A ripple of indignation spread across the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park yesterday over news that its student-run radio station, which has been broadcasting since 1937, might be unceremoniously forced off the air by a more powerful station in Baltimore.
The college station, WMUC, issued an appeal to alumni to help it retain its signal, currently powered by just 10 watts and available within a radius of only a few miles of the 1,200-acre campus.
University officials said they had met with lawyers to determine the station's legal options. They also began looking for an engineer to explore moving the station to another frequency, out of harm's way, although that option, they said, could be thwarted by the crowded radio spectrum in and around Washington.
It is WMUC's position at 88.1 on the FM dial - not just its small size - that has placed it in jeopardy. It has the same frequency as WYPR, a 10,000-watt public radio station in Baltimore that intends to increase its power south, a move that could obliterate WMUC's signal.
"Everyone at the station is up in arms," said Jackie Russell, WMUC's general manager, who helps to oversee a volunteer force of about 175 students at the station. During the day, student representatives met with faculty advisers to figure out how to save the station "any way we see possible," Russell said.
A Federal Communications Commission engineer confirmed yesterday that WYPR has been granted a permit to increase the power of its main antenna by 5,500 watts and to redirect its output in a trajectory that might interfere with WMUC's signal. The engineer, who asked not to be quoted by name because he is not authorized to speak on the record, said that the larger station's Class A license entitles it to cover a wider area that could include College Park, while WMUC's Class D license - which defines it as a "secondary station" - does not protect it from such encroachments.
The FCC engineer said that WMUC's weak signal was likely "to get worse" if WYPR sets up its power boost, although it would not be clear until then by how much. In the worst case, he said, WMUC's signal might not be heard at all.
Andy Bienstock, WYPR's program manager, said yesterday that he hoped his station's signal expansion would occur "within the next year."
"It doesn't mean WMUC has to go off the air," Bienstock said, "but there is a very good chance that it will interfere with their signal. There's also a chance it won't, but we won't really know until we turn it on."
In a letter yesterday to the editor of the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, Bienstock said WYPR had informed WMUC of its expansion plans several years ago, "and indicated our willingness to find a mutual solution, such as helping WMUC find another frequency so that they could remain an over-the-air presence, or working students into our news department."
"We tried, but were completely ignored, our phone calls not returned," Bienstock wrote. "And so, since the construction permit has long since been granted, here we stand."
Stephen Gnadt, a campus administration adviser to the station, said the university did reply to WYPR's 2003 offer. "We said we're not interested," Gnadt recalled. "We were already aware there were no other frequencies available and, after so many years, the students didn't want to give up the frequency they had."
Gnadt and other campus officials said they believed the matter died then. It came as a shock, they said, to read an article in The Sun on Wednesday that mentioned WYPR's decision to go ahead with its expansion and the possible effect on WMUC.
Zack Richardson, 23, who was WMUC's general manager in 2003 and is now a reporter for a food industry trade magazine in Washington, said he, too, believed the danger to the station had passed.
"The assertion on WYPR's part that this is a done deal, that the FCC has given them authority to remove the station off the air, that was a surprise to me," Richardson said. He said he also found it ironic that WMUC would be threatened by a station like WYPR, which began life as a 10-watt student station at the Johns Hopkins University before growing in recent years into a professionally run, independently owned operation.
"This is the old David and Goliath scenario," said Sue Kopen Katcef, an instructor at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which sends students interested in a radio career to work at WMUC. "The station is caught in a squeeze play," said Kopen Katcef, who worked at WMUC before graduating in 1976. "This is going to come down to a battle between engineers and attorneys. We're still trying to figure out which way we're headed at this point, but we're going to do our best to make sure the station is around for a whole lot longer."
Kopen Katcef said she had become a clearinghouse for e-mail messages from alumni - some of them well-known in broadcasting circles - who are worried about the fate of the station and offered to help keep it on the air.
CBS News correspondent John Hartge, who was WMUC's station manager in 1969 and 1970, wrote to Kopen Katcef yesterday saying he was distressed to hear that WMUC "may be overpowered" by a Baltimore station.
In the same vein, Jay Kernis, National Public Radio's senior vice president for programming, a 1974 College Park graduate, wrote that his four years working at WMUC "were some of the most enjoyable and important in my 37-year career in broadcasting."
"We were allowed to play many roles: announcer, newscaster, reporter, program director, station manager," Kernis wrote. "Where else would teenagers get that opportunity?"