Community radio returns to Bar Harbor

Posted June 15, 2009, at 10:16 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:06 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — It has been more than eight years since the last remaining local radio station on Mount Desert Island was sold and its operations moved off-island.

Now a Waterville native has set his sights, or at least his ears, on bringing community-produced radio back to Bar Harbor.

That role most recently was filled by WMDI, a commercial FM radio station that for six years heavily leaned on Bar Harbor issues, events and residents for its programming. But since WMDI was sold in 2001 and incorporated into the WBACH family of classical stations, there has been no radio station operating on the island.

Enter Chuck Begin. Begin lives in Washington, D.C., where he moved in 1979 after beginning his broadcasting career in his native state, but has been out of broadcasting for the past five years. Now the owner and operator of a printing business, Begin bought a summer home in Bar Harbor two years ago and wondered what it would take to bring radio back to MDI.

Reached by phone last week in Washington, D.C., Begin said he decided to give it a try last fall after finding out about low-power technology that is strong enough to broadcast a radio signal but weak enough not to require a Federal Communications Commission license. The broadcast equipment has to meet federal standards in the same way that baby monitors and walkie-talkies do, he said, but the broadcast content is not regulated by the FCC.

So, with the blessings of Reel Pizza theater owners Chris Vincenty and Lisa Burton, on Memorial Day weekend Begin erected four antennas on the theater’s roof, each of which is 24 feet tall and has a signal of one-tenth of a watt. Over that signal, which has about a 5-mile radius, Begin broadcasts a Top 40 format. The station’s frequency is 1630 AM and its call letters are WEDN, a reference to Bar Harbor’s original name of Eden.

“The content is not anywhere near what we want to have,” Begin said. “This is not a commercial radio station.”

The idea, Begin said, is to get local residents to produce shows — something Vincenty and Burton have strongly encouraged him to do. Begin said he has been approached by someone who wants to do a bluegrass show and that he’d also like to offer community news. Whatever ends up on the air, he said, has to be well done and visitor friendly, and it has to benefit the community.

“We’re not going to put junk on,” Begin said. “I love Bar Harbor and I love radio, and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for the town.”

The station won’t have a studio, according to Begin. The signal he broadcasts comes from a computer server set up inside the movie theater. The idea is to have local producers record what are essentially podcasts on their home computers and to upload them to the WEDN server. When its time slot arrives, a show will be sent out over the air.

He said that the station also will be able to do live radio in the same fashion, uploaded from location over the Internet. There also will be streaming over a WEDN Web site, which is still being worked on, he said.

“There are many of these radio stations popping up all over the country,” he said.

There already are some free ads Begin has put in the broadcast rotation, one for a local restaurant owned by a neighbor and another for the theater. He said he would like to continue to offer advertising mainly to recoup the money he has spent so far on equipment, which is more than he originally anticipated.

Begin said he does not have the resources it would take to build the station into a true commercial, profit-making enterprise. For that reason, he has no plans to sell his printing business.

Vincenty said Monday that when Begin approached him months ago about using his building, right away he thought of various people in town who either used to produce shows for WMDI or who have on-air experience through WERU, a community nonprofit radio station based in Orland.

“It would be much more exciting to get the community involved,” Vincenty said. “I’ve been an advocate of opening this thing [up to experienced local people]. There’s a huge spectrum of stuff that’s not being covered by any station.”

There has been some confusion about what kind of local permits, if any, that Begin and Vincenty may need to get from the town. Begin, Vincenty and Bar Harbor Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain each have said they are working to resolve the issue.

Begin said that part of the confusion stems from the new technology that has made the radio station possible. It does not meet many traditional models of radio signal operations such as commercial, amateur or CB, he said, and so how to define it under the town’s local ordinance has been a challenge.

Begin said he plans to comply with whatever permitting direction he gets from the town, provided it is within his financial means.

“Whatever needs to be done, it will be done,” Begin said. “I think once everybody understands what’s going on, it will be no problem.”

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