PORTLAND, Maine — The last DJ left WMPG‘s tiny studio on Bedford Street at midnight. Known to his heavy metal fans as Nightfall, he left behind a message, scratched on a white board in red and black.
“Let it be known that Nightfall was the last to hold the line at WMPG on this hallowed day of March 16, 2020,” it read. “May he find peace written on the glorious halls of Valhalla.”
It’s still there.
Two weeks ago, Station Manager Jim Rand and his staff made the difficult decision to send everyone home for safety’s sake amid the widening coronavirus pandemic. Since then, Rand and a skeleton crew have been the only people in or out of the station on the University of Southern Maine campus in Portland. They’ve kept the transmitter operating, broadcasting a mix of archived shows and new material a few of the DJs have managed to produce at home.
Rand said he’s not sure how long the 4,500-watt community station can operate this way but he’s convinced it’s worth the effort.
“We’re not throwing in the towel yet,” he said “but it’s a good question. I guess until we start getting sick.”
Rand and his management team started contemplating clearing the station even before USM announced it was shutting down the campus.
“We decided it was getting too dangerous for the volunteers, the work study students, the musical guests and the public to have so many people coming and going. In just one day, we can have 30 or 40 people coming through here,” Rand said.
WMPG can reach around 320,000 people over the air in southern Maine and an unlimited number online. It broadcasts 24 hours a day and has somewhere around 100 different shows and DJs. Programming ranges far and wide — from local talk shows, to heavy metal, to folk, to jazz — and it’s constantly changing.
Archived shows currently being broadcast are from January. It might seem live until someone mentions a date, free concert tickets or gives the weather report.
Program Director Jessica Lockhart said so far she has 10 DJs able to record fresh shows at home and email them into the station. More DJs would like to contribute programming and it’s just a matter of having the right equipment, she said.
Lockhart’s DJs are all volunteers. None are paid and they are already highly motivated.
“The archived shows are great but they want to talk to their listeners. In terrible times like these, the music does a lot for listeners,” Lockhart said.
Bobby Shaddeaux — better known on the air as DJ Shaxx — is one of the on-air personalities producing his show at home. His Wednesday night show called “Left of the Dial” features classic alternative rock, punk, post-punk and new wave music.
Shaddeaux said at first he was depressed about losing access to the station. He missed the big microphone, the faders on the big mixing board and the smell of the records. But now he’s settling into the new normal.
“Over the last two weeks, I’ve acclimated to the recording set-up here in my basement,” he said. “As I record my show, by the dim light of my trusty lava lamp, I try to imagine all of the listeners picking up the broadcast on the FM airwaves or internet. Their smiles inspire me to carry through with this endeavor.”