Cougar Television

Chico Junior teens present peers with daily TV news

DOUBLE DUTY: Students in Chico Junior High’s broadcast journalism class apply for each job and switch around during the year. Taking the cameras are, from left: Stephen Seo, DeeDee Rice and Tanya Zeitler.

DOUBLE DUTY: Students in Chico Junior High’s broadcast journalism class apply for each job and switch around during the year. Taking the cameras are, from left: Stephen Seo, DeeDee Rice and Tanya Zeitler.

Photo by Tom Angel

A couple of times, when the KCJ news team was really tight for time, it went live, broadcasting in real time via closed-circuit television to Chico Junior High classrooms.

Forget the traditional, droning- over-the-intercom daily announcements you heard in junior high. This is KCJ News.

The broadcast journalism class, an elective at Chico Junior High School, produces and presents, via closed-circuit television, a daily news show by students, for students.

There’s a fair amount of joking around on the set, but once the cameras start rolling, it’s all business.

“Get Camera A on her.”

An earphone-equipped camera operator raises one finger in the air, and voices lower.

Behind the glass of the classroom that’s been converted to a TV studio, engineers and directors sit intently. The technical director’s fingers are on the ready.

“Music up,” cues Robin Abbott, a seventh-grader and director for the “blue team.”

Kirk Williams, a seventh-grader wearing a Blue Room Theatre T-shirt, and Brittney McGuire, who’s in the eighth grade, are the news anchors today, while eighth-grader Brandon Duncan is on sports.

Against a freshly painted blue background scattered with school mascot cougar paws, the teens tell of the Silver Dollar Fair, a San Francisco Giants defeat, eighth-grade graduation ("Girls just dress casual and have fun in your moment of fame"), teacher appreciation week and even some national news.

At 8:10 the next morning, as many as 800 students will be watching the recorded 10-minute broadcast from their classrooms.

Teacher Andy Wahl, perched on a stool in a classroom half-full of indigo iMacs, reviews that morning’s broadcast ("really good") and asks students to ponder how the class can improve the program during the final three weeks of school. On the dry-erase board, the words “anterior” and “posterior” are defined. Students volley for the few remaining times, mostly before school, that the powerful Macintosh G3 computer is available for video editing.

JUNIOR DAN RATHERS: KCJ television anchors speak the news to hundreds of Chico Junior High School students every day. From left are: Brandon Duncan, Kirk Williams and Brittney McGuire.

Photo by Tom Angel

A classroom television rolls a slick, rock-backed commercial for LuLu’s Fashion Lounge that looks every bit as professional as most locally produced spots. (In fact, the class took a field trip to the Fox studios in Chico a couple of weeks ago.)

Students must seek out businesses that will “let” them film a 30-second commercial. Current clients range from Jon & Bon’s Yogurt to String Bead to For Kids Only. And when the business owners see the students’ product, they often end up wanting to run the commercials on “real” TV.

For the news, students get on the Internet to find and rewrite stories from the daily newspaper, CNN and other sources. There’s some original reporting, too. Eighth-grader Natasha Easton mentioned “one time when I interviewed a poet [who was visiting] the school.”

“We experimented with the weather, but it didn’t quite work out,” she added.

The student journalists are not looking to shake things up with controversial stories. “For the first half of the year I would edit the script every day to make sure,” Wahl said. “We try to stay on pretty tame stuff. … We’ve got to be careful.”

(A May 23 report that “no students are allowed out of class, unless for emergencies, the rest of the year” did draw a couple of groans from viewers in Wahl’s science class.)

The class is split into two production groups: One team is planning a day’s program, while the other is producing one. Roles within the broadcasts also rotate, as the students apply for new jobs.

Nick Jester, an eighth-grader and recording engineer who keeps one eye on the monitor at all times, said he prefers the behind-the-scenes work but was surprised when he also enjoyed his role as sports anchor. “When I first came into the class I didn’t want to be in front of the camera,” he said. He was nervous about all the student viewers but said, “You kind of forget about it because it’s recorded.”

The anchors read from a script, but Wahl hopes to get their eyes up by using a TelePrompTer. “They’re kind of expensive, but we’d really like to get one,” he said. In the meantime, they’ve set up a makeshift cuing device with a computer hooked to a monitor.

The team gets as many “takes” as it has time for during the class period—usually three or four—and goes with the best one.

During the Pledge of Allegiance portion of the broadcast, which is accompanied by a picture of a flag and words that morph from “salute” to “pledge,” the students in the studio mouth the words to make sure the timing is right before fading out.

Not just anybody can get into the broadcast journalism class. For next school year, Wahl has 40 applicants—who must come with a teacher’s recommendation—and will have to turn away over half of them after an interview process. Once accepted, he said, “They actually apply for the jobs” of director, editor, camera operator and so on.

ON CUE: When the cameras are rolling, it’s all business in the KCJ studio. From left are: recording engineer Nick Jester, titler Valerie Palmer, technical director Julie Franks, director Robin Abbott and audio engineer Sam Johnson

Photo by Tom Angel

Roxanna Quach, a seventh-grader, said, “It was nerve-wracking.” She was excited when she made the cut.

“Being in front of the camera is OK for me,” she said. “But behind the scenes is important, too. All of our abilities add up to a really good broadcast.”

Between planning and producing the daily KCJR shows, the broadcast journalism class is also “down to the wire with the video yearbook,” Wahl said. Using a program called Specular Logomotion, which includes 3-D animation, the students have gathered video clips from a school year’s worth of class, program and club profiles, plus social events, and combined them with a music-and-snapshot montage that will form a keepsake for students and staff members.

The video yearbook is also a fund-raiser for the class, whose students also sponsor an annual dance. Last year, the class raised $2,500 and voted to spend much of it on a Macintosh iBook that students can take home to edit videos.

Teacher Don Polen started the class back in 1992, bringing in TV sets from a motel that was closing and seeking support for the course, which used to meet before school. Then, Mike Christopher taught it until this year, when Wahl, taking home equipment for a crash course over the summer, took over.

The class is so high-tech that a videotape-to-videotape copier sits virtually unused in the back of the studio. “They do it all on the computers,” Wahl said, from digital photography to editing and titling. They edit mainly using the program Avid Cinema.

Matt Leavy, an associate producer, is one of three returning eighth-graders. Wahl describes him as a “computer genius.”

Next to him eighth-grader Shane Lash, another of Wahl’s “computer geniuses” and the designer of the Web site, tugs at an Ethernet plug. Lash, twisting his head behind the computer’s hard drive, says he enjoys the work, but also “It’s a lot of responsibility.”

Both Leavy and Lash just learned they’ve been accepted into Chico High’s ACT program, where the focus is on communication and technology.

“We have a ton of freedom,” said Alyssa Hurlow, an eighth-grader who’s currently acting as an audio engineer. “We can do what we want as long as we’re responsible.” Just once, she admits, she didn’t get to school early enough to edit the day’s broadcast. “The bell rang and I had to write ‘please wait’ [and put it] on the screen.”

Agrees fellow eighth-grader Mallory Norton: “It’s fun, but it’s really hard.” What amazes her is how the different personalities and interests end up working so well together.

Quach, who plans to take the class again next year, said she’s thinking about becoming a professional news anchor. A couple of graduates of the class have even gone on to work for professional television stations.

“Being a reporter or in broadcasting has a lot of benefits," Quach said. "You can travel. It gives you confidence and skills."