Community radio powers up
By Chris Busby
Portland is home to one of the best community radio stations in the country: WMPG.
The station broadcasts on two FM frequencies, 90.9 and 104.1. It plays an inspired, schizophrenic mix of folk, funk, blues, reggae, jazz, hip hop and heavy metal. There’s alt-country, classic country, bluegrass, indie rock, psychedelia, punk and Gospel. You can hear Russian rock, Irish reels, klezmer, zydeco and Afro-beat. And that’s just the music programming. The public affairs programs include two nationally syndicated news shows (the lefty/progressive Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News) and a host of locally produced talk shows, such as the award-winning Blunt Youth Radio Project.
It seems there’s something for everyone on WMPG. So why is hardly anyone listening?
The station’s management stopped tracking its listenership figures years ago. When the ratings that rank area radio stations were periodically released, WMPG’s numbers were “on the edge of statistical insignificance,” said program director Lisa Bunker. The station no longer subscribes to a ratings service.
There are two reasons WMPG’s audience numbers are stuck in the basement, said Bunker (who contributes crossword puzzles to The Bollard). “One is that our signal is weak,” she said. The other is the station’s “wildly eclectic schedule.”
“If you measure by rating, what you want is a homogenous schedule,” said Bunker. “Since our sound completely changes every 90 minutes to two hours, we don’t have a lot of continuous listening.”
Thus, one of WMPG’s greatest strengths, the deep diversity of its format, is also one of its biggest weakness as it endeavors to reach more of the community it exists to serve.
On August 18, for example, listeners heard songs by acts as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, John Prine, Sly and the Family Stone, The Rolling Stones, Pavement, Drive By Truckers and Richard Thompson. And that was during just one show: The Listening Post, which airs Thursday mornings from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m.
The station’s management is not going to homogenize its hyper-eclectic mix in a bid to reach more ears. Providing open access to the airwaves for all members of the community, particularly those whose “artistic, cultural, and political perspectives … are underrepresented in mainstream media,” is central to WMPG’s mission.
But beginning this fall, the station’s anemic signal will get a major boost.
WMPG is currently broadcasting with just over a kilowatt of power. The upgrade will more than quadruple the station’s wattage, to 4.5 kilowatts. And in addition, its main transmitter will be relocated from the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus to an antenna high atop Blackstrap Hill, near the Westbrook-Falmouth line.
The power increase and transmitter relocation are estimated to expand the number of potential listeners from 35,000 to 185,000. Those just outside the Portland area who previously got spotty reception will receive a much stronger, clearer signal at home and in the car. And residents of towns and cities to the north (including Bath, Brunswick, and Lewiston/Auburn) and the south (Kennebunk, Wells, Ogunquit) who’ve never been able to tune it in will soon have another option on the dial.
The signal boost is expected to go into effect in early November, but the station is already changing its slogan to reflect its future reach. “Greater Portland Community Radio” is becoming “Community Radio for Southern Maine.”
In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission made a rare announcement. For the first time in a decade, low-power stations at the left end of the dial, the public-radio band, could apply to expand their signals or take over open frequencies.
“We knew this was the one shot we had of ever really expanding,” said station manager Jim Rand.
The FCC received thousands of applications, and WMPG’s was among those approved to move forward. But that was just the first step of a long, difficult climb.
The signal improvement project was originally estimated to cost roughly a quarter of a million dollars. The non-profit station’s annual budget is only about $275,000. The FCC approval process has numerous deadlines applicants must meet before this window of opportunity closes again for who-knows-how-long. And just as the station was starting to raise the money, the Great Recession descended.
“It was daunting,” said Dale Robin Goodman, WMPG’s development director. The station holds a biannual fundraising drive, called Begathon. “Normally at Begathon we raise about $25,000, and we’re not always reaching that goal,” said Goodman. “Here we’re faced with having to raise $250,000.”
The drive to fund the expansion project is called the Power Up! campaign. The station’s management, board of directors and other volunteers reached out to prospective supporters in the community. WMPG began holding special one-day “power begs.”
“We were asking at a very difficult time,” said Goodman. “It was very gratifying that people were very generous and a lot of people were very excited. It’s a rare opportunity and a very unusual thing.”
Progress was slow, but last September the station got a big break. It scored a federal grant for over $125,000 from an agency within the Commerce Department. The grant required approximately $45,000 in matching funds, but the station was able to meet that goal. And acceptance into the grant program gave WMPG an additional benefit — a 25 percent discount on some of the expensive equipment it needs to complete the upgrade.
WMPG managed to significantly increase the project’s funding while significantly decreasing its cost. But it’s not out of the woods yet.
The biannual begathons are just one part of a perpetual fundraising effort to keep the station on the air. WMPG routinely airs spots soliciting donations of used CDs, records, tapes and turntables for its annual record sale. Another promo encourages listeners to donate their junky cars in exchange for a tax deduction. Numerous fundraising events are held throughout the year, like the annual Bluegrass Spectacular and the WMPG Fashion Show.
On-air fundraising and direct mail account for about a third of WMPG’s annual revenue, said Goodman. Underwriting support from local businesses and fellow non-profits accounts for another 20-25 percent. (WMPG does not air commercials; underwriters get brief messages read on the air by the DJs, and there are restrictions on that language, as well. The Bollard is one of the station’s underwriters.)
The USM Student Senate provides another chunk of money every year, but the university’s non-monetary support of the station is much more significant.
WMPG was born in the early 1970s, sparked when students began broadcasting from a dorm tower on the Gorham campus using a 10-watt transmitter. “It was basically a big public address system,” said Charlie Swett, one of the station’s early DJs. College administrators “didn’t know what to do about it,” Swett recalled. “They talked of shutting it down, but it put the whole idea of a radio station on the table.”
