Jim Rand, a white man with shoulder-length gray hair, reclines in a chair in a busy office filled with binders, show posters and other material
Jim Rand, station manager at WMPG, in his office on Bedford Street at the University of Southern Maine Portland campus. Rand, who has worked for WMPG in some capacity since 1986, is collecting radio station memorabilia and archival material in anticipation of the station's 50th anniversary celebration this fall. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)
advertisementSmiley face

There’s no denying that times are tight right now. And yet WMPG — 90.9 on the FM dial here in Portland — just got done with a spring “Begathon” that exceeded their goal of $60k. How is it that a terrestrial radio station continues to see such support in an age when just about everything is on demand? 

“People like that it’s people from here who are their friends and neighbors,” says Jim Rand, station manager, and the man who’s been working at WMPG in some capacity since he was a USM student back in 1986 or so. As we talk, he’s ensconced among binders and papers and albums and all manner of ephemera collected over 30 years at the station in his cozy little office on Bedford Street in Portland, right next to the parking garage and underneath the offices of the USM Free Press. 

He remembers his first show: “The station was in a little closet back then, and I got five minutes of training, and then I did my show for eight hours until someone came in.”

Soon he had his own regular show, “The Modern Music Show,” which ran on Saturday nights, before he found himself program director in 1993 or so, and then station manager around 1998. It’s been a long time. He worked on the live music show “Local Motives” (still happening on Wednesday nights) for about a decade. Most recently, he had “Land of the Lost” on Thursdays, but he’s on hiatus at the moment — “I’ll probably be back this summer.”

It’s Rand and the 200-some-odd DJs who populate the station’s airwaves that people connect with, ultimately, as much as any musical selection. “And they love the live spontaneity of it,” Rand reasons. “There’s people here. It’s not an algorithm that’s picking the next song they think is what you want. It has that feeling of being live and the energy of it.”

Though it’s also true that WMPG is the only station in Maine that’s going to play Brendon Moeller’s “Adapter,” from his album “Ultra Random Analog Orchestra Ep3,” released on Third Ear Recordings. That I can assure you. Someone like Oliver Vansoest has to play it on his “Replicant Radio,” dedicated to techno and industrial music. 

But even community radio stations have to evolve, even beloved institutions like WMPG, which will celebrate 50 years of continuous broadcast operations on August 31 of this year. Yes, even through the pandemic and all of that. 

“Our mission doesn’t even mention radio,” Rand says. Rather, “WMPG empowers University of Southern Maine students and community members to create diverse, innovative, high-quality media, foster the exchange of ideas, and celebrate the many cultures of USM and surrounding communities for broadcast to the world.” That’s from 2014. They’ve been a lot more than a radio station for a while now. 

In many ways, the pandemic was a bit of a blessing, admits Rand. While he basically had to recreate the entire station in his living room, it also forced the station to figure out how to pre-record shows and let DJs “broadcast” from their own living rooms after decades of 24/7 operation in their studios, “and it was a beautiful thing,” he says. “I think our listeners really appreciated that element, just having some normalcy of radio. And we were well supported during that. Our Begathons did really well and we got great notices of appreciation.” 

So, yeah, you can listen to any of the shows on demand through the website. There are dozens of podcasts now on all the streaming platforms, many of them produced at the studios, but also all across Maine. 

Rand sees all the time how talking up “radio” to students creates a blank stare, “but you mention ‘podcast’ and they light up.” For better or worse, it gets to the differing ways generations think about time and schedules. “They don’t have time to do a radio show,” Rand says. “They’re incredibly busy. They can’t commit to a fixed time easily.”

But they can do a podcast. And students are using the station to create podcasts that serve as final projects for classes, as short-run creative outbursts, and often as test-runs for a radio show. “We can always fit in a 15-minute feature,” Rand says. “The podcasts become radio shows and vice versa. They give you the chance to experience doing a radio show without having to do it for six months, then all of a sudden they have to go back home for the summer, or there’s a class they have to take at that time. So that part of it will lead to the community members being more of a fixture in time slots.” 

That’s what really separates WMPG from your standard commercial station, too: While your average Maine broadcaster might have five or six on-air personalities, the couple hundred DJs at WMPG include 30-year veterans like himself and 20-year veterans like Chris Darling — host of Friday morning’s “Us Folk,” which serves as a hub for Portland’s acoustic music scene — are constantly interacting with people who might have started a couple of weeks ago. 

For the students, “they get to see and talk to people they normally wouldn’t talk to,” says Rand, “which is great, but it’s also great for the 30-year veteran to hear the perspective of the kids who are coming in here. Even our high school radio shows — like Blunt Youth Radio, they’ll start there, go to the university, go on to be lawyers and doctors, and their memories of the university are the activities they did. It’s often not the class they were in; they remember being on the radio playing on Local Motives or just coming in and knowing there was a radio station here.”

And “terrestrial radio is still the majority of the way that people listen to us,” Rand says.

As the station builds toward a bona fide celebration of its 50th in the fall — they’re thinking October, once the new student center is done — Rand is collecting mementos both digital and physical from DJs past and hopes to gather them all at the celebration like one giant high school reunion. 

Certainly, those of us who were in school during the 1980s and 1990s, when college radio was at the center of the punk, new wave, and grunge movements, are beginning to be of an age where nostalgic get-togethers are not out of the ordinary. 

“All the people who grew up on that are looking back fondly on college radio,” Rand says. “That was the heyday. We want the people who experienced that; we want to reach out to them and for them to reach out to their old college buddies, like a phone tree, to everybody who was doing shows back then. Most of them probably have stuff and connections and that one friend from the radio station that they still keep up with.”

Like just the other day, in walked Dana Hutchins, who had a show in 1978, “and he’s saying, ‘Well, yeah, there was so and so who does this and that,’ and it’s like, alright, call him up! That’s the message we need to get out.” 

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].

The WMPG Bluegrass Spectacular, a fundraiser for the radio station, is at One Longfellow Square, in Portland, on April 13, with Breakin’ Strings, Pejepscot Station, and [Phoenix writer Sam Pfeifle’s band] the World Famous Grassholes. 

2 Weeks, 5 Songs

Spouse – “Threeology” | Thirty years on from their first music-making together at Bowdoin, original Spouse members Alisha Goldblatt, John Cowden, and José Ayerve put this together as part of a five-song EP reunion that also features JJ O’Connell and Liz Bustamante from the Spouse diaspora. With Alisha fronting most of the pieces here, it’s a real throwback.

GOD.DAMN.CHAN – “Dark’s Shadow” | The full album drops 4/20, but you can get a preview of “Big Smoke” with this tasty piece of neo-soul, with horn pops and bludgeoning organ. 

Waxfed – “When We Were Young” | Veteran producers DJ Mayonnaise and Mat Young (anticon, etc.) have a new project and it’s pretty out there. This piece can be quiet and poppy, but others on this self-titled debut are dark, moody or just plain noisy. 

Owen Kennedy – “The Few Bob” | Owen is just 17, but he’s already a fiddler who’s ready to take you down a retrospective of the Scottish and other traditional tunes he’s loved over the years. Kid’s a player. Outta Winthrop. 

Mournful Moon – “Rose Velvet Dynasty” | A huffing and puffing kind of metal, released on Maine’s Out of Season label, I’m tired just listening to it. 

Smiley face