A high school radio station that has been broadcasting for more than 30 years is in danger of being shut down after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in October awarded the station’s frequency to an upstart religious broadcaster based some 3,000 miles away.

WAVM (FM 91.7), run entirely by students of Maynard High School in Maynard, Mass., says it will fight the FCC’s decision to reassign its frequency to California-based Living Proof Broadcasting, a noncommercial broadcaster of Christian music and Bible study.

Maynard is only the latest school that finds its right to broadcast in jeopardy, according to a Nov. 23 report in the New York Times. In the past year alone, at least 20 high school stations, and a handful of college ones, have been fending off challenges to their licenses by Christian broadcasters in what has become a growing–and disturbing–trend, the Times reported.

WAVM-FM went on the air in the early 1970s, said Joseph Magno, the station’s faculty adviser. Since then, Maynard students have reported on sports, news, and weather, broadcast Sunday church services, and played music on the air.

“This isn’t just a radio station. It’s an actual, viable school program. It’s the most well-known, important, impressive part of Maynard,” said Magno. He said the station has received both local and national recognition and has seen dozens of its alumni go on to broadcasting careers.

Magno said the station ran into trouble when it tried to increase its power signal from the meager 10 watts it has broadcast for most of its existence to 250 watts, resulting in a bid for its frequency by Living Proof, which reportedly plans to build a facility in nearby Lunenburg, Mass.

According to FCC rules, when a radio station files a petition to make a “major change,” it opens the rights to its frequency to be challenged.

Living Proof filed a competing claim on WAVM’s frequency, and Maynard school officials received a letter from the FCC dated Oct. 6 saying it was granting the station’s frequency to Living Proof, pending the outcome of an appeal process.

Magno says he questions the agency’s decision for two reasons: One, it’s ambiguous what is meant by a “major change,” and in this case, the rule shouldn’t apply to the relatively modest upgrade in WAVM’s signal; and two, an out-of-town religious organization shouldn’t be given priority over a local school with a well-established and highly successful program when it comes to competing for a spot on the airwaves.

“The FCC doesn’t do warm and fuzzy–the fact that we’ve got a track record a mile long means nothing to them. All we are is files and forms and numbers,” said Magno, who added that the rules favor “big business” and “big-money [players in] Washington.”

Officials at Living Proof declined to comment, and a call to the FCC seeking comment was not immediately returned. But an FCC spokeswoman told the Boston Globe the agency chose Living Proof as part of a policy to promote noncommercial licenses in areas with a limited number of noncommercial stations.

“They were the only applicant that showed they would be able to provide [noncommercial radio] service to the largest number of people in the community,” the spokeswoman told the Globe. She added that Living Proof had eight licenses or construction permits across the country as of press time.

Living Proof’s president, Daniel McClenaghan, is affiliated with the Calvary Chapel ministry, the Globe reported. Calvary operates the CSN Network, which reportedly owns more than 300 stations. Four years ago, Calvary founder Chuck Smith told the Dallas Morning News that his staff has “great computers, and they search constantly for open stations in an area and file on those openings with the FCC.”

Magno said Maynard has appealed the FCC’s decision, with the support of local government officials, who have sent a special resolution to the agency. The school also has sought help from Massachusetts Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, both Democrats, as well as Rep. Marty Meehan, a Democrat from nearby Lowell, Mass.

If the agency does not reverse its decision, WAVM likely would shut down; there are no other available frequencies in the area. Another option would be to broadcast entirely online–but that would limit the station’s reach to only those households with internet access.

Losing the station would leave a big hole in the community, Magno said. It’s the main news outlet for the high school, which doesn’t have a student newspaper. Each December, the station holds a 40-hour marathon broadcast that has raised thousands of dollars for families in need.

And, of course, there are the educational benefits to the 180-plus students who are involved in the program.

“I consider this to be a school-within-a-school–they learn to write well, speak well, interact with [professionals]. It just broadens their horizons, regardless of whether they go into communications,” Magno said.

He concluded: “There’s a lot at stake–it’s not just a bunch of kids on the radio.”

See these related links:

WAVM, Maynard, Mass.

Federal Communications Commission

Living Proof Broadcasting

CSN Network