SKOWHEGAN — A century-old prison cellblock is being transformed this month into studios for a new community radio station with the help of five students from the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and a retired local carpenter.

Students working with master carpenter Richard Tessier are making shelves and countertops for four cells, all of which will be home to WXNZ — 98.1 on the FM dial — this summer, said Lolly Phoenix, president of the Wesserunsett Arts Council. The council holds the permit and will be granted the license for a 2-watt-frequency radio station with a broadcast range of about three miles from downtown Skowhegan.

“They’re building all the parts that we’re going to need to turn the old jailhouse into the radio station,” Phoenix said Tuesday. “We’re calling the music mix ‘Americana’ — anything with American roots. We’re going to be as inclusive as we can be.”

Tessier and radio veteran and project coordinator Annie Stillwater Gray went through four cells in the 1895 former Somerset County Jail to determine the design — where the workspaces would go, where the shelves would go, how big they should be and what equipment would be going on them.

There will be a music library, a broadcast studio, a composition studio and a large lobby area, Tessier said.

“We’re going to do countertops and put up some acoustic ceiling tiles and do some sound control on the walls and the floor. Of course, the jail is all concrete so they need something to take that echo sound out,” said Tessier, who is donating his time and expertise to mentor the students. “It’s learning hands-on skills using math, a lot of geometry, making things square, straight and level.”

Two of the five MeANS students were on hand Tuesday as Tessier showed them how to turn big pieces of oak plywood into ornate countertops and shelving. Tessier taught carpentry at the vocational school in Skowhegan for 26 years.

Hannes Moll, 16, of Windsor, and Issax Fletcher, also 16, of Madison, said they like going to school at the academy and it gives them a chance to do community service projects such as the jailhouse radio station.

“Instead of sitting in school like you would at a regular high school, you can be outside and working with your hands,” Moll said. “It fit me a lot better than going to either Erskine or Cony. We’re building tabletops for the radio station, and it’s pretty fun — going from a prison to a radio station. I think it’s pretty cool.”

Fletcher agreed.

“It kind of gives you a career, a trade in life, like they used to back in the day,” he said. “Now they just give you a diploma and say, ‘Here you go.’ It’s a better fit for me. It’s more like a home and not just a school. My family is nothing but carpenters, electricians, mechanics.”

Grace Hilmer, community outreach coordinator at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, said the school is glad to be working with Tessier and Phoenix on a project that enhances learning while giving back to the community.

“Our sophomore students have a project course that requires getting involved in the community. Building shelving for the community radio station fits our mission by providing hands-on, interest-based learning and community involvement,” Hilmer said. “We are continuing to build new bridges to the community in order to provide our students with experiences that will ignite learning, build strong character and connect them with positive community role models.”

The Federal Communications Commission granted a construction permit to the Wesserunsett Arts Council to build a radio station last year. It’s a noncommercial frequency, low-power radio station.

The station is being built inside the Somerset Grist Mill in the converted jail. It shares space with mill offices; the Pick Up Cafe and Community Supported Agriculture program; Happy Knits yarn shop; the Tech Spot, where teenagers show older folks how to use computers; a suite of cells used by an online trader of Asian antiques; and an occasional pop-up shop in the former jail administrator’s office.

Grist Mill co-owner and founder Amber Lambke, of Skowhegan, is offering the space free to the arts council in exchange for on-air promotional considerations.

The signal will be transmitted from Bigelow Hill in Skowhegan with support from station technician Timothy Smith.

Phoenix said programming will include a loop of diverse music from folk and blues to rock and hip-hop “wedged” with live on-air performances. The whole project is expected to cost the council about $35,000. Phoenix said they still need to raise a minimum of $10,000 for a “bare bones” broadcast operation.

“We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel,” she said, adding that a couple of local banks have contributed money for the project. “Optimistically, we’re saying we’ll be on the air in May. It’s money that’s holding us back at this point. If we’re not up and running 24/7 by August, we will lose our construction permit and our FCC frequency.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

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