For this installment of Maine, Thankfully, I talked with Lisa Bunker, who has been Program Director at WMPG for 12 years. For those unfamiliar with this institution, the college and community radio station has been in operation for just over 40 years. It is operated by a USM students and volunteers from the greater Portland community who produce music and local public affairs programs. Programming blocks include music of nearly every genre to exchanges about gender, sexual, and racial identities, to local and national news programming.
I held a work study job at WMPG when I was in school and I had a radio show there a little over a decade back. A friend was dumping his coveted afternoon rock slot and Lisa saw me in the control room with him and frantically asked, “You’re trained for radio, right?” And while I was not, my father taught me to always say yes when situations like these arise, and the aforementioned friend announced that my new show was coming next week. It isn’t until we held this interview that I realized the only reason my trick worked was because that was Bunker’s first year on the job and so she—the person who trained incoming DJs—would not have known one way or the other. In time, Bunker realized I had no idea what I was doing and she flash trained me in time for the launch of my show. I have since been involved with the station here and there for short stints in various capacities. In all of that time, Bunker has been a constant.
We talked about the difference between community and Public Radio, why hers is one of the coolest in Portland and why it is an important community service to let the freaks—my word, not hers—run the radio station.
Please talk a bit about why WMPG, and the programming it offers, is important and unique.
I want to be really clear at the very beginning that I am not taking credit for WMPG. It’s an intensely collaborative undertaking. I am one of three paid staff and there are about 250 active volunteers at any given time. All of us together make WMPG.
WMPG is college slash community radio at its finest. I will say that. I think we do a really good job of the pure, mission-driven idea of providing access to the airwaves for everybody and anybody who would like to make some radio for the community that they live in. That’s increasingly rare on the national scene. I got started in Public Radio in the 80s and that’s what Public Radio used to be. Right about the same time that I found Public Radio, a whole bunch of smart, clever people also found Public Radio and they recognized that it was an enormous potential source of revenue. They started changing what it was to be more of a money driven model of media creation. And that’s fine, it’s a legitimate model of how to conduct business in media in the United States, but I think something got lost along the way, which was the free form open space for innovative thinking or just for trying some crazy idea and seeing what came of it. Also lost was the time to develop a voice or a sound or a show or idea. I listen to Public Radio now and I listen particularly to what you might call the creative or more entertaining voices and they’re the same voices that were on the air 20 years ago.
Literally. Public Radio is still pointing at Ira Glass and saying, “See how hip and cool we are.” This American Life is coming upon it’s second decade on the air. They’re stuck in a model where shows can’t be rough around the edge when they hit the big time; they have to start at that polished level. For a fascinating exercise, dredge up the early audio online of Car Talk, of Prairie Home Companion, of Fresh Air. All the early shows started where they were doing a show that they wanted to do, just like at WMPG. The host’s voices and presences were in no way polished, they were clunky and awkward sometimes. What you hear on Public Radio now—I am going to paraphrase Garrison Keillor because I love the phrase so much—he said Public Radio is a brilliant simulacrum of spontaneity. You listen to the car guys yacking and talking. To make the show we hear today, they would record three hours of talking for a one hour show and get cut and snipped and they produce the hell out of it and get that sound of just hanging out with these two funny guys. It was engineered within an inch of its life. What we have at ‘MPG is a privileged platform where it is still a bonafide station with thousands of listeners and you can walk into the station and pay $25, go through the training, and become empowered to try your idea on the air. More and more stations don’t have that open door anymore, so I think what we do is really special. And I am the trainer, and if there’s any part of it that’s sort of mine as opposed to the communal enterprise, it’s that training. I am the one that they end up in a little room with and I talk to them about being themselves, being real, talking the way they really talk. You don’t have to tap into any idea you’ve ever had about what radio is supposed to sound like. You can reinvent this medium every time you get on the mic.
I remember when MPBN took the Humble Farmer off the air and that happened around the same time I was around WMPG. [Note: The Humble Farmer was a Friday Evening Jazz program hosted by Maine humorist Robert Skoglund, which was canceled by MPBN because the host had become too political in tone.] I think that it was then that I realized the importance of having freaks on the air—that it is important to let the freaks run the radio station. I say that with love, of course, because there is something special about there being a politics show one hour, the Mama Africa show, a metal show next, and then a Dead show. It creates incredible energy.
How does that format benefit the community?
