By: Max Lorber, Arts and Culture Editor
The WMPG radio station was founded with a private collection of records, a set of turntables and a small pirate-radio transmitter in a dorm room on Gorham campus. Howard Allen, the pioneer who created what would become one of Maine’s major public radio platforms, was an 18-year-old freshman when he first stuck an antenna out of his window at Anderson Hall and began broadcasting music to his fellow students in 1970.
Allen described his venture as a fun side project at first, something to do while taking a break from studying. Once other students became interested in creating an established radio station, the endeavor evolved into something more meaningful to him.
“I wanted to give people an opportunity to express themselves. I didn’t have that need. For me it was more about messing around with the technical stuff, learning about the equipment. For others, it was all about the music,” Allen said while describing the early years of WMPG, then known as WGOR.
It was impossible for him to predict how significant WMPG would eventually become to southern Maine’s music community, or the passion individuals would have for deejaying behind the soundboards.
Allen said after his freshman year, a few other students began working on the radio project with him. They formed a club that was recognized by the student senate and received monetary support through the student-activity fund.
With a small amount of capital, Allen said each student pooled together all their records and the radio station moved from his dorm room into a common room on the fifth floor of Anderson Hall.
With permission from the campus facilities manager, they set up a larger antenna on the roof of the building and ran a cable up from their station. This allowed their weak signal to reach a little farther into the town of Gorham. But the school administration was still unaware of what this new club was up to.
“No one seemed to notice,” Allen said
According to Allen, at the time they were emitting a 100 milliwatt signal on an FM frequency. In the early 70’s most radio stations operated on an AM frequency. There were only a few FM radio stations in southern Maine, so it was easy for Allen to find a channel to broadcast in.
Federal regulations stated that a radio transmitting a signal above 100 milliwatts would have to be registered with the FCC. What these students were doing was not illegal, but their commandeering of a public room in the dorm and the installation of equipment on the roof may have been bending a few administration rules.
In 1972, a local newspaper wrote an article about WGOR operating out of the Gorham campus dorm. The school administration finally discovered what the radio club had been up to. They could have shut the entire operation down, but instead they realized the educational value of a student-run radio station and decided to encourage their ambitious project.
The dean of student affairs at the time arranged for Bill Crosby, the chief engineer of Maine Public Broadcasting Network in Orono, to help Allen navigate the application process for an official FCC license. Allen said about 28 students were working at WGOR producing, deejaying, and begging for donations from other local radio stations.
The broadcast license was granted by the FCC in the summer 1973 with a 10 watt signal reaching from Gorham to most of Portland. As an official radio station, WGOR became WMPG at 90.9 FM, the channel where it can still be picked up today.
In 1974, Allen graduated and moved to South Portland. He said he still listened to the radio station, but had relinquished all control to current students.
“Sometimes it’s better for the creator to walk away from the creation and let it take its own direction,” Allen said.
As the radio station has grown, so has the listener base and the costs. According to public financial reports released by WMPG, the radio station required roughly $326,000 to operate this past fiscal year. They are supported by a combination of funding from the student activity fund, listener donations, federal and state grants, and underwritten advertisements for local businesses.
According to Dale Robin Goodwin, the current development director for WMPG, and Jim Rand, the current station manager, there is a thriving volunteer base which helps the radio station operate. Dedicated deejays like David Babb, also known as the Blues Doctor, have consistently held shows on air over the past 30 years.
“You’d have to pry the microphone from my cold, dead hands, you know?” the Blues Doctor said with a chuckle.
Since 1973, the operation of the station has matured and the listener base has grown. In 1984 the station went from a 10 watt signal to 50 watts, allowing for the radio station to reach a wider audience; in 1989 they went to 1100 watts and moved their studio to the Portland campus, where it remains today; in 2011, the station again upped their signal to 4500 watts, reaching as far as New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Using the internet, WMPG is able to broadcast worldwide.
“I am proud of creating something that people still enjoy today,” Allen said.