USM found room for the nascent station in a building on the Gorham campus that resembles a space ship. In 1990, WMPG moved into a little white house on Bedford Street, on USM’s Portland campus, where it still operates today. The space is cramped, and it’s an ongoing challenge to find room for all the new music that comes in every day. But the rent is free, and the university provides security, insurance coverage and other in-kind benefits that save the station upwards of $100,000 every year.
The fourth major source of operating revenue — constituting about a quarter of the station’s budget — comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB has been under attack from Republicans in Congress who want to cut its budget. WMPG, along with hundreds of other public and community radio stations, dodged a bullet earlier this year when a big push to eliminate CPB funding fell short in Washington. But every election year now brings the threat that a political shift could doom community radio’s public financing.
If a cut like that happened, WMPG would find that it had no fat left to trim. Three paid staff positions have been eliminated or left unfilled over the past several years. The part-time music director job became a volunteer position earlier this summer. Tasks previously handled by the office manager and technical director now fall to WMPG’s three remaining staffers: Bunker, Goodman and Rand.
Besides the $200,000 for equipment, the signal improvement project will increase the station’s annual operating expenses by about $25,000. The hope is that new listeners reached by the boosted signal will donate during Begathon and other fundraising events. It’s a gamble, but the station’s management is optimistic the support will materialize.
The key to it all, of course, is the music.
Left of the dial
In the early days, WMPG’s listenership was small but devoted. The station “pretty much covered the greater Gorham area,” quipped Jon Scott, a DJ at WMPG in the mid-1970s. Most of the calls to the on-air studio came from fellow students on campus, and the DJs “played just about anything you wanted to hear,” he said.
Swett, who was there around the same time, did late-night shows that mixed jazz and blues with comedy by the likes of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. The station’s programming was “more free-flowing than it is now,” said Swett, though the spirit of experimentation is still strong.
Chris Lee hosts Elevator Music on Thursday mornings from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. He plays avant-garde classical music by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Harry Partch and George Crumb. “This show is a little off-putting,” Lee acknowledged. “There’s this strange stuff going on and you have no idea what it is. Some of it’s a mystery to me, too.”
When Rob Rosenthal became WMPG’s station manager in the early 1990s, he tried to rein in some of the unpredictability by scheduling shows of similar genres at similar times of day. “The station has never really been about ratings, and it shouldn’t be, but what good is a radio station unless it has an audience?” said Rosenthal.
Late nights are still untamed territory. Most of the metal is played in the small hours on shows like Sunday night’s Minor Chord Mayhem and Hit Parade, which precedes Lee’s show. Come sunrise, eclectic but less hectic shows like Rock Bergeron’s Something or Other (Friday mornings) and Jim Pinfold’s Reasonable Music (Wednesdays) take over, followed by a couple hours of folk, bluegrass and old-time country music. World-music programs are clustered in the hour-and-a-half before noon, followed on weekdays at noon by Democracy Now! and a half hour of public affairs.
A strip of rock shows runs most weekdays between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., followed by the Evenin’ Sun series of blues programs. Public affairs and talk shows take over again after 7 p.m., generally followed by jazz and then a return to rock and alt-country.
The dozens of DJs who keep the station on the air 24/7 are all volunteers. (Full disclosure: I have shared DJ duties hosting a soul show on Saturday nights for much of last decade.) For them (and for me), it’s a labor of love.
Former music director Ron Raymond started hosting Stuck in the ’80s (heard Sunday nights at 7 p.m.) in the mid-1990s. “Stuck in the ’80s has truly been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life (and for my life,” Raymond wrote in an e-mail. The show “fills that void left by the commercial stations in the area,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful for WMPG for allowing us all to make listeners feel young again. Or old, depending how you look at it.”
Depending on the time of day, WMPG’s audience could be a few hundred people or upwards of 10,000, by the management’s estimate. Between 500 and 600 of them will donate during the Begathons, and hundreds of others support the station though events like the record sale. Still, there are untold thousands who live and work within the station’s current broadcast area and have no idea WMPG exists.
“I think we’re the best-kept secret in Portland,” said Lorenzo Raffa, a board member and DJ who got involved with WMPG in the late 1980s and now contributes audio commentaries to the Thursday morning show Hukkin’ a Chainek. Raffa recalled the first time someone he encountered outside the station recognized he was on the air. “I was at Shop ’n Save and I wrote a check and some cashier said, ‘Lorenzo! I listen to you on the radio.’ I was just blown away.”
But it’s far more common to encounter people who either don’t know about WMPG or don’t listen to it. “A lot of people are just like, ‘I want to hear classic rock,’” Raffa said. “They like that format, and they’re very formatted themselves. I think our listener base is people who are willing to open up their horizons.”
“It’s definitely an eclectic group of people that listen,” said Jessica Lockhart, a station volunteer since 1994. But she too has encountered a lot of people who’ve never tuned in. “I’ll tell someone I have a radio show and they’re like, ‘What? MPG? I’ve never heard of it.’ That happens all the time.”
In the world of community radio, WMPG is less obscure. Its nearly 40-year history, round-the-clock broadcast schedule and long-running shows have earned it the respect of its peers.
“I would stand on what we do at WMPG, compared to any other station in the country, as being as good as, if not better,” said Bunker.
“The reason there are so many [good] shows is because WMPG, as an institution, has made a commitment to volunteer-driven radio,” she continued. “We don’t tell them what to say. There are no playlists and no restrictions, outside of FCC content restrictions. We empower them to make radio and set them free to do what they love.”
For more on WMPG, and to stream the station’s live broadcast, visit wmpg.org.