2014-09-12 / Front Page

Greater Portland radio

Community radio ‘begs’ for community support
By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

Peter Turner, left, of South Portland and “Daddy G” of Raymond, both volunteer DJs at Portland radio station WMPG, stand amid a volunteer-curated archive of more than 135,000 albums and CDs of every imaginable musical genre. (Duke Harrington photo) Peter Turner, left, of South Portland and “Daddy G” of Raymond, both volunteer DJs at Portland radio station WMPG, stand amid a volunteer-curated archive of more than 135,000 albums and CDs of every imaginable musical genre. (Duke Harrington photo) Peter Turner, a furniture maker who works out of the garage of his South Portland home, located just a stone’s throw from Red’s ice cream stand, likes to say that while he doesn’t play music, he likes to play with it.

That love of all musical genres was rewarded about 25 years ago, he said, when he “just stumbled on” WMPG while roaming the radio dial.

Located at 90.9 and 104.1 FM, the community radio station is, unquestionably, the most diverse sound on local airwaves. A typical radio block might feature anything from classical music to heavy metal, from jazz to bluegrass, from country and western to reggae, in addition to local musicians playing live in the studio. The station also features a host of news, informational and community affairs programming.

But it was about a year ago that Turner began to volunteer at the station, which has just three staffers and is otherwise operated by music lovers from across the greater Portland area.

“Initially, I wanted to help out just so I could interact with the other volunteers, and have access to the station’s music library, so I could learn more about music,” said Turner. “But it grew from there, with everyone being so warm and welcoming.

“I could just go on and on about this station. There’s so much love here,” he said. “It’s amazing the energy and the passion that permeates these walls.”

But to keep that energy going, the station needs to turn to its listeners, twice per year, in hopes of raising $50,000 each time toward its annual $300,000 operating budget.

Located on Bedford Street in Portland on the campus of the University of Southern Maine, WMPG is sometimes mistaken for a college radio station. However, while it does get its studio space rent-free, and is allowed some funding from student activity fees (in return for facilitating various media studies classes), WMPG is not a part of the school. Instead, it is an independent community station that depends on corporate sponsorships and listener support, much on the model of public broadcasting.

That means asking listeners to chip in, or as the station puts it, staging a “begathon.”

“It’s a little unusual to call your fundraising drive a ‘begathon,’” admits WMPG’s Development Director Dale Robin Goodman. “but we do everything here with humor. We take our jobs seriously, which is the mission to keep the public’s airwaves open, because there isn’t anyplace else where just plain old people can he heard on the radio, to keep unheard and underheard voices on the air, but we try to have fun with it.”

That dedication to diversity is shown in the line-up of on-air talent. Turner, now a disc jockey after having gone though the station’s training program (free to university students and offered at just $25 to members of the public) fills in on a variety of shows. Meanwhile, another South Portland resident, who goes by the on-air nom-de-guerre of ICE, hosts a weekly show of reggae music. A number of grade school children participate in the weekly show “Chickens are People too,” while high school students from Park City can be heard on the Monday evening call-in show Blunt Youth Radio. Founded and managed by another South Portland resident, Claire Holman, it is one of the oldest and most highly regarded youth media programs.

“We have well over 200 active volunteers, and as many as 100 may be on the air in any given week,” says Goodman.

WPMG got its start 40 years ago as a pirate radio station. It was founded by USM student Howard Johnson, and run out of his Gorham dorm room. It was wired directly to the building’s electrical system and broadcast unbeknownst to school officials, with Frankensteined parts from household appliances – including the control panel from a washing machine – to keep the music going while Johnson was at class.

“Turntable one was cotton and turntable two was permanent press, or something like that,” said Goodman, with a laugh.

But then a mention of the station in the USM student newspaper brought it to the attention of university administrators.

“Fortunately, instead of shutting them down, which they very easily could have, they said, if you want to have a radio station, let’s do it right,” said Goodman, explaining how WMPG applied for and got a license as a legitimate operation.

“The station was always set up to be a campus-community hybrid,” said Goodwin. “That helps to prevent the station from ‘going dark’ during the summer, but it also helps to create a bridge between the university and the greater communities all around us.”

Today, the station’s 90.9 frequency has a 4,500-watt transmitter located atop a 500-foot-tall tower at the summit of Blackstrap Hill, at the Portland- Westbrook line. It reaches from Portsmouth, up through the western foothills and into Central Maine as far as Augusta. The 104.1 frequency transmits from an antenna on Munjoy Hill and is designed to combat local geography and tall buildings in order to ensure the station can be heard across the Portland peninsula.

The station also streams programming live on its website, WMPG.org.

“Because out shows are so diverse and so unique, we literally have listeners all over the world,” said Goodman.

WMPG’s Fall 2014 Begathon runs from Sept. 17-23, during which time DJs on air will solicit donations.

“Yes, a begathon — why not call it what it is?” says Station Manager Jim Rand. “At WMPG, we embrace the fun in asking our listeners to keep us going. They love us; we love them. Community radio is really a partnership in the deepest sense. Everyone is invited to this party for celebrating the great radio that is made by the people of Southern Maine.”

“WMPG belongs to all of us,” said Goodman. “It’s our responsibility to take care of this asset, this unique and precious resource. There are so many ways to get involved, and a few times a year, we ask you to make a financial contribution to WMPG Community Radio and keep it healthy for the sake of community connection, free speech and public access to the public airwaves.”

As Turner gets set to take to the air, he admits to still getting butterflies just before showtime.

“I get nervous, I don’t want to mess up, because I just love this station so much,” he said.

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