“We change the rules around”: The irreverent legacy of Radio Free Roscoe

“It’s all you ever hear: look like this, think like this, be like this. How do you fight it? We started our own radio station. We keep our identities secret. It gives us the power to say what we want, as loud as we want.”

These are the words that began every episode of Radio Free Roscoe when it was on the air 10 years ago. This invocation of individualism, this prayer for non-conformity, zoomed into homes across Canada and the U.S. for a few short years, before The N (now TeenNick) pulled the show’s funding and it was cancelled. But that brief window was long enough to make an impact. Mention Radio Free Roscoe to a room of North American twenty-somethings and you’re likely to incite a flurry of nostalgic sighs and a chorus of, “Oh yeah! I used to love that show!”

Radio Free Roscoe centred on four high school students — plucky Lily, goofy Ray, thoughtful Robbie and brainy Travis — who, dissatisfied with the dogmatic propaganda on their school’s radio station, form their own underground station as an alternative.

They use false names and voice-altering technology so no one at Roscoe High will know that the station’s incisive, controversial, and often quite funny radio broadcasts are the work of lowly freshmen. The anonymity can be frustrating at times — what high school student wouldn’t want to take credit if practically the entire student body listened to them every day after school? — but mostly it just gives these kids a platform to talk about, and criticize, anything they want without consequences.

If this were a typical teen show, that feature might have been abused in the name of petty hijinks, but instead, RFR’s DJs aimed their magnifying glass at anything that threatened their freedom to be themselves, from the oppressive politics of lunchroom cliques to their school administration’s ban on headphones.

But then, Radio Free Roscoe never really was a typical teen show. Its writer and producer, Brent Piaskoski, is the brains behind plenty of clever youth programming — Naturally, Sadie and Breaker High are two standouts on his resumé — and his work on RFR, in particular, certainly digs deeper than anything you’ll find on the Disney Channel.

The genius of RFR was in the way that it stubbornly defied tropes: no character was a walking stereotype, even when it would have been much easier to write them that way. Just like the people you know in real life, every figure at Roscoe High had their own surprising quirks. The station’s esoteric engineer, Travis, was smart, but not a geek, and he undermined his James Dean-esque charm by constantly quoting Buddha. Meanwhile, the show’s true hero, honours student Robbie, worried more about journalistic ethics and radio copy than his social standing, and yet he was never a dork.

Even the show’s “villains” were relentlessly multi-faceted: the popular head cheerleader Audrey, who another show would have made into a mean-girl caricature, had a secret obsession with extraterrestrials. Kim, the main DJ at RFR’s competitor Cougar Radio, spent the first season whining and conniving but then emerged as a conflicted overachiever and an unlikely love interest for Robbie. Even the show’s strongest antagonist, Principal Waller, wasn’t just an authoritarian robot; he had a sentimental side and a hidden sympathy for the RFR kids, despite their frequent criticisms of his policies.

Canadian actor Steve Belford played one of those morally ambiguous villains: popular and self-absorbed upperclassman River Pierce. “River was kind of cocky, arrogant, high on himself, but at the heart of it, he wasn’t really bad at all,” Belford said in a phone interview. “I didn’t see him too much as a bully. I just saw him as a guy who liked the spotlight — who needed it, in a way — and who, at his heart, was a little insecure.” Though the student body’s cult-like worship of River made him the target of many a bitter RFR rant, viewers ultimately got to see a sweeter side of him when he fell for the show’s female lead, Lily, and pushed the boundaries of his hip image to earn her affections. In one episode, he tried to impress singer/songwriter Lily by clumsily performing a song of his own. “I thought it sounded so good when I recorded it, but on set, everyone laughed,” Belford recalled. “In a way, it’s kind of funny that River Pierce is this great big superstar but he can’t sing. He’s human. There’s a humility there.”

Just as RFR made the cool kids a little more human, it also made the geeks a little more cool. Garen Boyajian, a Canadian actor now based in Los Angeles, played one-half of Roscoe High’s memorable dorky duo Ed and Ted. “I remember having a very distinct vision of how my character would look… Grey pants, sweater-vests on top of a button-up shirt done to the top to suggest an eccentric and obvious formality,” Boyajian recalled via email. “That’s how I envisioned Ed: obsessively passionate and knowledgeable in areas of interest while hopelessly clueless in other domains.” Taking on the role of what Boyajian calls the “comedic outlets for the series,” Ed and Ted were some of the most broadly drawn characters, sharing a stereotypically nerdy social awkwardness and zeal for academics. But in a show like RFR, no nerd is just a nerd. Ed and Ted’s adventures ranged from covering a Flaming Lips concert as RFR’s music correspondents to co-founding a boy band called NTropy. Rather than poking fun at these characters’ lack of social finesse, the show seemed to celebrate it. “That’s what I enjoyed most about becoming Ed: learning to… fly my ‘weirdo flag’ high with confidence,” Boyajian said. “I wanted to create Ed as unencumbered by social norms, not out of ignorance, but a complete disinterest in convention or conformity for its sake.”

This anti-conformity stance was one of the hallmarks of the show. Lily, Ray, Robbie and Travis worry in the very first episode about where they’ll fit into the social hierarchy at their new school, but popularity quickly becomes trivial to them — not the be-all and end-all of teenage success the way it’s presented in so many other youth narratives. If they want to ace their biology quiz, learn to tango, or run for class president, they can do it, coolness be damned — because their daily radio broadcast gives them the confidence to say what they actually think and be who they actually are.

“The characters in RFR always do their homework, barely ever get detention, [and] make a commitment,” one reviewer on the Internet Movie Database explained. “Wouldn’t you rather have your kid committed to something like a radio station [than] drugs or something else terrible?” Indeed, as far as lessons from TV shows go, teens could do a whole lot worse.