September 23, 2020

WVOM becomes conduit for community cooperation

“In coffee shops and shelters, in kitchens and neighbors’ spare rooms, on the radio and in church … we rediscovered who we are – or most want to be – as a people. Ingenious, self-reliant, neighborly, creative, tough, funny, spontaneous, caring.”

– Gov. Angus King, State of the State address, Feb. 2, 1998

BANGOR – Ten years ago, people already were tuning in to 24-hour cable television news stations and surfing the Internet. Local radio news had all but disappeared leading one expert to opine that “radio is no longer the medium people think of when they need vital information.”

During the ice storm of January 1998, however, virtually every person in northern Maine turned to their battery-operated radios for vital information. Most of them tuned in to WVOM, 103.9 FM, a small talk radio station in Bangor that called itself “The Voice of Maine.”

“It was the highlight of my radio career,” former owner Jerry Evans said last month from Carson City, Nev., where he lives and owns two radio stations. “It was a 10-day adventure.”

Evans, 53, a California native who had owned the station about a year when the ice storm struck, dumped his syndicated programming and extended the morning call-in show with Charlie Horne and Tom Morelli for more than a week. Volunteers staffed the phone lines and callers waited in line five deep to offer survival tips, greetings to friends and family, information on power outages and power restorations in their neighborhoods, and much-needed doses of humor and consolation.

They also saved lives by connecting people who desperately needed fuel, water, food, medicine and solace with people who were willing and able to provide it.

“For those of us without TV and other radio stations, WVOM has been a real lifeline to the people of Maine,” Sen. Susan Collins told the Bangor Daily News in the midst of the crisis. She used the station several times to address Mainers.

Ten years ago, power outages caused by the ice storm crippled the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that also serves as the state’s Emergency Alert System. Mainers who tuned in for vital information heard only dead air.

EAS, however, was not established to deal with slow-moving weather events, Gil Maxwell, chief technology officer for MPBN, said recently.

“The system was designed for quick-hitting, fast-action events like flash floods, thunderstorms with damaging winds and hail, Amber Alerts for missing children or an accident that would shut down a significant section of Interstate 95 or the Maine Turnpike,” he said. “We are limited to a four- to five-minute window to tell people what’s happening and where to tune in for more information.”

Today, MPBN has propane generators that can run 24 hours a day for seven days without refueling, which the state did not purchase when the network was designated the state’s emergency network. The generators were purchased in 1999 with an $82,500 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant and $27,500 from MPBN. In cooperation with the Maine Broadcasters Association, public and private radio stations have agreed to carry one another’s programming in case of emergencies, according to Maxwell.

“The moral of the story,” he said, “is that we all understood what happened in the ice storm and we’re working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Even if the EAS system had not gone down, Evans said, it would not have been able to do what WVOM did – connect people not to government or agencies but to other people who most often were strangers.

“One thing that struck me,” Morelli said, “was the immediacy with which listeners responded when they heard someone call in who was in a crisis. One lady called who lived in the woods somewhere to say she had no formula for her infant child. Within an hour, she called back laughing and crying to say that she now had enough formula and baby food that she’d have to have more children to use it all.”

Morelli, now 50, is no longer on the radio but operates his portrait studio in Brewer.

When he and Horne showed up for work about 4:30 a.m. Friday, Jan. 9, the day the ice storm turned into a state emergency, just half of the WVOM offices and studios, located at 263 State St. in Bangor, had power, Morelli recalled last month. The studios he and Horne used to broadcast from were dark.

“I was determined to get on the air,” he said. “So, I went upstairs and broke into the optometrist’s office and ‘borrowed’ some extension cords that we ran down the hall to the part of the office that had power. We got the station up and running. I was so surprised that the first words I said on the air were, ‘Oh, s***, we’re on the air.'”

The use of that particular epithet could have earned the station a reprimand and a fine from the Federal Communications Commission, the regulatory agency that oversees radio and television broadcasting.

“I guess the FCC wasn’t listening that day,” Morelli said.

Horne, Morelli’s on-air partner, lived on South Main Street in Brewer 10 years ago. Each night, after 10 hours on the air, he’d head home across the Penobscot River.

“One night I went home to Brewer in total darkness,” he said last week. “I turned a bend on South Main, and the lights came on and it looked like Las Vegas.

“On the first night, however, I had no power, so I turned on the radio and started listening,” Horne, 59, said. “That’s when it hit me that I was on the other side of it, like all the other people listening.”

Horne is now an account executive for WVII-TV, Channel 7, and lives in Bangor.

To stay on the air throughout the height of the storm and its aftermath took a Herculean effort by a lot of volunteers to keep the station up and running, Evans recalled. The power to the station’s tower on Passadumkeag Mountain was knocked out on Jan. 9, 1998, but its propane-fueled backup generator kicked in. There was enough fuel to keep WVOM on the air through Wednesday, Jan. 14, 1998.

The Army National Guard planned to send a helicopter crew to the mountain Wednesday morning on behalf of the Maine State Police, the Bangor Daily News reported the next Friday. The state police broadcast from the same 673-foot tower WVOM used. Guard officials offered to help the station stay on the air.

“With the help of several members of the Pine Tree Snowmobile Club, the Guard helicopter took off from Milford with 20 propane tanks suspended in a net sling,” the BDN reported. “The first load was deposited safely near the transmitter site, where the snowmobilers already were waiting to retrieve them. When the helicopter picked up the remaining 22 tanks, it ran into problems.”

The wind picked up and created a dangerous situation, so the crew was forced to drop the tanks, which landed in a remote wooded are near Costigan, Evans said 10 years ago. The people who had volunteered to help keep the station on the air fought dangerously low temperatures and a stinging wind.

Dan Placzek, a former scallop diver from Orono who died in 2004, climbed partway up the tower to chip ice off the structure. A retired Bangor Hydro-Electric worker, Arthur Bard of Lincoln, found the source of the electrical problem and repaired the wires.

“It was a life-changing event,” Morelli said of the ice storm. “I felt blessed that I had the power of radio and grateful to be able to be a pivot point around which we were a community knotted together.”

Not content with anecdotal evidence, two University of Maine professors surveyed 134 households in the weeks after the storm about how they dealt with media depriavation. Lyombe Eko, then-assistant professor of journalism and mass communication, and Joanne Gula, then-assistant professor of journalism, presented the results to the International Communication Association Conference in 1999.

“Media loss had some impact on everybody,” Gula said. “We looked at a number of different variables, such as political affiliation or socioeconomic status, and there was no demographic difference. The storm was a great leveling factor.”

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