Student broadcasters fight plan to silence Wash. high school radio station

WASHINGTON — High school students in the Seattle areamay soon be seeing the day their music dies if the Federal CommunicationsCommission allows their school-sponsored station to be pushedoff the air by a more powerful commercial station.

Mercer Island High School’s X104.5 FM may be forced to closeits doors after KMCQ, a commercial radio station from The Dalles,Ore., that also broadcasts on the 104.5 FM frequency, filed apetition with the FCC to take over the frequency in the Seattlearea.

"It was pretty much a kick in the stomach," saidjunior Guy Dickinson, a X104.5 station engineer.

Nick De Vogel, KMIH’s general manager and a broadcastteacher at Mercer Island High School, said a staff of 20 to 50 studentsrun the station year-round, broadcasting top-40 music, high schoolsports and other programming for the experience of running a station.

"This isn’t a cookie-cutter approach," De Vogel said."We’re not just putting CDs in a machine. We’re completelycomputer-run, and the students do all the work, from underwritingto on-air work to engineering, Web site design and other technology.We do something that is unique to us by providing a service tothe community and helping these kids learn at the same time. They’reimmeasurably changed by this experience."

Dickinson agreed, "The skills you pick up here can beapplied almost anywhere."

The student-run station, a staple in the island community since1979, boasts an audience of 35,000. As part of the school, workingat the station is weaved into the curriculum, but the stationitself is entirely self-supporting.

"The district gives us power, heat and light," DeVogel said. "We raise the rest."

But despite its popularity, the station ran into trouble becauseit only holds a Class D license from the FCC, an educational permitthat allows the station to operate at a lower power. The FCC abandonedthe issuance of Class D licenses in 1979, and stations that continuedto operate with them were no longer protected from interferencefrom other FM stations like KMCQ.

"As a Class D station, you’re always hanging by a thread,"Dickinson said. "You can get axed at any time."

Backed by 100-watt power, the commercial station would havethe capability to infiltrate the Seattle market. The current station,at only 30 watts, is limited to a 10-mile radius. According tothe FCC application, KMCQ would stand to gain $25 million fromthe move.

Representatives from KMCQ were unavailable for comment.

De Vogel said upgrading the equipment is not an optionat the moment. Instead, he said that they would try going throughthe FCC to get the matter resolved. Mercer Island has until July29 to contest the FCC’s decision, and is raising money to payfor an attorney who specializes in FCC matters in Washington,D.C.

The station has tapped the community for funds, petitioningoutside grocery stores and had raised more than $6,000 as of lastweek, with the school contributing $1,500 to defray legal costs.

The students are also pitching in to help, circulating petitions,posting donation information on their Web site and publicizingthe situation on the air. Dickinson said they are alsodoing legal research to minimize the time their attorney mustspend on the case.

"We’ve got to keep this up and going," De Vogel said."We’re out here on an island, performing an important serviceto the people of Mercer Island. We have to find a way to get throughthis."