The El Cerrito High School instructor uses his classroom and the school’s radio station to effect social change.
Breeze into Corey Mason’s second-floor Spanish and broadcast journalism classroom at El Cerrito High School, and then brace yourself. The cozy layout is decorated with giant posters of Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as images of Chief Joseph, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and the Dali Lama. A dazzling reproduction of The Virgin of Guadalupe bathes the room in a yellowish light. There are also original works of art, along with newspaper and magazine clippings recounting pivotal events in history. Artwork donated by El Cerrito families also occupies a prominent place.
Obviously, Mason, who sports a braided goatee and neatly styled ponytail, is not your garden-variety teacher. For the 18-plus years he’s been a teacher in the world languages department at the school on Ashbury Avenue, he has never hesitated to draw outside the lines. “I am a full-time amorista edjujucator,” he proclaimed, a twinkle in his mischievous eyes.
He adroitly pulls this off by layering the nuts and bolts of academic instruction with a narrative centered on the importance of building bridges of compassion and tolerance to all mankind, regardless of the latitudes and longitudes from which they hail. He senses a deepening cultural divide “in our current reactionary social-political climate.” The room, he offered, “is quite a multimedia work in progress on many layers. The net feeling is more like a community center. Very often, folks enter the suite and are just wowed.” Wherever your sensory trajectory takes you, make no mistake: Mason is its curator, its conscience.
Mason’s offbeat classroom has another intriguing element: Behind a wall of glass is the studio of 88.1 KECG 99.7 FM, the campus student radio station. The outlet’s tiny 17-watt signal is pumped into the ether from an antenna perched on a light pole along the sidelines of the school’s football field. The station, which is licensed to the West Contra Costa Unified School District, is an incubator for future broadcasters or those who are simply curious about how electronic media works in the digital age.
The training Mason puts his charges through is hardly all fun and games. Rather, it’s a rigorous, hyper-focused exercise.
For starters, students are graded on their ability to conduct live interviews and write and edit local, national, and foreign news and opinion pieces. Along the rigorous route, Mason is attuned to the quality of “their reflective, analytical responses to media-industry-focused academic texts and reflective and analytical essays,” he said.
Mason also applies his warm baritone on the air as the station’s signature voice. You can count on hearing him—live or prerecorded—most anytime you switch on the radio. (If you’re out of range, you can also listen online at WorldOneRadio.org/kecg-radio/.)
He’s committed to generating sensitivity to the global brotherhood that he calls the station worldOne. And for the past 20 years, he has helped coordinate the worldOne Festival. The event, which draws thousands to Cerrito Vista Park in early July, showcases an array of exotic food and musical ensembles. This year, the music featured reggae, hip-hop, jazz, fusion, and a Punjabi dance party.
Former El Cerrito High principal Michael Aaronson, who worked with Mason from 1998 through 2002, said he touches countless lives. “He works tirelessly to support our students,” said Aaronson, who is now a counselor at Sylvester Greenwood Academy in Richmond. “Corey is clearly an asset to our community.”
“He’s energetic, a hippie,” said Carter Edwards, a former student of Mason’s. “He’s incomparable. Besides Spanish, he talks about lots of other stuff—life, people, music, relationships. Kind of the whole nine yards.”
His classmate, Caden Stewart, agreed. “I learned a bunch of life lessons. He’s a pretty wise guy. There’s a whole other vibe to him.”
One morning on the air, Mason demonstrated his commitment to presenting a wide range of musical genres, playing the likes of the “Harvest for the World” by the Isley Brothers, classic melodies from the Big Band era, followed by three minutes of Native American songs. Woven into his ecumenical riffs are short, provocative reports from Yale University on subjects like the impact of climate change.
In the studio, where cheery T-shirts featuring the school mascot hang from a back wall, Mason consults a clipboard containing a lengthy list of character-building highlights. The touchstones include bravery, forgiveness, humility, humor, vitality, persistence, social intelligence, and spirituality.
“I rely on my nocturnal dreams,” he rhapsodized, about selecting the right words, syntax, and delivery. “I want to have some sort of communion with my angels.” He continued: “It’s funny. It’s called a ‘microphone’ when it’s really a megaphone.”
Mason, 61, grew up in Long Island. Recalling his childhood, Mason said he bought a lot of records on the money he earned mowing lawns. “I liked the Beatles, and I bought the Rolling Stones when I felt naughty,” he said. Later, he began listening to jazz and bluegrass. “Music has a spell on me.”
He double majored in Spanish and psychology at the State University of New York College at Cortland. After college, he got a job at the old Pan Am Airlines in New York. When the company sent him to Hawaii for training, he fell in love with it. “I just stayed,” he said. “My mom moved in with me.” (His father died when Mason was 17.)
Before he got into teaching, Mason worked in radio sales in Honolulu and Los Angeles. Later, he arrived in San Francisco, where he sold air time at KITS (105.3 FM), which runs an alternative music format. He was also the general manager at KJAZ in Alameda. When Mason heard that the jazz radio station was financially troubled, he wrote a get well/sympathy card in crayon to its owner, Ron Cowan, which led to a job. But despite the outpouring of support from its loyal audience, the station failed to collect enough donations to keep it viable. It signed off the air in 1995.
During his radio days, Mason would sometimes sneak off and volunteer in San Francisco’s schools. That resulted in finding work as a substitute teacher. “My admiration grew,” he recalled, “as did my social service conscience.” After KJAZ shut down, he began working as a career tech teacher at El Cerrito High. Incredulous that California needed Spanish teachers, he returned to school and earned his credentials in single-subject language and was hired as a part-time Spanish instructor.
But the road wasn’t easy. He said he slogged through “very bumpy years” relying on a limited income. However, Mason persevered, channeling his boundless persistence. That led to a full-time job at El Cerrito High School. Since then, it’s become a family affair: Mason’s wife, Debra Sue Kelvin, co-produces the worldOne Festival.
In his quest to celebrate the importance of unity, Mason likes to engage in clever wordplay, on the air and in print. He is especially fond of mashing words together to symbolize the unity of disparate individuals. One of his favorites is “peoplovpeacecopowerunjity.” On the air, during fundraisers, he sounds a familiar refrain in order to arouse support: “You don’t miss the water until it’s gone.”
The little station’s modest operating budget is determined by the school district. “Our broadcast journalism program receives a similarly modest stipend,” Mason noted, adding that its 24-hour programming results from “less than the equivalent” of a single full-time worker. “We’re getting by on a wing and a prayer and 10-plus-years-old Dodge Dart slant-six computers,” he quipped, alluding to the economical car popularized in the late 1960s.
While controversy over public funding of the outlet has erupted over the past decade, Mason is pleased that recent appeals to the school board, combined with the departure of some naysayers, has made for smoother sailing. “My experience has taught me to carefully and patiently watch weather, tides, and winds,” he said, calling upon his days spent plying the waters off Long Island as a youth.
His enthusiasm for his mission of bringing people together is relentless. (He drives a vintage 1988 VW van that’s a rolling billboard for KeCg, wrapped with a plethora of colorful logos paid for by Mason himself.)
Perhaps that’s why he’s such an enduring force in El Cerrito—and beyond.
“He’s the most personable guy I’ve ever met,” said Dawn Monteith, a clerk in the school’s main office. “He’s just always happy, in a good mood. And silly. I wish everybody was like that. It would be a lot better world.”