Local Radio Is Alive In Maine
In an era when a single radio conglomerate controls most of the stations in America, and when even competing stations cycle endlessly through essentially the same weary playlist, it might seem that radio as we knew it is dead. No longer can you dial up the local DJ and request that a song be sent out there to That Special Someone. No longer can the guy doing the weather report glance out the window to see what's really happening. The weather guy is likely sitting in a studio in San Antonio, reading from a computer screen.
As Michael Guido said on PRB's Frontline, "There's essentially, I don't know, two or three radio stations for all intents and purposes right now."
In Maine, or at least my neck of it, the good old days are not quite gone. Through a confluence of (possibly unique) circumstances, we've still got genuine local radio. Let's take a quick spin through the dial. We'll start in the middle and wind up way over on the left.
Did you know that Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) has got his own radio station? A surprising number of people don't. The master of modern horror and hometown philanthropy founded WKIT, "The Rock of Bangor," 100.3 on the dial, back in 1990. The story goes that King, unhappy that nobody was playing the kind of music he liked, hired a fellow named Bobby Russell to serve as program director, told him basically, "Play rock and roll," and went back to churning out two novels a week. Russell is still at the helm and the station is still playing a custom blend of old and new music that you don't hear much of anywhere else.
Totally random case in point: As I was driving home just now from Drake's Corner Market with a fresh cup of joe in hand and a cat in my lap, the morning drive-time jocks played a rousing Pearl Jam remake of a golden oldie called "The Last Kiss" — "Oh where, oh where can my baby be? / The Lord took her away from me" — then knocked themselves out fruitlessly trying to remember who did the original. (It was J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers back in 1962.)
Let's move a bit down the dial. At 93.3, WRFR in Rockland beams out a low-power signal that extends (albeit feebly) roughly from Camden to Port Clyde, reaching an estimated audience of 20,000. "Eclectic" is rather too weak a tag for the programming here. Zeb Casperson, a student of mine at Watershed, has a show called "Thor on Thursdays." Yes, that Thor. Then there's Clara the Clairvoyant, encroaching for two hours a week onto the turf of our own Mystic Mainer. The Humble Farmer, a.k.a. Robert Skoglund, has found a home at WRFR after ticking people off on public radio. I'm pleased to report that he shows no sign of mellowing. This is real community radio, and we are, it must be acknowledged, an eccentric community.
Speaking of public radio, it's fair to mention MPBN here. Scattered around the spectrum, and around the state, from 90.1 in Portland to 106.5 in Fort Kent, our local public radio service stacks up well against NPR affiliates anywhere. MPBN devotes serious time and budget to local news, public-affairs programming, and in-depth coverage of Maine life with all its wrinkles and surprises. The reporting staff is first-rate and often manages to scoop both the state's leading newspapers and local TV news teams in keeping abreast of current events. Though much (too much, in my opinion) of the daily program schedule is standard NPR fare, a corps of talented announcers gives the network a sense of made-in-Maine authenticity.
Which brings us to WERU, 89.9 FM, formerly of Blue Hill and now broadcasting from a studio in Orland, with a strong signal that reaches much of central Maine, the midcoast, and points farther east. I feel I must tread cautiously here. A non-commercial station supported mostly by listener donations, WERU likes to call itself "The Voice of Many Voices." It prides itself, in the words of its mission statement, on "offering a wide variety of people an opportunity to share their experiences, concerns, perspectives and information with their neighbors over the airwaves and Internet." It also plays music. Which is all well and good.
The trouble with WERU is that its "many voices" all sound alike. They are the voices one hears murmuring in earnest tones at the natural-food co-op. And don't get me wrong: I love these people. I share their anguish over the state of the world and the chemicals in our drinking water and the plight of Somali refugees and the creeping corporatization of America. But there are times when, after a steady diet of this, you just want to crawl into the bathtub and open a vein. Is there any regular listener of WERU who is not taking antidepressants? These people are still upset — and I mean seriously, deeply upset — over stuff that happened in Panama in 1982.
Or course there's always the music. And some of it is quite good. And some of it is awful. And some of it is clearly aimed at a niche audience to which I do not belong. So when you punch the pre-set button for 89.9 you keep your finger hovering for a moment or two, in case it becomes urgently necessary to punch something else. Over time, you become less and less inclined to punch it at all. Which is a shame, because you miss some really good programming that way.
A single example may suffice. One of the most rewarding shows I know is called, without hyperbole, "Maine's Sunday Best." Hosted by a music teacher named Karen Nelson, recently transplanted from Massachusetts, it airs 2-4 p.m. on Sundays and features music that runs from Gospel to classical. I never really thought I liked Gospel music until I started listening. But the dark cloud above this silver lining is called "The General Store," which airs immediately before the "Best" and is without question the single worst hour on radio, anywhere. (I omit religious broadcasting and the right-wing noise machine.) By the time poor Ms. Nelson clicks on the mike, this portion of the broadcast spectrum has been rendered, if you will, radioactive.
Still, it's local, right? And I know I would miss it if it sank forever into the mire. Until then, I don't listen much.