Talkin’ teens

KZFR evening call-in show gives high-schoolers a voice and a soapbox from which they can deliver

FLYING SOLO Nick Walker delivers <i>Teen Talk </i>from the sound booth at KZFR.

FLYING SOLO Nick Walker delivers Teen Talk from the sound booth at KZFR.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Nick Walker, Hannah Williford and Alex Kokkinakis are gathered in the lobby outside the two sound studios of KZFR on the fourth floor of the Waterland-Breslauer Building, more commonly known as that big pink building on Broadway.

They are here to talk about the radio show they help host every Monday from 6 to 7 p.m. called Teen Talk, which is about to begin its second year.

The station’s program guide describes it as “KZFR’s effort to expose kids to the wonders of radio and to provide them hands-on training with the medium. Teen Talk is a call-in show hosted by high-school-aged young adults providing a community roundtable for teenagers to discuss the myriad issues facing adolescents today.”

Walker, 15, is about to go on the air for his first-ever show, and he’s going solo. The studio, veteran disc-jockeys will tell you, can be a lonely place. Most of the teen hosts—there is a stable of about nine rotating the time slot—team up in pairs.

But not Walker, who on his initial show plans to tackle the thorny subject of homelessness .

“I heard about this show from a friend of my mother’s who is a teacher at Chico High,” he explains.

He was not exactly familiar with the show when he made a call to inquire, saying he’d heard it but didn’t really remember what he’d heard. Walker could be excused for his forgetfulness—he was about 15 minutes away from going on air.

At this point Ed Pitman, the KZFR veteran who created and oversees the show, breaks in.

“It’s a great forum,” he says. “Kids are always saying nobody listens to them.”

Walker admits he’s “a little bit nervous” about the show that looms before him. He’s done some research on the Internet and talked with people at the Torres Community Shelter as well as some actual homeless people.

“Real bums,” chimes in the irascible—and habitually politically incorrect—Pitman. Walker laughs nervously. The seconds continue to tick down to his date with the mike and an unseen audience.

“The kids pick a topic and research a topic and they talk about the topic and then they field calls,” Pitman explains. “They often have guests.”

When Walker is asked if he’s worried about dead-air time—equivalent to suicide on radio—Pitman cheerfully chimes in, “Oh, you have listened to my show.” And then cryptically adds, “An hour is a long time.”

Walker doesn’t flinch and points out that he has some people standing by ready to call, including attorney, homeless advocate and City Council candidate Andy Holcombe.

The idea of doing a show on homelessness, he says, came to him from simply walking the streets of Chico and noticing what a lot of us would just as soon ignore.

“The show will go wherever it goes,” he says. “I have opinions—written down—and we’ll see what other people’s ideas and opinions are.”

TALKERS Left to right, Hannah Wilford, Nick Walker and Alex Kokkinakis of KZFR’s <i>Teen Talk</i>.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Hannah Williford, 15, has been on air for about year, having done a dozen shows, on subjects ranging from Harry Potter to National Inquirer-type magazines to school dress codes.

Alex Kokkinakis, 17, another veteran and a very confident young woman, says she gets ideas from her friends at school.

“We do get our ideas from just conversations, and you learn what people would like to hear about and go from there,” she said. She has had a couple of in-studio guests including a magician.

A magician on the radio?

She laughs. “No, this guy was really talented and he did stuff with callers, and it was pretty cool,” she says. “At least I thought so.”

But there are shows that bomb.

“Yeah. Some of them you think you’re going to get a ton of callers,” Kokkinakis admits. “I did a show about the media influence on society on things like eating disorders. I thought, ‘Great, this will get a lot of callers.’ I got maybe one the whole night.’

And that one call was a phone solicitor trying to get her to subscribe to a newspaper.

“You do all you can putting the show together and you have your information, but that spices the show up, getting phone calls. We really like to hear other opinions than our own.”

There are no taboo subjects. Pitman says his job is “to facilitate, make the schedule, see that they are properly trained and I’m here in case something awful happens.”

And there are the regulars, callers whose voice on the other end causes the radio host to silently groan.

“You go, ‘OK,’ and you just go with it because what are you going to do? Yeah, we’ve had a few really out-there calls,” Kokkinakis says.

Kokkinakis, who is headed to Chico State upon graduation, said she hopes to stay involved in KZFR. Williford is not so sure how radio will fit into her future but is glad to have had the experience.

Their advice to other teens who want to go on the air: You have to be opinionated.

“You can’t be shy and sheepish,” says Kokkinakis, “because you do get pushed around by some callers, and you have to be able to stand your ground and have the confidence to make a show go the way you need it to go.”

Walker is ready and is getting his last-second instructions.

“Should I set up?” he asks Pitman.

RADIO MAN Ed Pitman created <i>Teen Talk</i> two years ago to give local youth a voice.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

“Do you have a couple CDs with you?” Pitman responds.

“Yeah. How should I set up the time to play the CDs?”

“Put a note in front of you and read it when you can,” Pitman suggests. “If you are in the middle of a thought and the phone rings and you get a caller, just acknowledge that they are there.”

Fifteen seconds before airtime, and Walker says it’s too late for butterflies.

The show begins. He tells a sort of stream-of-consciousness recollection of walking downtown along Second Street and coming across a homeless man whom he presumes is Native American man drinking a tall can of Miller from a brown paper bag.

And for the next 55 minutes, he talks, fields phone calls and plays music off his CD. The show is smooth, and Walker comes across like a veteran.

Ed Pitman, the unlikely guru of the Teen Talk crew, has been with the station in one capacity or another since its birth in 1990. The 55-year-old transplant from Baltimore first came to California in 1969 with some friends who had decided they would make a lot of money growing marijuana.

“Yeah, we were going to grow pot, and by the end of summer we had about a hundred knee-high plants. I gave up on that idea and went back east to Baltimore, where I got busted for possession of pot and acid. They gave me my choice of institutions. I chose the military.”

He was in the military for most of the ‘70s and was honorably discharged in 1980. He made it back to California few years later.

He came to Chico in May 1988 and approached Northstate Public Radio station KCHO to ask about doing a show. His timing was fortuitous—another programmer had quit about 24 hours earlier.

“I did two shows before I was busted for breaking a bottle of Rolling Rock on the floor during one of the shows,” he recalls. “I didn’t get it entirely cleaned up, and that was the end of that.”

A few months after the beer-bottle incident, Pitman hooked up with the fledgling KZFR, first hosting Another Blues Show—blues is a staple at KZFR—and then 10 years ago coming up with Morning Sickness, an irreverent a.m. talk and music show that ran until just a few years ago.

“I’m a long way from Morning Sickness,” he says today.

Pitman’s blunt honesty and rough-around-the-edges persona and physical appearance probably buy him a lot of credibility with the teens. Pitman’s no poser, and kids can spot that a mile away.

He launched the teen project two years ago because, he said, this is part of what a community radio station is supposed to do.

“KZFR’s mission statement says that we will train the public,” he said. “And that had been a lot of lip service to the kids,” he said. “In stations like ours there are programs all across the country. This is nothing unique.”

He’s had about 20 kids altogether go through the program, from high-school freshmen to seniors.

“I keep them until they graduate from high school and their lives change.”

Pitman says his decision to create Teen Talk was very simple.

“I stopped doing my regular show a few years ago, and I wanted to stay involved. This is good for the community and good for the kids. Plus, I’m doing it to pay off some bad karma."