April 07, 2020

Hope Amid Ruins> WVOM; Big ice storm puts small station on map

After more than four straight days of crisis brodacasting, the cramped cubicles that make up WVOM radio in Bangor resemble a war zone communications center by Monday morning.

The studio’s engineer sits at a control panel, cheerfully fielding a steady stream of incoming calls like an air-traffic controller at LaGuardia Airport. Just behind him, in adjoining booths barely big enough for the two men and the mound of faxes and handwritten announcements from which they read, sit Charles Horne and John Michaud.

Hunched over their microphones, the morning talk show hosts deliver a homespun patter about everything from power company updates and what fuels are suitable for burning in a lantern to the best ways of keeping the family’s pet bird from becoming a feathered popsicle in a house without heat.

When a caller complains that he has yet to see a Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. crew in his neighborhood days after his lights went out, and appears to be taking his powerless state a bit too personally, the announcers remind him patiently that he is definitely not alone.

“We are all in this together,” they say, repeating a message that they and WVOM’s other on-air voices have made their mantra for the masses during Maine’s “Storm of the Century.”

In a week marked by history-making breakdowns and failures — of heat, lights, water, morale and nearly all forms of electronic communications — this little-known radio station has emerged as one of the biggest success stories in the state. Listeners from Aroostook County to Augusta, Skowhegan to Calais, people who had never even heard of the station before the storm began, began flocking to “The Voice of Maine” in large numbers as the ice began knocking out power everywhere.

Seizing on the signal like a lone voice in the wilderness, listeners were more than willing to wait in holding patterns five calls deep in order to pass along survival tips, warm greetings to friends and loved ones, information on the power outages in their own neighborhoods, and healthy doses of much-needed humor and consolation.

Operating since Friday on propane hauled by snowmobile up to its transmitter on Passadumkeag Mountain, the station also has served as a model of gritty Yankee resourcefulness that has drawn praise from public officials and regular folks alike. Gov. Angus King became a familiar on-air voice, joking that he had gone without a shower so long that he gave new meaning to the term “smelly politician.”

“For those of us without TV and other radio stations, WVOM has been a real lifeline to the people of Maine,” remarked Sen. Susan Collins, who used the station several times to address Mainers throughout the crisis. “It made people feel connected, that they were not alone. It matched up people who had goods and services to those people who needed them. It was a tremendous public service.”

At the center of the operation is Jerry Evans, the station’s bleary-eyed owner, marathon radio voice, and “fearless leader” to his small but dedicated staff.

“We’re flying by the seat of our pants, taking it all minute by minute,” says Evans, a Californian and veteran radio broadcaster who bought the financially strapped talk radio station two years ago. “We started this emergency broadcasting schedule Thursday morning, and very quickly realized what was happening and decided to stay with it to the end. It hasn’t been easy. On Friday morning, we had extension cords running down the hallways and were running one studio by candlelight.”

Evans, who has maintained an on-air schedule that would tax the strongest vocal cords, says he is delighted with the outpouring of thanks from listeners. As he tells his callers often, he hopes those many new fans of his station will continue to tune in to his all-news-and-talk format when the crisis is past.

“But what has impressed me most about this whole thing has been the generosity of the people out there,” says Evans, as he prepares for another long session at the microphone.

“I think a lot of good will has come of this storm. It’s been a test of the human spirit, with people going beyond the call of duty to help one another. People who didn’t even know the station helped us drag 100-pound propane cylinders up the mountain to keep us on the air. And the calls have been amazing — everything from tips on saving tropical fish and iguanas to getting oxygen to people on life-support systems. A person could put together a book of tips on how to survive a crisis. Most of all, though, we felt proud to be able to help people communicate with the outside world. I think we made a lot of friends out there.”

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