High School Radio Station Fights FCC Ruling
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel with the story of a fight to keep a small town institution on the air. Radio station WAVM broadcasts from the high school in Maynard, Massachusetts. But a tentative decision by the FCC would give the station's license to an out of state broadcaster. Further complicating matters, the man who founded the station and served as its faculty advisor was arrested earlier this month and that closed the station's doors for a while. Reporter Andrea Shea reports on the tough times at WAVM.
ANDREA SHEA, reporting:
On the drive west from Boston WAVM meager 10 watt signal begins to poke through the static about two miles outside of town. Once in Maynard the station's reception clears up.
(soundbite of WAVM)
SHEA: WAVM broadcasts a mix of music and talk, high school basketball games and church services from a classroom in Maynard High School.
Mr. BEN KELLY (WAVM General Manager): WAVM? One moment please.
SHEA: Eighteen-year-old senior Ben Kelly is the station's general manager. He coordinates the program schedule that puts over 150 students on the air each week. Kelly wishes more listeners could hear them.
Mr. KELLY: If we had the 250 watts like we asked the FCC to grant us, we could go much further, you know, into a lot of the towns.
SHEA: WAVM has what's called a Class D license. Class Ds are the predecessors to today's low power FM stations. Class Ds were originally intended for educational and community use and many schools and universities had them. But by the 1970s, the FM spectrum became crowed. This put the Class Ds in a vulnerable spot. That's because the tiny stations aren't protected from interference by stronger radio signals. The only way to avoid being drowned out was to apply for an increase in power and an upgrade to the license.
WAVM did that in the 1980's and got approved but never got around to installing a more powerful transmitter so the permit expired. When the station applied again six years ago it got into trouble. The application opened the station's frequency to bids from other broadcasters. The FCC received four bids, including WAVM's, and last fall tentatively granted the license to Living Proof, Inc., a religious broadcaster from California.
In an interview last Fall, Joseph Magno, WAVM's founder and faculty advisor said the station is such an important part of the community that no one should be able to challenge the license.
Mr. JOSEPH MAGNO (Founder, WAVM): That's why this thing is hitting us hard. This is the really only local programming they get in this area.
SHEA: But the town of Maynard was hit even harder earlier this month when Magno was accused of sexually assaulting one of his students. The teacher was arrested at the station and WAVM went dark while police searched for evidence. Magno maintains his innocence and school administrators and town officials called a community meeting to figure out how to keep WAVM running in the wake of the teacher's arrest. Superintendent Mark Masterson addressed a crowd of about 100 in Maynard High's cafeteria.
Mr. MARK MASTERSON (Superintendent Maynard High School): Outsiders, whose only source of local knowledge is recent news reports, probably cannot understand that WAVM is the embodiment of this community's values, specifically community and service.
SHEA: Also at the meeting was WAVM supporter and Maynard Selectman Robert Nado. He drafted the town's appeal to the FCC and says the allegations against the station's faculty advisor should not have any impact on Maynard's fight to keep WAVM's license.
Mr. ROBERT NADO (Maynard Selectman): I certainly hope that none of the parties who are potentially looking for the frequency, and especially Living Proof, will use this as some sort of leverage against WAVM because it's really not having to do any thing with the regulatory requirements of why the FCC would issue the license.
SHEA: So then why did the FCC tentatively grant the license to an out of side broadcaster rather than one that's been serving Maynard for 33 years?
Mr. SCOTT FYBUSH (Media Analyst): Welcome to deregulation.
SHEA: Media analyst Scott Fybush runs the website Northeast Radio Watch.
Mr. FYBUSH: What happened was back in the old days the FCC would actually hold public hearings and broadcasters who wanted licenses would have to come in and demonstrate to the commission what sort of public service they would offer, what sort of programming they would provide, just how local it would be, how much news and public affairs they would provide. With the coming of deregulation, especially in the late '90s, the FCC did away with those hearings.
SHEA: Instead, Fybush says the commission now grants licenses to applicants who stand to provide the most news service to the greatest number of listeners. And while the FCC declined to comment for this story because the tentative decision is still under review, it would appear that a broadcaster based in California proposing to transmit a 630 watt signal to thousands of listeners who don't already receive non-commercial service better meets this criteria. The town of Maynard is taking issue with the FCC's calculations and so are some powerful friends.
Representative MARTY MEEHAN (Democrat, Massachusetts): From my perspective the story is basically and fundamentally about localism vs. nationalism.
SHEA: Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan represents Maynard in Washington. He has joined Senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry in writing letters to the FCC on WAVM's behalf.
Representative MARTY MEEHAN: I think at a time when you're seeing the consolidation of the media industry nationally, I think its more important now than ever that communities be able to take advantage of the airwaves and have local community programming.
SHEA: But Living Proof, Inc. will have a local studio according to Attorney Harry Martin who represents the religious broadcaster. Martin says the Bishop, California, company is small and operates four non-commercial radio stations in the west that depend on local support.
Mr. HARRY MARTIN (Attorney, Living Proof, Inc.): To make it successful or to make it viable it would have to have contributions from the local community just as any public radio station would. Martin also acknowledges that most of the programming on Living Proof stations is syndicated from other sources.
(Soundbite of Christian program on Living Proof radio station)
SHEA: It's been almost six years since Living Proof applied for WAVM's frequency. The California broadcaster learned it tentatively won the license in October. The controversy over that decision led Living Proof to propose a settlement last month that Attorney Harry Martin says could put both broadcasters on the air. But yesterday WAVM rejected the offer and the broader debate over Class D licenses won't be resolved anytime soon, according to analyst Scott Fybush.
Mr. FYBUSH: There have been stations in Pennsylvania and in Washington state that have also been crunched by the need for more spectrum and there are actually several pieces of legislation that are pending in Congress right now to try to preserve the remaining Class D licenses.
SHEA: The FCC's final decision on WAVM's license is expected soon. The station's advisor Joseph Magno has pleaded not guilty to the assault charges. While the town of Maynard, Massachusetts, waits for answers and for normalcy to return, the student D.J.s at Maynard High are back on the air for now.
For NPR News this is Andrea Shea.
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