Cincinnati nonprofit Music Resource Center puts teens on the radio, gives them music instruction

Teen nonprofit offers broadcast, music instruction
Posted at 12:01 PM, Aug 24, 2016

CINCINNATI – Watch out Rachel Maddow, Mykal DeRamus is on the air. On recent steamy afternoon, the 18-year-old Taft High School graduate was sitting at a table at the Music Resource Center analyzing polling data on a laptop.

“I watched a town hall on CNN last night. A lot of folks are going to be voting for a third-party candidate, and I highly recommend Gary Johnson,” said DeRamus, who talks politics, news and everything else on her weekly show, “What’s Up with Mykal.” “He and his sidekick, William Weld, are experienced politicians. They’re going to be on all 50 state ballots. And they’re not crazy.”

Johnson and Weld, both former governors, are the Libertarian Party’s presidential ticket.

Music Resource Center is a nonprofit teen center that offers music instruction, studio time, free meals and community to teens in seventh through 12th grades. There’s a membership fee of just $2 a month.

The center’s programming is broadcast on WVQC-LP (95.7 mHz), a low-power FM station with a range of up to about 5 miles from the Walnut Hills studios on Woodburn Avenue. MRC acquired the frequency from Media Bridges. To reach a wider audience, the center streams its signal online.

DeRamus was invited to host her show soon after MRC acquired the frequency in 2015. Her timing could not have been better.

“When I first started, the political candidates were lining up and as the show progressed there were a lot of interesting stories that came about," said DeRamus, who is heading to Ohio University this fall.

Executive director Karen D’Agostino had long dreamed of getting her students on the air.

“Some of our board members worked really hard to help us get it,” said D’Agostino, who founded Music Resource Center in 2005.

“We couldn’t have done it without Jay Kruz. He pulled in an engineer he knew in Detroit and a pro bono (Federal Communications Commission) attorney in Washington to help us acquire the station.”

Kruz also worked with the kids to create sweepers, those vocal segues you hear on professional radio stations like WREW-FM (94.9 mHz, known as Mix), where Kruz is the program director and a daytime DJ. 

Music Resource Center Radio’s playlist comes exclusively from its students. They don’t do any live broadcasting yet, but the station tosses up an eclectic mix of talk and music programming.

In addition to De Ramus’ show, listeners may hear rap, ukulele or classical.

“We have a very strict lyrics policy,” said D’Agostino, which means no promotion of guns, gangs, violence or degradation of women. “We’ve always told the kids to be radio-ready.”

In 2005, D’Agostino was a painter and stay-at-home mother of four when a trip to Suders Art Supply on Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine opened her eyes to the need for a positive place where urban youth could spend free time.

“I noticed a ton of kids on the street,” she said.

“There were a lot of homicides in the city that year, and a lot of them involved teenagers," D'Agostino said. "My kids were fortunate: I could pay for extra-curricular activities, drive them to these activities. I had a great village of support.”

When D’Agostino started researching afterschool programs for urban youth, she found some gaps.

“Back then, rec center programming for teens didn’t start until 6 or 6:30 (p.m.). There was a ton of stuff for kids up to age 12. Thirteen is supposed to be this magic age where kids are old enough to make good choices, but anyone with teenagers knows it’s just the opposite,” she said.

D’Agostino knew she wanted to find kids an alternative to the corner. She found inspiration in Dave Matthews.

“I’m a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band and knew they were involved in a teen-music program in Charlottesville, Virginia,” she said. “I visited the center, and the hair on my arms stood up. It was an amazing place, and I knew it was what I wanted to bring it to Cincinnati.”

She secured initial funding from ArtsWave, the Mayerson Family Foundation and the Duke Energy Foundation and began piloting the program in local schools. In 2008, Music Resource Center's fundraiser, Party Like a Rock Star, collected enough money to acquire the center a permanent home, a modest tan-brick building at 3032 Woodburn Ave.

The Music Resource Center is on Woodburn Avenue in Walnut Hills. (Sonia Chopra | WCPO contributor)

This year, Party Like a Rock Star is Aug. 26 at the Woodward Theater on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. Tickets are $65 each ($120 per couple) and include beer, wine, food, free valet parking, karaoke with Sexy Time Live Karaoke and, of course, musical entertainment from MRC students.

Get more information and buy tickets through the MRC website.

Beyond Certain, a Music Resource Center band made up of Jacob Strom, Henry Fellerhoff, Gabriel Dotterweich and Clark Comstock, played at the event in 2014 and 2015 and have gigged extensively around town, thanks to the mentoring and instruction they’ve had at the center.

“We got together at an MRC summer camp in 2013,” said Strom, 16, a Walnut Hills High School junior. “The staff is super encouraging and helped us get comfortable playing our instruments and playing together.

“It’s also nice to play on the fancy equipment they have,” he said of the MRC studios, all of which are kitted out with Apple computers featuring Logic Pro recording software. “It’s like GarageBand’s big brother."

Party Like a Rock Star has a silent auction full of goodies like a private bourbon tasting with Molly Wellman, the Tri-State mixologist whose Myrtle’s Punch House is just blocks from the Music Resource Center studios; a studio visit with Jeff and Jenn or WKRQ-FM (better known as Q102); and perhaps the most covetable item – two tickets to the Broadway show “Hamilton,” including flights to New York on Ultimate Air Shuttle.

While Dave Matthews has never visited MRC, a group of Music Resource Center students always gets a backstage tour when the band plays Cincinnati.

“They talk to the stage manger, the video techs and get to see that there are seven guys onstage and 80 people backstage making it happen,” D’Agostino said.

Vocalist DeVonte Roach starting attending the center while a student at Purcell Marian, just down the street from the center. Roach graduated from the Berklee College of Music in 2015 and last week moved to Valencia, Spain, for Berklee’s graduate Global Entertainment and Music Business program. There, he’ll focus on building Soul Kingz Records, his digital content marketing startup.

“During my time at Music Resource Center, I learned the skills required to make a song radio-ready,” Roach wrote via email. “The skills also taught me about life. Crafting a high quality song is much like developing a part of your character. You begin to find your unique voice.”