Schooled ya: Maynard’s Radio Station Needs a Boost

For community journalism, there’s no easier story to carry than the one I’m about to describe. The old’ “Mainstream Media” broke it first. Now we would expect the blogs to enter stage front and take the case, maybe organize some advocacy journalism. Heard of made-for-TV? This one’s made-for-blogs: it’s got an underdog community media effort against an out-of-town one trying to push it out. The Maynard (MA) High School radio station is about to lose its license to a California-based religious broadcaster which has been scouring up licenses nationwide, with the FCC’s neutral approach enabling it.

If a high school radio station isn’t community journalism, I don’t know what is. For the benefit of my nonlocal readers, Maynard is a town of 10,000 about 20 miles west of Boston. Also, for the benefit of my Internet readers, in the present day and in the generations to come, a radio station is like a live podcast that reaches its listener’s analog wireless frequency modulation. While commercial radio stations broadcast in the tens of thousands of watts, blanketing large swaths of Eastern Massachusetts, WAVM-FM uses only 10 watts, which barely covers all of Maynard. They had applied to the FCC for a 250-watt license, which they had planned on sharing with UMass-Boston. How cool is it to have a radio station in high school? I didn’t have one back at White Plains; we had a 16-page newspaper that slipped a deadline or two. You can’t do that on the radio. Maynard has 185 students in the program and counts 75 alumni who have gone onto broadcasting.

When I looked into this story the other night, I started weighing the merits of the traditional reporting vs. community journalism (details to follow in the next piece). Both were blown away by the depth of analysis from an industry newsletter, Scott Fybush’s North East Radio Watch, in which he devoted 1500 words this week.WAVM had applied five years ago and has only heard this month that the license has been awarded via “tentative preference” to Living Proof, Inc., a Christian radio ministry based out of Bishop, California. Fybush pointed out that decades ago, the FCC would hold comparative hearings to choose between noncommercial license applicants, but in the post-deregulation age has used a strict formula for doing so. Living Proof decided to base its signal 25 miles further west, out in Lunenberg, and thus, as Fybush explains, it would “bring a city-grade noncommercial signal to any listeners who didn’t currently receive one.” According to the FCC rules, that was sufficient for awarding the license. Maynard High has had 30 days to appeal.

Now if there are readers interested in community journalism, these are the sorts of questions you could ask:

  1. When is the actual deadline for comments to be sent in to the FCC to support the appeal?
  2. How much money is this costing the school district in terms of legal fees, etc.?
  3. Do the newspaper articles suggest that Representative Marty Meehan has been looking into this– any updates?
  4. Anything unusual about it taking five years for the application to be processed?
  5. Anything unusual about Living Proof, Inc? Who are these officers? There is scant information on the website. Given the abject religiosity of the current administration, is there any reason at all to be suspicious?
  6. How many high school radio stations are there in this country? How many radio ministries are there? How many in Massachusetts?
  7. How many other radio stations have faced this predicament, or are expecting to?
  8. If a poll were to be contrived, measuring the interests of the Lunenberg station versus the Maynard High School station, would that provide a pretty accurate picture of what the public wants? This is an instance where direct democracy, could provide a simple and effective statement on the public’s mood.
  9. In an age of iPods, XM radio, do enough people care about local radio?
  10. Is the alternative– Internet-only radio– acceptable?
  11. Would additional lobbying by people who have never listened to WAVM-FM help? Here’s their appeal.

Such a story would run thousands of words, and would probably suffer by its length. The exercise would be good. The traditional journalists have already taken the lead here, but community journalists could step and go deeper on the story, or at the least help sustain it.

Update, November 7: Yes, the Beacon Villager (the Community Newspaper Company local paper) has stayed on this story, as expected. On October 27th, the day after I posted this piece, they returned to the story. Jesse A. Floyd filed the story WAVM in Holding Pattern, For Now, supplying some basic details I missed above. The deadline is November 12th– five days from now. Rep. Meehan told the paper that he sent a letter to the FCC urging reconsideration.

Also, one of my occasional correspondents who first made contact with me in February regarding the “Jeff Gannon” story (see Stuck at the Gates) has been digging much deeper into this story, learning about these radio ministry signals. Stay tuned, as they say.

Update, August 6: I neglected this story after November. Fortunately, the petitioners did not. On December 29th, the Globe reported that Living Proof announced their intentions to reach a compromise, having learned of the massive letter-writing effort from community residents (and the entire state congressional delegation) to the FCC. The Community Newspapers Company (now Gatehouse Media, which owns the Herald and a chain of suburban weeklies) stayed on the story throughout the spring. In April, an agreement between WAVM, WUMB (UMass-Boston) and Living Proof was announced, by which WUMB and WAVM would share the 91.7 frequency, and Living Proof’s new station would not interfere with it.

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