SILVER SPRING -- The studio is lighted by nine TV spotlights focused on the stage. In the control booth at the back of the room, the crew makes last-minute equipment checks.
Floor manager Katherine Thalman preps the crowd, giving the signals for when to applaud and when to stop, then starts the countdown to air time. The upbeat instrumental theme music begins, the audience applauds on cue, and host Vicky Hush introduces today's guest, U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-8th.
"Personal Profiles" is like many other TV interview shows -- except for its creators. The program, which can be seen by 173,000 cable households throughout Montgomery County, is produced entirely by eighth-graders at Eastern Middle School.
Other students around the country frequently gain experience in video production, but no where else are middle school students producing on their own a regular cable TV show, according to officials from the National Middle School Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Council of Chief State School Offices.
"The kids learn a tremendous amount without sitting down with a boring textbook," said Cathrine Sasek of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "It is a really effective way of teaching.
"The kids work incredibly hard, have a lot of fun and learn a lot."
The students produced an anti-drug video for the institute aimed at middle school students nationwide.
Students in four media production classes produce 100 "Personal Profiles" segments each year. Three different segments air each week at 7 p.m. on Channel 60, and the most popular shows are rerun during the summer.
The 29-minute program includes the introduction, a 10-minute interview by the host, 15 minutes of questions from the student audience, a one-minute book review and a one-minute science explanation.
"From first glance, it looks like fun," said Sarah Menke-Fish, the school's media production coordinator. "In reality, they learn very solid communication skills to apply in life."
Eric Newman, 13, of Takoma Park, said the program gives him "a sense of confidence that you can do anything when you really work at it. . . . You want to get your job done. It gives a sense of fulfillment."
"Personal Profiles" started out six years ago as a different way of bringing guests into the classroom. The idea was so successful, the shows were aired on cable beginning the next year, Ms. Menke-Fish said.
Assignments are rotated so each student performs every aspect of the production -- from interviewing and directing to lighting and taping.
Guests are selected and lined up by the students, who write letters to "the guest of their dreams" and follow up with phone calls to secure the interviews, she said.
pTC Past guests have included Baltimore Orioles center fielder Mike Devereaux, local TV weatherman Bob Ryan, former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, civil rights activist Julian Bond, the ambassador to Togo and Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman, who was hidden by plants so she could remain anonymous to local restaurateurs.
"Nothing surprises me any more," Ms. Menke-Fish said. "If they ++ said President Clinton is coming in next week, I would say, 'Fine, what time will he be here.' "
For guests who do not speak English, students act as translators. Guests' comments have been translated from Russian, French and Spanish, she said.
Vicky Hush, 13, of Silver Spring, nailed down the Morella interview in January with a letter during the summer followed up with a series of phone calls.
"I called often to make sure they were thinking about me," she said.
Vicky, who also wrote to then-President Bush without success, sought out a politician because "I have a little dream of becoming president, and I wanted to see what it is like being in politics."
The taping of "Personal Profiles" usually occurs on Fridays, but once a year the classes tape 24 shows in six consecutive school days to give the students a feel for daily television work, Ms.
Students have only 46 minutes to produce each show, start to finish. They must check assignments and determine if any students are missing so jobs can be reassigned.
The host and guest meet, students take their places, the studio is quieted and the tape rolls.
For the taping of the Morella interview, director Aaron Edelson, 13, of Potomac, called the shots over the headset from the control booth.
Facing her guest on stage, Vicky was poised, questioning Mrs. Morella on what she hopes to accomplish, how she is appointed to committees and her position as a Republican in the Democrat-controlled House.
Students in the studio audience asked if Morella experienced discrimination as a woman in Congress, the effect of President Clinton's election on her job, how her position affects her family and if she ever thought about running for president.
The congresswoman gave high marks to the class. "The students were very sharp and well-prepared," showing a "great deal of composure and maturity. It is a great tribute to the teachers," she said.