Maine community radio station struggles to stay on the air without live DJs

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Station Manager Jim Rand talks to a reporter while hanging out the studio window at WMPG in Portland on Thursday. Rand and his staff made the decision to send all the community station's DJs home and not let anyone in amid the coronavirus pandemic. A skeleton crew is keeping the transmitter functioning while broadcasting a mix of archived shows and new material recorded at home by DJs.
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Jim Rand isn't sure how long WMPG can operate this way during the coronavirus outbreak but he's convinced it's worth the effort.
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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.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

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.”

Courtesy Bobby Shaddeaux | BDN
Courtesy Bobby Shaddeaux | BDN
Bobby Shaddeaux, known on the air at 90.9 WMPG at DJ Shaxx, puts his show together at his house in Portland. Station managers have sent all live DJs home and are broadcasting a mix of archived shows and new material some DJs are able to record at home.

It’s a similar situation at WERU, a community radio station broadcasting out of a normally busy building on Route 1 in Orland. Since March 20, the volunteer DJs have been told to stay home, with only one or two staff members allowed in the station at a time. Station Manager Matt Murphy said WERU is playing a similar mix of archived shows and fresh programs produced by home-bound DJs. Murphy is soon expecting to have 25 DJs producing new shows from home.

The station also is striving to keep a local ear on the pandemic. Public affairs hosts are calling in at 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and News and Public Affairs Manager Amy Browne is giving a local report at 2:30 p.m. every weekday.

“We’re really getting a lot of positive feedback from listeners,” Murphy said. “There’s no normalcy now. But it’s nice to have familiar voices, and a familiar service … it’s nice to see something you support still able to function.”

Complicating matters at WMPG in Portland is that the station’s fund-raising “Beg-a-thon” was supposed to have started Thursday.

“We’ve postponed it,” Development Director Dale Robin Goodman said. “There’s no way to do it. WMPG is so personality driven. It has to be us, on the air, asking for people to call us. It’s so personal.”

WMPG is partially funded by USM student activity fees but raises most of its operating budget through community fundraising.

Rand said supporters are still welcome to send in checks. A few arrived in the mail last week, and he’s grateful for that. With the coronavirus affecting the economy, as well as people’s health, he’s worried about the station’s financial future. That’s why, in addition to keeping the transmitter doing its thing, Rand is still tackling his regular mound of paperwork — including grant applications.

When asked if he’s tired, Rand sighed and said, “Yes. I am,” shouting from a socially distant open studio window at the station.

If anyone in the small crew allowed into the studio comes down with coronavirus symptoms, Rand said he has one more trick up his sleeve. He’s set up a remote studio inside his house in Yarmouth. He could run the station and broadcast live from there, if it comes down to it.

Rand hopes it doesn’t come to that, but he’ll do it if he must. He, his staff and his army of volunteers are completely committed to staying on the air as long as possible.

“If all you have to pay attention to is TV, and talk radio during this crisis, you’re going to go absolutely insane,” Lockhart said. “We’re providing a service to people who can’t take it anymore. We play great music. We’re trying to give people a little bit of peace.”

BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.

 


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