College Station's Faint Voice Could Soon Be Drowned Out
Sunday, March 5, 2006
The last student-run radio station on the Washington dial may soon be overpowered and forced off the air by a Baltimore public station intent on creating Maryland's first statewide radio service.
Listeners may imagine public radio to be a genteel alternative to the cacophony of commercial stations, but the off-air politics of the low end of the FM dial can get downright cutthroat, as the University of Maryland students who run WMUC are finding out.
The College Park station, one of the oldest student-managed outlets in the nation, operates on 88.1. So does WYPR, the Baltimore public station that was formerly owned by Johns Hopkins University and sold in 2002 to a group of its managers for $5 million. The new Baltimore management has sought from the start to transform WYPR into a powerhouse that looks beyond its home town to reach and cover an audience all across Maryland. The station's programming is almost identical to the mix of National Public Radio news and talk heard on Washington's WAMU (88.5 FM) and WETA (90.9), with the addition of evening jazz and a Baltimore-oriented talk show instead of WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi.
For five years, WYPR has held a permit from the FCC to boost its signal power, which would let it reach listeners in Columbia, Annapolis and down into Montgomery and Prince George's counties, up to about the Capital Beltway. Starting in 2002, says WYPR President Anthony Brandon, he tried to contact University of Maryland officials to discuss the power boost, which would overwhelm the broadcast signal of student-run WMUC.
The Baltimore station is allowed to trample on the student station's signal because WMUC holds a Class 4 license, the lowest category of FCC license and one that provides zero protection against interference by big boys on the dial. Class 4 licenses, which are no longer granted, were distributed in the early years of FM radio, mainly to college stations for very low-powered transmitters designed primarily to serve students on campus. The FCC reports that it received no objections to the expansion of WYPR's signal.
But although WMUC's tiny 10-watt signal reaches only a few miles beyond College Park, the station has become a cherished sanctuary for cutting-edge rock, a reliable incubator of broadcasting talent and a steady source of play-by-play coverage of Maryland sports teams. WMUC alumni include NPR programming guru Jay Kernis, TV news veteran Connie Chung, cartoonist Aaron McGruder and Comcast sports anchor Chick Hernandez.
Brandon says his efforts to negotiate an amicable arrangement with WMUC never elicited a response from top university officials. Brandon says he had hoped to find a way to move the college station to another spot on the dial. "We didn't want to be heavy-handed," the WYPR president says. "But it's our obligation to broadcast at full power for our listeners in Columbia and Annapolis. We have made no secret of trying to be more Maryland-centric. Our stated objective is to serve the entire state."
But university counsel Anne Bowden says it's "highly presumptuous" of WYPR to suggest that WMUC move to a different frequency. Station engineers add that there is no available frequency in the highly congested Washington radio spectrum. Brandon agrees that might be true, but says he was willing to help the college station expand its Internet presence or send interns to the Baltimore station.
In addition, the university maintains that but for a single exchange of letters in 2002, WMUC heard nothing from WYPR until recent press reports indicated that the Baltimore station was on the verge of blasting the college station out of existence.
In the one dialogue between the two stations, "we had outside counsel look at the issue and we responded to WYPR saying, 'Thanks but no thanks,' " Bowden says. "I don't think it's the intent of the FCC to eliminate student radio stations."
Brandon says he expects to boost his station's power from 10,000 to 15,000 watts this year and he admits that that move will "probably interfere with their transmissions," making it impossible for the College Park station to stay on the FM air. He says WMUC could continue as an Internet-only station.
At WMUC, students are campaigning to save their station, and prominent alumni are adding their voices to the effort. Despite its faint signal, the station has a big impact on the local rock scene. In part this is because WMUC streams its programming over the Internet, reaching a wider audience, and in part because, as the last college station in the area, its student DJs are the only on-air outlet for local bands and other acts that can't break into big corporate radio.
(The decline of college radio in the Washington area is a long and sad story. Georgetown's Jesuit administration sold off its station because it didn't want students promoting abortion and other policies contrary to church teachings; the University of the District of Columbia was forced by the city's congressionally appointed financial control board to sell its jazz station; Howard University decided to turn WHUR into a commercial R&B outlet to reap profits; and American University transformed WAMU into a professional public station.)
"As a teaching tool, WMUC is essential to me," says Maryland journalism professor Sue Kopen Katcef, whose students produce a weekly news show on the station. "Students come to this university because of the station and the opportunities it opens to them." About 200 students, all volunteers, are involved in some aspect of the station, says Steve Gnadt, an administrator who serves as adviser.
But WYPR says its wider ambitions will serve all of Maryland. In part because of the Washington area's division into three major jurisdictions, the region has never developed the statewide public radio networks that in many states provide extensive local programming, such as coverage of state legislatures and reporting on state issues. WYPR proposes to do that, and has already bought a station in Frederick that extends its signal through the central portion of the state. WYPR is looking to buy an outlet on the Eastern Shore to cover that region.
And starting this month, WYPR will launch "Maryland Morning With Sheilah Kast," a news hour designed to cover Maryland politics, arts and culture. The veteran ABC News correspondent, who lives in College Park, will host the program, which will begin as a weekly offering and become daily next month, says Program Director Andy Bienstock. The show will replace the third daily airing of NPR's "Morning Edition," which many public stations repeat throughout their early morning schedules.
"We are thought of in Baltimore as a very Baltimore station," says Bienstock. "The challenge is expanding our focus to the entire state while retaining our identity in Baltimore. We know WAMU is more of a Washington identity and there really is no Maryland NPR station. We want to be that station."
WAMU pronounces itself unworried about the Baltimore station's move into the Washington area. "There's only competition if somebody serves listeners better than we do," says WAMU General Manager Caryn Mathes. As Shirlington-based WETA (90.9 FM) and WYPR boost local news coverage, the District-based WAMU will seek to add to its reporting staff, Mathes says.