"We had to constantly sell the station to the public," he says. "We had a dog and pony show with five slide projectors, a massive screen which we showed at PTA meetings. We would publish a program guide and mail it to people who wanted them. It was a constant sell."
Post-Fearns and the future
Wally Chandel was the advisor for a short while before Stuart Harris took over WSHR in 1974 and ran it until his retirement in 1999. He was the man who developed the program's identity for much of its existence and is credited with creating fractionalized programming. While students were able to program music to their liking most of the time – at least during the school year when student-programming was at its peak – most of Harris' stay as general manager consisted of jazz and big band music ... and it was a major hit, which garnered a feature about the station in The New York Times.
The station had expanded to 1,854 watts by the time Harris took over and through the years the station went stereo and increased power to 6,000 watts, which is where it stands today, reaching most of Long Island and parts of Connecticut. At times, the station averages 40,000 listeners a day – not bad, considering half of the regular commercial stations in the United States boast similar numbers.
Still, the most superfluous significance of the station doesn't apply to wattage or how many people are listening on a daily basis; it's about the indelible experiences Sachem students leave the district with. Their voices are heard across Long Island, their thoughts are dispersed into the world possibly for the first time and they forge an identity in the community, something many are not fortunate to accomplish.
"The greatest value of WSHR was a social one, not a broadcast one," says Harris, who credits teacher Paul Bierek with being very instrumental in helping him with the station for years. "It encouraged students from every part of the spectrum. It didn't make a difference when they came into the radio station, they were equally subject to approval or disapproval of the audience. They learned to communicate with their voices and that gave them confidence."
The modern era
Mark Laura will admit at one point he had no desire to be in school. "I wasn't a scholastic by any means," he jokes now. Ironically, he's spent every day and night back at his alma mater, slaving at the radio station that helped give him a future.
As a lost high school student with little direction, Laura was like any other teen that roamed the halls of his or her school with no concrete goals to achieve. Then his guidance counselor – Mrs. Phillips, he recalls – said, "why don't you try radio?" Just like that, a simple suggestion from a lady doing her job.
"We have a radio station, you know?" she said.
"I asked for a tour, got it from Mr. Harris," he says, "and I was in awe."
It wasn't long before he was on air and found his home.
"Coming to class was exciting," he says. "It was a complete 360 change for me. I made the decision then that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life."
Before he graduated from Sachem in 1987, he had landed a paid gig at AM-1570, WRHD. He spent some time at WRCN, interned at WBLI and was eventually hired by BLI and helped see its move from 25,000 to 50,000 watts during his seven year stay at one of Long Island's premier stations.
Laura, who graduated from Hofstra University and has his broadcast engineering certification, worked at the Associated Press from 1998-2001, becoming a top engineer with the media organization.
When a friend of his saw that Sachem was hiring for the general manager position for WSHR, he was immediately standing at attention. He applied, got the job and has been working feverishly ever since.
Only months into his tenure at the station 9/11 occurred and Laura was back in action on air. He was scrambling from the teachers lounge at North, to his office and eventually in the studio, where he was providing live updates. The station was still in disarray at the time. He was reworking things, getting it set up to his own taste.
"I was pulling wires down, wiring the board, and started to get the news together," he recalls. "I called down to the classroom and had the kids get on the Internet and compile information."
Without any news feeds or real-time copy to read, Laura winged it and was competing with WALK, WBLI and WBAB as some of the first Long Island stations to broadcast about the horrific event.
"The information was so garbled because no one knew what was going on," he says. "We didn't know if this is it, Armageddon, this could be a war. I was waiting for the Emergency Alert System to go off."
Laura was spent after 48 consecutive hours at the station, updating the public and monitoring news. It was an unforgettable lesson for the students associated with WSHR that year.
"Your spotlight is the microphone," Laura says. "You learn time management, how to prep for shows, understand how the board works. You have to understand social studies, current events, math sometimes, and science with the weather. You can sit in class and learn all these things and the beauty is that you can apply what you learned on the air."
Presently, the station has moved away significantly from the jazz that was mainstream. As more of the older population began to die off, so has their music. The students still have moderate autonomy to pick the tunes they like during the operation of their shows.
From high school football and basketball games to music shows for every genre, WSHR has it covered. There are studios at both High Schools East and North, which feed into the same 91.9. The only other high school stations are Syosset and Plainview-Old Bethpage, who share 88.5-FM, and Brentwood (88.1-FM) H, but their wattage is significantly lower compared to Sachem, who has one of the premier educational stations on the East Coast.
Countless radio personalities (Vic Latino, Matt Goldapper and Sal Governale to name a few) have started their careers on WSHR, proving that the program is a difference maker.
"It's a nice experience to get started in the industry so young," says Angie Pavlovsky, a junior who hosts a show at East with Kyle Berube every Wednesday from 5-6 p.m. "I love being on Sachem's radio station. Radio is living the dream."