It reflects back to the community what is actually going on in the community, not some sanitized, corporate approved idea of what is going on in the community or what somebody in a boardroom wants to be going on in a community. It’s what is actually happening. The metal scene is out there and some of the people in that scene have shows on ‘MPG and they can connect through ‘MPG. To cite an even more telling example, we have a program on Saturday morning which is in Khmer. People in the Cambodian community connect through that program.
There isn’t one community, there’s many communities. I would like to hope that over time any of them who want a way to organize and connect through our airwaves have had that opportunity to do so. I am not going to claim that we’ve got all of them because we don’t, but all the different communities organized around national origin or race or some area of interest, we have many shows like that. We also have shows about what is going on around Portland. We have shows about the arts and culture scene. We have a working news department now of which I am proud. We reflect the community—parenthesis s—back to itself or themselves as best we can.
Dale Robin, Jim and I, the three station managers, are the facilitators. We don’t dictate content, we just structure the space and the time and provide the support that people need to make the radio. It is members of the community who make this radio. I have never in 12 years as a Program Director told anyone what to play. We have to be careful about certain kinds of speech so we teach people the rules, but we do the very best we can to empower them to talk in their own actual voices and use their own actual language to discuss the things they actually care about and then we set them loose and they make radio and people hear it.
What makes for a good radio persona or voice?
I’ve trained about 1,000 people in the past 12 years and I have gotten to say to every one of those 1,000 people that all voices are good voices for radio. It you can have conversation with a friendly stranger, then you can make radio. The kind of radio people remember is the kind from which they get a sense of listening to a real person.
I’ve been doing training sessions for 12 years and it is still one of the most fun parts of my job, to meet a little group of people and take them into the studio and start trying to get them to engage with this idea. Take the risk, take the chance, do this vulnerable thing, be real on the radio. Then I get this glimpse of the people that they are. I never get tired of that.
I used to listen to Anne Sielaff’s show—Songs to be Murdered By—while driving home from one of my first girlfriends’ houses. I’d be listening to this scary music while driving by the prison out in Westbrook, and that was over 10 years ago. You’ve got these people at the stations who are themselves institutions because of how long they’ve been at it, and you’ve got people who are just getting started, and you have everyone in between. I feel like that must be a pretty great vantage point.
I feel like I’ve got one of the coolest jobs in Portland, where I get to hang out with all of these amazing, creative people in Portland. That long-term thing is interesting because once somebody has been on the radio for maybe 10 years or more, some number like that, they really can develop this extra level of presence on the community—they’re an institution.
I had a colleague at my first job in Seattle, Washington. She did a swing music program on Saturday nights. Her name was Cindy. She somehow managed to survive the purge, you know, when the money people came in and regularized the daytime program and brought in Morning Edition and All Things Considered and all that stuff. When they first started to turn it into an NPR station, they just sort of left the weekends. Cindy was still on, even though they had just sort of corportized the whole thing. She did her whole show for 25 years. I don’t think she missed a single week; it was her life. Off the radio she was this curious, introverted, closed off person who was hard to get to know. I would see her at the university library on a Wednesday afternoon reading about the Big Bands doing research for her show. She really lived this program full time.
The story has a sad ending. Cindy committed suicide, she killed herself, and it was announced on the radio. I was not surprised—the station personnel were surprised, but I was not surprised—at the intense outpouring of love from listeners because she had been on every Saturday night for 25 years. People had grown up listening to her. What struck me was the intensely personal tone of the notices people posted on the website that they made for her. People were saying, “I wish you had said something, I wish I had been able to help you.” They connected with her on a really deep, personal level because she was just there for so long. That is an interesting thing that happens when you pass your decade, or second decade mark in the same spot. People feel like you’re one of their inner circle.
But I think that moment can happen the very first time they are on the air. If you have that freedom and feel safe and empowered to be real on the radio, you can get on the air and one of those so-called radio moments can happen at any time. One of the things about radio that I love is that you never know when you are suddenly going to connect with somebody on a deep level. You can’t plan it, you just come in and do your show every week and it is going to reach somebody. It may not be something you planned, but you may hear from someone somewhere down the road who says that the thing you did changed their day, their week, their month, their year or their life. You can really have this tremendous, random scattershot impact on people. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on the air for 20 years or 20 minutes.
How can people support WMPG?
We are a community supported institution so the next time you hear us begging for money, please give us some. And please get involved. We have a new round of training every couple of months and the next round of training will be in January and February. Call me up, sign up, come to my training. I will challenge you to set aside all the ideas you have ever had about what radio is supposed to sound like and invent something new that only you can do.