- Barry Darling displays a WLBZ radio electrical transcription — which looks like a large record — that contains live radio programs from the 1940s. He has been “transcribing” some 200 “ETs,” as they are known, by playing each on the turntable set on the table beside him. The turntable transmits the recorded data to a device (foreground) that transfers the signal to a CD.
It’s 10 a.m. on a chilly March morning, and already Barry Darling is waming to his work. Tucked away in a small room at the University of Maine’s Fogler Library, he switches on a bulky turntable, dons a pair of white gloves, and slides a 16-inch, 33-1/3 rpm disc off the shelf.
“Some of these discs are in good shape, and some are awful,” Darling says anxiously as he drops a needle onto a heavy black record. “They can be damaged, have limited frequency response, and a lot of surface noise.”
Darling breaks into a grin as oral history comes alive. It’s a good day for the 72-year-old archivist when the 15-minute radio broadcast, featuring football banter, plays with scant snap, crackle, or pop.
Not bad for a local relic dating to World War II.
All of the more than 200 surviving discs, known as electrical transcriptions, or ETs, were recorded at WLBZ’s downtown Bangor radio station in the 1940s and ’50s. Founder Thompson L. Guernsey spent a small fortune to equip the studio with the latest and best in broadcast equipment and studio accommodations at least as good as any major market station. WLBZ’s pre-television state-of-the-art transcription recorders were installed sometime in 1944 or 1945.
When Thompson’s cousin, Edward E. Guernsey — WLBZ’s general manager from the mid-1940s to 1978 — retired, he donated the disc collection to Darling, the last general manager under the WLBZ call letters. Along with photos and radio documents, Darling donated the transcriptions to UMaine’s Special Collections Department. He began transcribing the ETs to compact disc in 2010 and hopes to finish by year’s end.
“I’m very grateful for what Barry is doing,” said Richard Hollinger, head of Special Collections. “It will be a tremendous resource that we hope to put online at some future point.”
So far, Darling estimates he has logged 100 hours, all of it in donated labor.
“You can’t determine the discs’ playing quality simply by looking at them,” he said. “Sometimes the worst looking discs, made of aluminum and acetate, play best. Since they were stored in WLBZ’s basement on Broadway, now home to WZON, they’re moldy, and I’m allergic to mold.”
Still, Darling likes to unlock radio’s golden age when tobacco advertising flourished and a 1945 minstrel show, now considered racist, was amusing. It’s all history, he said, and he’d rather play transcriber than censor.
Programs and commercials, many pre-recorded for later broadcast, include music, sports, community news, public affairs, and politics. Norm Lambert performs “Concert and Keyboard Melodies” on the studio’s Hammond organ and grand piano; announcers Eddie Owen and Irving Hunter are lively hosts; the 1949 Maine Broiler Day Festival in Belfast is featured, along with a 1951 UMaine Radio Guild program with Margo Floyd Cobb, WLBZ-TV general manager, and George Gonyer, general manager of WABI radio and television.
And John R. McKernan Sr., father of future governor John R. McKernan Jr., offers basketball commentary.
Perhaps the greatest treasure is a 1947 broadcast from the old Bangor Auditorium featuring the dedication of the City of Bangor World War II Memorial Book of Honor. The names of the city’s 110 war dead are read in an era of long orations and musical selections. The original Book of Honor and Darling’s CD transcription are in the Bangor Public Library’s collection.
Darling has been a broadcaster for 54 years. He has been employed by MPBN radio as a program producer for the past 15 years and probably never will retire … or so he says.
He has begun work on a technical history of WLBZ and WABI as well as a history of the very early days of the two-way radio system of the Maine State Police. His father, Lou, was the first radio technician hired by the state police, going to work in 1940. Darling also has a deep interest in all things Canadian, having grown up near the New Brunswick border in Houlton before moving to the greater Bangor area in 1954.
But first there’s completion of the WLBZ radio transcriptions, which Darling has single-handedly rescued from oblivion. Few such collections exist in the nation, and radiophiles everywhere owe him a debt of gratitude.