By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
Mike Young remembers his first visit to WABI TV. It was his birthday in 1964, and he and some friends were attending the live broadcast of The Bozo Show. The birthday boy got to crank the famous Cartoon Machine, but when he did, he realized it was just a prop cardboard box.
“I guess I lost a piece of my innocence on that day,” he said. “I said, ‘Someday I’m going to run this place, and we’re going to have a real Cartoon Machine.’”
Two decades later, Young joined WABI, and eventually became its general manager. While he’s never gotten around to installing that real Cartoon Machine, he’s seen many other changes.
After former Gov. Horace A. Hildreth purchased Bangor radio station WABI-AM in 1949, its manager Murray Carpenter and engineer Walter Dixon approached Hildreth with an idea: start Maine’s first television station. The cost: about $100,000, equivalent to about $871,000 today. It was a big investment, but Hildreth saw television’s looming importance.
“He took a leap of faith that this new thing that was going to bring pictures and sound into the homes of people, and that they would actually buy these boxes and sit there and watch them, and that that would translate into commerce,” Young said.
Regular network television programming had begun in 1948, and there were four networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. WABI would broadcast content from all of them, a common practice then, as no network provided enough programming to fill a day.
The station went on the air on January 23, 1953 from its studio and transmitter on Copeland Hill in Holden. Many viewers remember that the first program broadcast was an episode of “Boston Blackie” starring Kent Taylor. Mainers quickly warmed to the idea; crowds often gathered outside store windows to watch the test patterns, and later programs, on display televisions.
“My grandfather, who was not a wealthy man… bought a television prior to the sign-on of WABI TV and watched the test pattern for three days,” Young said. “They were very excited about it.”
Early televisions were expensive, but like today’s high-definition models, as popularity grew, prices dropped to become more affordable. But back then, the feeling was very different than the HDTVs of today.
“It was almost magic back then,” Young said. “To have faces and sound and pictures right in your living room? That was unheard of.”
WABI relocated its studio to a converted garage on the Main Road in Hampden in 1956, and by 1959 it was primarily a CBS affiliate. In 1961, it built its “Studio City” location, where it is today. Shortly thereafter, the transmitter was relocated to Dixmont, where it would be able to reach further into Central Maine and bring the magic into as many homes as it could.
That magic changed steadily. Black and white became color. Broadcast gave way to cable and satellite. Film went to videotape and then to digital. Transmitter technology constantly evolved. And in 2006, the company launched a second television station, WABI DT2, a CW network affiliate. It’s a never-ending investment to keep ahead technologically.
“We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars through the years, literally,” Young said.
Barely 20 years ago, the station got its first remote truck with a microwave transmitter on a raised mast. Now, WABI recently tested a portable backpack that uses wireless connections to achieve the same results — a much easier and cheaper process with fewer geographical impediments.
“It’s going to allow us to report more news from more locations on the spot in seconds — in high-definition quality,” Young said.
The biggest change in 60 years has been the Internet, which has transformed traditional broadcasting. Viewers’ demands have changed a lot in recent years; today, they want to watch programming on their schedules, not a network’s.
“We’ve got to get better at providing options for people to watch — to be entertained, informed, enlightened — on their timeline, not on ours,” Young said.
With the looming question of whether the networks will need affiliates in the growing Digital Age, Young says local programming is more important than ever. Most of WABI’s programming is local, including about 30 hours of local news weekly, ongoing coverage of UMaine and high-school sports, special coverage of major local events, and even locally produced programs such as The Nite Show with Danny Cashman, which airs Saturday night.
“We’re constantly looking for the [next] Danny Cashman show,” Young said. “We’ve not abandoned local television. For those that do, they do so at their own peril.”
WABI’s positioning statement has been “We do what we do for you.” That’s powerful, Young says.
The mantra seems to be working: WABI continues to remain at the top of its competition, as it has always striven for since its inception. Young credits many things for that: WABI’s focus on its viewers and users, its embracing of new technologies, and its commitment to local programming. But the most important ingredient in the station’s 60 years of success has been the people who have worked there.
“People are truly focused to having a positive impact on those we serve,” he said. “It’s their unwavering, selfless dedication to our mission of serving the public interest and begin engaged in meaningful ways in the communities of Eastern and Central Maine.
“The greatest reward for me… is the knowledge that what we do can have — and does have, and has had, and will continue to have — a positive impact on the communities we call home,” he said.
Next week, learn about the evolution of 60 years of WABI’s programming, and about the station’s upcoming retrospective specials.