A10-watt radio station run for 27 years by students of a Boston-area high school suddenly faces annihilation. The would-be annihilator? A radio station 100 times larger, operated in association with the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Boston.

Why the draconian measures against a tiny high school station? “It would totally wipe out our listenership [in the Maynard area],” said Annemarie Lewis Kerwin, assistant vice chancellor at the university.

The trouble began when the Maynard High School sought to upgrade its station in response to a recommendation by the Federal Communications Commission. At the FCC’s behest, student-run station WAVM (91.7 FM) filed an application to change from a Class D to Class A license, enabling it to increase its power to 250 watts.

A Class D license affords no proprietary rights to a given frequency as a Class A license does, which was another reason to make the change.

No sooner had the ink dried on the high school’s application but the UMass-affiliated station, WUMB (91.9 FM), filed a petition with the FCC to prevent the little station from increasing its wattage.

But it didn’t stop there. Next, the university-affiliated station filed for an upgrade of its own. If approved, it would take over the frequency now assigned to the high school.

“The best defense is a good offense,” Kerwin explained. “We filed for an increase in power to protect ourselves.”

The university funds only 20 percent of WUMB’s operations. For the remainder, it relies on its advertisers and donations from listeners—including those who live in the Maynard area.

Joe Magno is Maynard’s radio and television production teacher. In a letter asking community members to support WAVM’s battle to keep its frequency, he described the university’s petition as “callous and unwarranted” and the university’s attempt to upgrade its signal as “the ultimate insult.” He said the university never even contacted the high school to ask about the scope and size of Maynard’s station.

“They panicked when they saw what we were trying to do,” Magno said, referring to university officials. “Their signal would be weakened by ours when we were on.”

“There was always a little disruption in our frequency when [WAVM was] on the air,” Kerwin said of WUMB’s student-operated 1,000-watt station, which has been broadcasting for 31 years.

Maynard is about 22 miles from the UMass-Boston campus. The high school station’s 10-watt signal broadcasts to four or five communities within a five to seven mile radius. An upgrade to 250 watts probably would double the range of Maynard’s signal, Magno said.

But right now, Maynard’s 10-watt station is unprotected and vulnerable to competition because of its current license. That’s why the FCC recommended that the school upgrade its signal, Magno said.

About 165 students at Maynard High School, a school of just 410 students in grades eight to 12, organize and produce WAVM’s content, which is broadcast to local communities for part of each day. “They do news. They do sports. They cover the gamut as far as radio and TV go,” Magno said.

The award-winning station—which has been recognized at the state level by Gov. Paul Cellucci and nationally by CNN—has been funded by students, parents, the business community, and private donors for nearly 30 years. The school recently worked hard to raise the $12,000 needed to pay for the signal upgrade and a new transmitter, he said.

At press time, there were indications the two stations might settle things amicably. In mid-March, UMass arranged to meet with Maynard to discuss the conflict.

The university realizes WAVM is an “innovative student-run model,” said Kerwin. “We talked and got everything out on the table,” she said. The two sides decided the most feasible solution would be for both schools to share the 91.7 frequency.

“There’s a large block of time they [WUMB] could use the frequency without causing any problems to us,” Magno said. He said forming a partnership with the university to share the frequency could be beneficial for his students. They could intern at the university’s station and learn how public radio works, for example.

The next step would be to present this solution to the FCC, which ultimately will decide the fate of both stations.

FCC representative David Fiske was unavailable for comment. But Fiske told the Associated Press in early March that, after a recent court challenge, the procedures for determining how noncommercial applicants are awarded a frequency aren’t final.

WAVM, Maynard High School radio station
http://www.wavm.org

WUMB, UMass-Boston radio station
http://www.wumb.org

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov