Tucked away in a corner of Staples High School is possibly the coolest place within the educational facility -- the media lab. It's the one space in the school where posters and pictures of everyone from John Lennon to Comedy Central's Steven Colbert serve as wallpaper. While it has the look of an anti-classroom, there is no shortage of learning going on here.
The media lab houses both the Staples' radio station, WWPT, and Staples Television Network (STN), which got its start this past year. During the day, students take classes in radio production, audio production and television production. When the school day is over, the space remains vibrant with students working on things such as broadcasting shows over 90.3 FM, fine-tuning recordings of musicians that performed there recently and creating graphics to use in conjunction with sports games that will be televised live on Ch. 78.
Greg Shikowitz was co-hosting an alternative/college radio-type show when the Westport News made a visit to Staples High School Wednesday afternoon. He does it not because he aspires to be a famous radio personality, but simply because he gets a lot of enjoyment out of it.
However, there are others who spend their free time at the media lab after school, and at sports games, to gain experience and hone their broadcasting skills in the hope of becoming an ESPN personality one day, or the next Ryan Seacrest (American Idol and E! radio host).
Mike Zito, faculty adviser to the radio station, also known as "Wrecker Radio," said he tries to stress to the students that the "best thing we can be is a local station."
"We will not be as good a rock station as a commercial station," he said. "What we can do is be a station that carries things the commercial stations don't."
The coverage of Staples' sports teams, as well as junior Eric Gallanty's coverage of local politics, has helped the station maintain a local focus. All of the student effort is paying off. Back in fall 2008, Gallanty (who also does sports) sought interviews with all of the candidates on the ballot (Barack Obama and John McCain didn't get back to him though). He conducted interviews with everyone, either face-to-face at the station or over the phone. This past fall, Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and his election opponent, Gavin Anderson, visited Gallanty before election day.
Gallanty must be doing something right. Zito said the campaign manager for Rick Torres, who is running in the 4th Congressional District, wrote to the station and said, "I know you do political interviews. I'd like to do one on your station," according to Zito.
Zito takes pride in the fact that members of the political scene are hip to this high school station and now "they're coming to us instead of us coming to them."
WWPT is ever-changing, ever-growing, but its reputation in recent years has largely been built up from its sports coverage. While the station helps teams by giving them exposure (on air and via a live radio streaming over the Internet), the teams in turn help raise the profile of the station, especially when teams are successful.
For instance, the football team this past year won FCIACs and made it to the Class LL finals, going 12-1 in the process. Staples' TV network came into being at the start of the year and the radio and TV students learned to work together. Where once junior DJ Sixsmith used to just call the games on radio, his audio is now used over the live broadcast of the games. It is up to the director and producers back in the booth at the media lab to choose the right camera shots in relation to what Sixsmith and his broadcast team are talking about at any given moment.
For senior Matt Donlon, the emergence of Staples Television Network was better late than never. He said the system was always at the school but no one really knew how to use it. Now it's being used to record games and record musicians with three different cameras. That's a far cry from when it was never really being used for anything "other than to observe the cafeteria security cameras," according to Donlon.
Donlon does everything behind the scenes, from manning cameras, to switching camera shots from the control board, to editing.
"I'm a producer, really, which is what I want to do as a career," he said.
The students involved in broadcasting and producing for radio and TV are planning on selling DVDs of the sports games as a way to raise funds for the media lab to improve its technology.
One thing the broadcasting group can't yet do is broadcast games from the soccer field or baseball field.
"We'd like to get a live TV feed out there. We're still trying to figure that out," Sixsmith said.
"When we have access to the football press box and the gym, it's because the feed is literally hard-wired from here to there, and we don't have that at the baseball field." Gallanty added.
"We're trying to find some wireless way to get out there on the field," Sixsmith said.
If that happens, there may be even more awards for the station in the future. WWPT received a number of honors from the 2009 John Drury High School Radio Awards last year: third place for Best Sports Talk; third place for Best Sportscast; first place for Best Radio Drama (Adaptation) for the audio production class' work on A Christmas Carol; and last but not least, WWPT's Zito won the award for Best Radio Station Adviser.
Senior Robinson Batteau was involved in the audio work on A Christmas Carol and said the first place award for Best Radio Drama was a great thrill but gave credit to Zito and Jim Honeycutt, the faculty advisor to the TV station and the sole teacher of the audio production classes.
"I've learned a lot from Honeycutt and Zito," he said. "Without them I really don't think I would know my true love for music and my true love for doing this. I'm going off to college to do this. I plan on being an audio engineer for recordings and live plays and all that."
Every other Friday, Batteau assists Honeycutt on "Live From the Media Lab," where musicians come in and perform live on the radio, while simultaneously being filmed and broadcast on Ch. 78. At the same time, the musicians' audio is being recorded for post-production engineering to create an audio CD or audio for a DVD.
Batteau does the acquisition (the initial recording) and later does the mixing, according to Honeycutt. Batteau told the Westport News he doesn't mind being behind the scenes. He said working as an engineer blends two things he loves: music and science. Music is in his bloodline.
His father is a musician (folk rock) by trade and Batteau himself can also play the guitar. When he's not busy mixing down records at Staples, he occasionally has time to host his own music show.
The media lab serves as his home away from home.
"It's a great group of people and one of the few places where I get to be around people who can appreciate the same type of work that I do," he said.
Audio editing, Zito noted, is done with a program called Pro Tools, the same program the biggest rockers and rappers often use.
"They're learning on the real thing," he added.
The students have gained a wealth of knowledge being around Zito and Honeycutt, but it's not a one-sided exchange. Zito has benefitted from being around the teens.
"They keep me young," he said. "I'm always dealing with the same age [group of kids]. It's like I never age. The faces change but the ages are always the same."