U-Rock radio trains young DJs, then gets them on-air

A weekend DJ on U-Rock Radio admitted he didn’t know much about ’80s rock music when he started.

Age might have something to do with it. Mitchel Denke is a senior at Kamiakin High School, born around the turn of the century. But joining the station has turned him into a fan of the music.

“I never thought I’d ever be mowing the lawn with Motley Crue playing in my head,” he said.

The teenager has Jeff Jacobs and Gary Shelton to thank for that.

Jacobs is the owner of Jacobs Radio, home to the 95.3 FM rock station. Shelton is the station’s general manager.

They created a program called Training the Kids, which allows students from Tri-Tech Skills Center to serve as the station’s disc jockeys from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

The students receive school credits as part of the program, all the while helping them get real-world experience.

Training the Kids could be considered an internship program.

“That’s exactly what it is,” said Jacobs, who said he came up with idea about a year ago.

“I originally knew (radio instructor) Ed Dailey at Tri-Tech, and I brought the idea up to him: let the kids learn on an actual commercial station,” he said. “We went in and spoke with two classes. Ed went through the list of his top kids. Then we interviewed the kids on a 1-on-1 basis here.”

Dailey jumped at the chance.

“It’s a great chance for the kids to have a chance to use the voice training they get here (at Tri Tech),” said Dailey, who praised the Tri-City radio scene for giving these students opportunities others might not get. “Each radio group handles interns differently.” He said Townsquare offers media experience, for example work on websites, and Reka on Power 99 has used three students to work on her program.

“But Jeff allows the kids to talk, which is awesome. We’re so lucky to have great radio people in this town, helping my students learn even more,” Dailey said.

So far, Jacobs Radio has used eight Tri-Tech students in the program, which began in March.

“We spend a lot of time with them when they first begin,” Jacobs said. “Sometimes they get nervous when the mic comes on.”

Denke, who is also a Tri-Tech student, was one of those students.

“The first day was a hard day to forget,” Denke said. “Everything was pre-recorded at Tri-Tech. It was pretty nerve wracking.”

But Jacobs said he helps them get through the jitters.

“The kids are great. We had to instill in them that from the beginning they were going to make mistakes,” Jacobs said. “But the listeners have been great. Some of them have called in and told them they’re doing a great job.”

It helped Denke get through the rough spots.

“That made it a little easier when they said we would make mistakes,” Denke said.

Jacobs said there is a gap of DJs in the radio industry.

“You’d get on-air DJs come here in the Tri-Cities, get a few years in, and then they’d move on to Portland and Seattle, maybe then to LA,” Jacobs said. “The younger generation didn’t grow up listening to radio. And a lot of DJs have burned out on their climb to corporate radio. Today, corporate radio has one guy doing work on 20 stations.”

The Training the Kids program also teaches the students responsibility.

“They know they have a four-hour shift every weekend,” Jacobs said. “They can do other things outside that four-hour shift, like working the engineering board, and get paid.”

Denke said he’ll do live remotes on weekends for extra work, for example.

So perhaps this program can help get younger people into professional radio.

“I read something this past week that there is a huge need for trade schools over four-year degrees now,” Jacobs said. “The opportunities to learn like this are less and less. I went to school at Eastern Oregon University, and they had an on-air program, a lot like Tri-Tech is now.”

Jacobs said it’s also a way for his company to give back to the community.

“This opens up doors for these kids,” he said. “They’ve got a better grasp of what they have to do in getting in the door. The best thing out of this is helping these young kids to get a job. And have a blast. This is supposed to be cool.”

Jacobs said he’s gotten more interest in the program from outside Tri-Tech.

“We’ve had other people ask about the program,” he said. “Some parents who don’t have kids at Tri-Tech want to know how they can get their kids in the program.”

For now, U-Rock will just be using the kids from the Kennewick school.

“We’ll be doing this forever,” Shelton said. “As a radio station, Jeff’s is the only locally-owned one. We take care of the local clients.”

Denke, meanwhile, hopes to continue being a DJ.

“I definitely plan to keep on doing this,” said Denke, who would like to eventually work in radio in Seattle. “I’m going to CBC for the next two years, then to a university to get my degree in communications.”

The senior has always liked to give speeches, starting in middle school.

“Honestly, for me to be myself, I like to talk,” Denke said. “I like helping people on the radio. And I like music. I really didn’t know much about this genre (’80s rock) before I started here.

“But I like it now.”

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