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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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On Air Education Inspired Students Put Their Hearts And Minds To Work Learning Technical Skills Of Radio, Television Broadcasting

The directors of Viable Visions Video Productions were talking business with their comptroller, Steve LaLonde.

All the directors are teenagers, but it was a formal meeting. The discussion went like this:

CEO Joe Price was counting noses, looking for workers to show up at a Saturday shoot. “Two, four, five, seven? Seven isn’t enough. Check your work schedules and come to me tomorrow if you will do it,” Price said, with no patience for shirkers.

“Mister Chairman…” said LaLonde, 46.

“You can call me Joe,” interrupted the teenager.

“No, I can call you Joe the rest of the time,” said the comptroller. “Now, it’s Mister Chairman.”

Such are the ways that LaLonde, a teacher at University High School, brings the real world into his classroom.

Viable Visions is a 1990s hybrid, part class, part business. Some of LaLonde’s students spend four hours a day or more in his classroom, working on radio and TV equipment. Most of the diehards are creative kids. Several are alternative-style. Earrings, nose rings and wild hair are common.

LaLonde doesn’t care about any of that.

He sees the class as a school-to-work laboratory. He cares that his kids learn time management, problem-solving and people skills. “When people talk about back to basics, this is as basic as they can get.”

He has support from U-Hi principal Erik Ohlund.

“In large part, (LaLonde’s class) is a model for what education needs to be. He delivers the educational experience in a different way,” Ohlund said.

The kids in Viable Vision learn their way around radio, TV and other technical equipment during the fall semester. They learn how to make a commercial, create a public service announcement, put together a newscast.

In the spring, they take on larger projects: a video yearbook for U-Hi, tapes of a young musicians’ competition, a taped version of a seminar on air compressors for a Spokane firm, Dickinson Pump and Irrigation. They don’t charge their commercial customers, but hope for donations.

At the music competition - the Saturday project that needed a full crew - 12 teens showed up to tape pianists, clarinetists and singers all day. They netted $170.

The money goes in a dozen directions. Batteries, always more batteries. A new keyboard. The fledgling FM radio station, 88.9 The BUZZ, badly needs new CDs. (Never heard it? You’re not alone. The station is so small, it doesn’t reach all of the U-Hi campus.) LaLonde also wants two time base correctors, equipment that would allow for more special effects in video work. Problem is, they’re $1,000 a pop.

So, LaLonde has become a master scrounger. And the Central Valley School District has funneled roughly $20,000 into LaLonde’s class over the last 10 years. He hopes eventually for a larger investment - “but that’s hard when you’ve got roofs leaking,” he acknowledges.

LaLonde promotes ingenuity. Several students last spring cannibalized a dozen eight-track tape players to create three or four machines that would allow them to easily play a 30-second tape giving The BUZZ identification. Cost? A few bucks at yard sales. Cost for the real thing? Three thousand dollars each, LaLonde estimates.

Last spring, LaLonde would come in at 6 a.m., to find a couple of kids putting on the “Kids on Coffee” radio show, “and not a soul around to hear them do it.”

He gives the students enough advice to keep them on track - if a novice DJ leaves too long a gap between patter and song, he’ll yell, “DEAD AIR!!” But a lot of the time, he says, he gets out of their way.

“I do nothing in here,” he said, gesturing in the compact radio booth. “The kids did it all. It took me five minutes just to find the strip switch to turn things on.”

Does the students’ hard work lead to success? LaLonde thinks so.

He got a letter last week from 1995 graduate Tom Menke, who landed a DJ job in Great Falls, Mont., straight out of U-Hi. Menke is now in California trying to get a job with a new rock alternative station.

“I couldn’t have done it without your help,” Menke wrote. “I’ve got a few hints and tips for everyone on The Buzz.” Menke included some promotional CDs and job tip sheets.

CEO Price says it’s the fun of learning the machines and making movies that jazzes him. His dream is to go to community college, then Evergreen State College and become a wildlife cinematographer.

When he was elected CEO last fall, Price said, it was partly because he’d been around a long time. He’s a senior and, as he put it, “I know where all the wires go.” When there are a gazillion of them, that’s no small feat.

“My deal with Joe was that if he wanted to be CEO, I would help him with time management skills,” LaLonde said.

Board members also help others learn. It’s cooperative learning to the max. Price’s grade for the class depends entirely on how much everyone learns.

“I will teach any small group anything I know,” LaLonde said. “Then they teach each other. You can’t get 30 kids around a screen at one time.”

The work is leavened by fun.

One day this month, board member April Phelan was teaching Mike Knecht how to edit video tape. They were starting the long process of editing the eight-hour Dickinson seminar.

But The BUZZ music was so inviting, Phelan and Knecht just had to get up and dance a little.

Are they an item? “No, they’re just free spirits,” LaLonde said.

“I think it’s wonderful. I wish I could stop in life and dance occasionally.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)

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