Sacramento’s only high school-run radio station provides real-world tools and fosters community

(Left to right) El Camino Fundamental High School students Tori Norlie and Elizabeth Ramirez work in the studio airing KYDS 91.5, Sacramento’s only high school-run radio station. (Photo by Manuel Figueroa)

By Helen Harlan

It was business as usual in Room S1 at El Camino Fundamental High School just after 9 a.m. on a recent Friday morning. Twenty-seven Intro to Media Arts students worked on audio and video projects at individual Mac workstations as media teacher Matt Sumpter sat at an unassuming desk upfront and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice-Ice Baby” played over the loudspeakers.

“I just threw it on because I like the song,” Elizabeth Ramirez, a 17-year-old senior, said of the ’90s hip-hop anthem, which hit the charts more than two decades before she or any of her peers were born. Ramirez stood in the DJ booth which occupies a studio attached to Room S1. This is the headquarters for KYDS 91.5 FM, Sacramento’s only radio station run entirely by high schoolers.

On the airwaves, Ramirez is known as The Lizard, her self-anointed DJ name. She is one of more than 40 student DJs who run the KYDS microphone live from 8:30 a.m. until the last bell rings after 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

Ramirez’s playlist of 628 songs, which include Lana Del Rey, Bryan Adams, Dire Straits, AC/CD and Johnny Cash, was pulled from the station’s library of over 20,000 songs. “I also really love David Bowie,” Ramirez said.

Like all KYDS DJs, Ramirez came out of El Camino’s media arts program. She is recognized as a “completer,” which means she’s finished the school’s Arts, Media & Entertainment Career Technical Education (CTE) pathway. Arts, Media and Entertainment is one of three CTE pathways offered at El Camino. These pathways are state funded and recognized to “combine academics, industry knowledge and hands-on learning,” that prepare students for the workforce, according to El Camino’s description of the programs.

As a Completer, Ramirez teaches other student-DJ-hopefuls the ins-and-outs of the trade such as Federal Communications Commission guidelines, station etiquette and how to use the equipment. 

The KYDS studio is attached to Room S1, where students prepare for a career in media arts. (Photo by Manuel Figueroa)

“The best way to learn is to teach,” Sumpter said, who’s been the faculty adviser for KYDS since 2018. Sumpter, a Sacramento State alum and an El Camino Eagle himself from the class of 1994, said he leads with a workplace approach. 

A diagram of Sumpter’s seven-step cyclical continuum/teaching model is outlined on a whiteboard in the front of Room S1. “Often ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect,’” is written in blue marker at the top.

“My philosophy is to get them going. You gotta put your hands in it, dig in, make the mistakes, be comfortable making mistakes,” Sumpter, also the school’s golf coach, said. “Learn, practice, perform.”

Freshman Elijah Michael Bell, 14, among the youngest in the media program, is one such hopeful and said he had his DJ name already picked out: “DJ Flame.” 

“It’s like you’re an actual employee,” Bell said. “You have deadlines for your work.”

The KYDS studio is attached to Room S1, where students prepare for a career in media arts. (Photo by Manuel Figueroa)

Hannah Schooley, 17, a senior and a CTE Completer, said that Sumpter shows the students how it’s going to be in the real world.

“One of my favorite things about the way that Sumpter teaches is he treats you kinda more like a co-worker-slash-an-employee than a student,” said Schooley, aka DJ Indigo.

Schooley said some of the skills she’s learned as an live, on-air DJ include time management, public speaking and the ability to make mistakes but keep going. “If you’re talking to people, you can’t re-record what you’re saying,” Schooley said. “You just have to go for it.”

Jake Nievergelt, 20, a 2022 graduate of El Camino’s media program, is currently a second-year film production student at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt. Nievergelt spends four to 10 hours a week working at Cal Poly Humboldt’s student radio station KRFH 105.1 FM. He said that his entire high school career as DJ Machine at KYDS, and then as an eventual CTE Completer, gave him the tools to hit the ground running at KRFH.

“I came in with a four year head start,” Nievergelt said. “Matt [Sumpter] treats it about as much as a job as he is able to for a high school class.”

(Left to right) El Camino Fundamental High School students and KYDS DJs Ella DuPree, Tori Norlie, Elizabeth Ramirez and Hannah Schooley. (Photo by Manuel Figueroa)

While learning practical job skills seems to benefit many who come through Sumpter’s classroom, El Camino’s lead counselor Nelda Mackey said that CTE programs provide many positives for students’ mental health. 

“In CTE programs, kids feel like they have more of a community. They’re seeing the same kids over and over and again, and they have a connection to one specific teacher or a couple specific teachers,” Mackey said. “It gives them a sense of responsibility.” Mackey added that  last December, the students ran a 24-hour charity “audiothon, which collected over 100 toys to benefit the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Toy Project.

“What’s really awesome about Auditothon is you have 50 or 60 kids over the course of 24 hours who you wouldn’t put as friends outside of the class but then, in here, you’d think that they were best friends,” Sumpter said. “When you give kids a purpose, it seems to melt all the other stuff away.”

And then, of course, there are always the fans that keep KYDS DJs coming back to the mic.

Torie Norlie, a 17-year-old senior and CTE Completer known as  DJ T, said she appreciates the fans who motivate the students to continue manning the mic. 

“We get letters all the time from people who will be like ‘Tell me more about this music,’” Norlie said. Norile recently added new tracks by Snail Mail, Babe City and current pop-culture mega icon Taylor Swift to her playlist.

“Sometimes you’ll get the call-ins and it’s not even a song request. Sometimes they just say ‘Hey, great job out there. We love listening to you. Have a fantastic day,’” Ramirez said. “It really makes your day.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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