It’s been a challenging year for the 17,000 students who attend Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. While they haven’t always been able to see their classmates in person, they have been able to hear some familiar voices, thanks to a dedicated group of young broadcasters.
The district’s student radio station, WSDP-FM (88.1 The Park), first signed on in 1972, transmitting music and local news from its studios at Salem High School to the larger Plymouth-Canton community. Bill Keith has been the station manager since 1991. He says it didn’t take long to see how the pandemic would affect his students.
“I thought at first this was only going to be a couple of weeks,” Keith says. “Then a month went by, and we were like ‘OK, well this is going to be longer than a couple of weeks.’”
Check out a typical playlist from Alyssa Andrews’ eclectic music show, Through the Decades.
On March 16, 2020, six days after confirming the state’s first cases of COVID-19, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Michigan schools to close — at first for three weeks, then for the rest of the school year. Keith and his team had to figure out how to keep The Park on the air while keeping students at home.
“We did a little bit early on with having people record kind of like generic on-air breaks for in-between music,” Keith says. “And a couple of our hosts recorded their shows from home. They would send us the music and we would mix all their breaks down and the music down in the studio and then air their one-hour specialty music shows.”
One host, Alyssa Andrews, says broadcasting remotely was something she never expected to do. The senior was used to writing her show at school and airing it live.
“With everything not being able to be in the station, I had to do everything from home,” Andrews says. “So I’m sitting in my closet recording all of my breaks, everything on my phone. And then I just put it all together and send it off.”
Besides having her own show, Andrews is part of The Park’s news department, where she reported on the local library’s reopening last summer.
Listen: Alyssa Andrews’ story on the local library’s reopening.
Because the station’s signal mostly covers Plymouth and Canton, news director Emma Johnston says her staff can tell local stories that commercial Detroit media might miss or ignore. Johnston joined The Park as a freshman. Now a junior, she says reporting on the pandemic has been a growing experience. It’s also helped her stay connected to her classmates.
“I was a perfectionist, you know. I was afraid to make mistakes, I was afraid to learn from those mistakes,” Johnston says. “But I’ve seen so much growth in myself and I see so much growth in the staff members that I’ve overseen. The station really helps provide this outlet for high school students.”
Johnston says being away from the station and her staff has been hard. Andrews says she has learned some tough but valuable lessons about living and working through a global pandemic.
“It’s just crazy how adaptable you have to be,” Andrews says. “And you really do have to learn to be adaptable and how to work on Zoom, work at home, not being in the station when you’re a station that’s on air. We’re used to being on-air every single day.”
The Park has remained on the air throughout the pandemic. Keith says some students have returned to the studios while others continue to work from home. There are limits on how many people can be at the station at one time, along with mask and distancing requirements. Johnston says while it helps to see people in person again, students are still going through a very hard time.
“Our generation kind of gets a bad rap for being a little bit lazier,” Johnston says. “But you’ve just got to keep in mind that we’re going through a global pandemic and we’re probably doing the best that we can.”
In The Park’s case, their best has been better than their peers’. The Michigan Association of Broadcasters Foundation named it the High School Radio Station of the Year for 2020.