The very first WERU-FM broadcast out of folksinger Noel Paul Stookey’s converted chicken barn on Blue Hill Mountain — on Sunday, May 1, 1988, to be exact — almost didn’t happen. The original group of volunteers sat in the studio, ready to go on-air for the first time, waiting for one thing: the station’s FCC license. It was en route, in the hands of the attorney who had secured it, who had flown to Bangor from New York that day and was driving as fast as he could to Blue Hill.
“It arrived 20 minutes before the exact time the station was officially supposed to go on air,” said Matt Murphy, WERU’s station manager since the early 2000s. “You legally can’t broadcast if your license isn’t in the studio. Those early days were full of things like that.”
Twenty-five years later, things run a lot more smoothly at the beloved community radio station, which has been broadcasting out of its permanent studio on Route 1 in Orland since 1997. To celebrate its quarter-century anniversary, the radio station, which broadcasts on 89.9 FM in Orland and 99.9 FM in Bangor, has planned a host of events, from the Music Sale and Spring Fling at the Belfast Boathouse this Saturday, April 27, to its Farm Fresh Live Radio Auction of goodies from local farms, a call-in benefit set to air from 6 to 8 p.m. on June 6.
Stookey, best known as one-third of legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, recalls those early days with fondness — he offered up his barn, known as the “Henhouse,” for the ragtag radio crew to broadcast in.
“The station’s early years were so fraught with peril, like early technical problems. The broadcast signal interfered with one of the most popular TV channels — which constrained the range, which in turn limited the size of its audience,” Stookey said. “You’ve heard the expression ‘wing and a prayer’? In an odd way WERU got up and flying in a similar way: the concept of a station borne out of a chicken house and the earnest desire for a ‘righteous’ radio station.”
Avid listeners of the station may not know that its programming originally was planned to be an ecumenical Christian format. By the time it was set to begin broadcasting, however, the format had shifted to the secular, freewheeling mix of music, news, and public affairs that it is today. In between nationally syndicated programs such as “Democracy Now” and local public affairs shows such as “Wabanaki Windows,” “Midcoast Currents” and “Boat Talk,” there’s music of all stripes. Country in the morning, soul and rhythm and blues in the afternoon and electronic music at night.
Rich Hilsinger began volunteering just six months after WERU debuted, and still hosts the Tuesday edition of the multigenre “On the Wing,” on air 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays.
“In a lot of ways, I really don’t think the station has changed that much over 25 years,” said Hilsinger, who is the director of the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin. “It remains a valuable source for local news and events, offers an alternative to mainstream media, and gives music lovers an unbelievable variety of sounds to enjoy. For myself, I simply love sharing music with anyone who tunes in.”
Though the overall vibe hasn’t changed much, the technology has. WERU began streaming broadcasts online in 2004, offers archived streams of recent shows, and has never been afraid to embrace new technology.
“People used to worry that streaming would mean we’d lose some of our local flavor, but the opposite has happened,” said Murphy. “We’ve had phone calls from Antarctica, from Indonesia, from Sicily, not because they discovered the station and liked it, but because they have a connection to the community. It was a slice of home for them. You just can’t do local, community radio on Pandora.”
Two years ago WERU began offering the 99.9 FM frequency out of Bangor. The original Bangor frequency, 102.9, was spotty at best due to interference from WZON 103.1-FM, so in a gesture of goodwill, the Zone Corporation, which also owns WKIT 100.3, offered to help WERU get the 99.9 frequency, and to let them share space on their Bangor broadcast tower. Their signal now comes in loud and clear, as far away as Dover-Foxcroft, and just last year, the station bought a new 12,000 watt transmitter for its Orland tower.
With 300 volunteers who do everything from cleaning the studio bathroom to hosting weekly radio programs, and with 400 local business sponsors and 2,200 contributing members, it is the community that keeps it all afloat. And judging from the wide variety of music and personalities that populate the airwaves, eastern Maine is full of a lot of interesting people.
“There certainly are a lot of originals here,” said Pat Fowler, who has volunteered with the station for more than a decade, and whose husband, George, hosts Celtic show “New Potatoes” from 4 to 6 p.m. Sundays. “There are almost too many unique people to mention, some of whom are still on air, and some of whom have moved on from the world.”
DJs who have passed on include unique folks such as Dave Piszcz, who hosted “Talking Furniture,” a blend of reggae, salsa, polka, jazz and social commentary. Magnus Johnstone, who died in February of this year, was an artist who was among the earliest of hip-hop DJs in New England. Charlie Oldham, who hosted his American party music program “Stacks of Tracks” for many years, was so devoted to it that he came in to do his show shortly after major surgery, with his IV still hooked up to his arm.
“It’s a family,” said Murphy. “I think the fact that we are who we are, and we are so diverse, means that we attract people that are creative and dynamic and interesting. That’s why people tune in — that diversity of voices. That’s why we’re still here.”
Aside from the Music Sale and Farm Fresh Auction, other 25 anniversary celebrations include an all-day marathon anniversary broadcast on Wednesday, May 1; the “Boat Talk” cruise, set for 6 p.m. Saturday, June 22, setting off in Northeast Harbor; and an open house celebration at the station from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 29. In October, there will be a 25th anniversary concert at the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth, featuring Stookey, Tim Sample, Dave Mallett, Paul Sullivan and more.