DJ Adam Darling finishes up his sports show on WMEB 91.9 FM on Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. WMEB has been off the terrestrial airwaves since early January, after a fire at its transmitter site. Credit: Emily Burnham

Regular broadcast listeners of WMEB 91.9 FM, the student-run radio station at the University of Maine, haven’t heard much of the station’s freeform variety of programming over the past month.

That’s because, after a fire at the transmitter site in early January, WMEB’s terrestrial signal has been off the air for five weeks and counting. The station has an online streaming presence, accessible on its website, which has been unaffected by the transmitter fire.

The fire broke out at the transmitter site, located at UMaine’s Witter Farm in Old Town, sometime between Dec. 30 and Jan. 1. The exact time of the fire is not known, since it was not reported to campus officials or to the Old Town Fire Department until Jan. 2, after the fire had already flamed out.

The cause of the fire was traced to a small electrical motor that overheated due to a cooling system failure, and began to spark, said Old Town Deputy Fire Chief David Daniels.

Nearly every piece of equipment at the site was destroyed — if not by the fire, then by the snowstorm that hit the area a few days later, said longtime station advisor Michael Murphy. The damaged or destroyed equipment, which included the transmitter, backup transmitter and peripheral equipment to get the signal between the studio and the transmitter, lay untouched until this week, when the cleanup effort began.

Restoration of the 10,000 watt signal, which broadcasts in roughly 25-mile radius from the transmitter site, depends entirely on how soon the equipment can be replaced and re-installed. Murphy estimates it could cost between $60,000 and $70,000.

The Division of Student Life, the university department that oversees WMEB’s budget, will decide when those replacements will be made. Several of the pieces of equipment cost well over $20,000, meaning a bid will need to be put out in order for the university to purchase it.

“We’re in the process now of figuring out what exactly we need, and where do we get it, and making sure all the different parties here at the university that need to be consulted are consulted,” said Kenda Scheele, associate dean of students, who hoped to nail down a timeline for restoring the signal in the next two weeks. “This is the first time I or any of us have had to figure out something like this, so we’re just taking it one step at a time.”

WMEB does not have regular data on its number of broadcast listeners on a daily or weekly basis.

WMEB is funded by a $15 fee assessed each semester to all students taking six or more credits. The communications fee also funds the Maine Campus, the student newspaper, and ASAP Media Services, a student-run graphic design, web development and video production organization. WMEB’s total budget is dependent upon enrollment, but has generally been around $60,000 each year.

WMEB began airing in 1964, with a format initially split between news and music. In the 1970s, it shifted towards a more music-focused format. By the 1980s, it had joined college radio stations across the nation in a freeform format, showcasing a wide variety of musical genres, with a special emphasis on new and lesser-known artists. Bands like U2, R.E.M., Nirvana and Radiohead were first heard by many U.S. listeners on college radio. All of the other Maine college stations in Maine have similarly freeform formats, except for WHSN 89.3 at Husson University in Bangor, which focuses on alternative rock.

With the rise of satellite radio, streaming radio and services like Spotify, some college radio stations across the country have found themselves at major turning points. A number of stations have seen their broadcast signals sold by their schools to other, larger radio stations both public and commercial. In June 2016, College Music Journal, the college radio trade magazine, stopped accepting weekly music charts from its stations and ceased publication.

Nevertheless, terrestrial radio retains a high level of listenership. A Pew Research Center study released in Dec. 2016 showed that levels of general listenership largely hadn’t budged between 2009 and 2016, with 91 percent of all Americans age 12 and older listening to terrestrial radio at least once a week. And according to a report from last year, it’s still the number one way that Americans find new music.

The schedule for WMEB is not quite as robust as it once was, but it still has a core contingent of both listeners and DJs, composed of students, faculty, staff and community members, who listen to the station both online and over the air, said Murphy.

“I think WMEB is just a part of life for people in the Bangor area that like to listen to different kinds of music. And now that you can’t turn it on in your car, people realize they miss it,” he said.

The signal being out for so long has also brought longtime casual listeners out of the woodwork, inquiring about what’s happening with the station.

“It’s been nice in a way, because we’ve had so many people reach out to us asking about the status of the station,” said station manager Gabriel Blanchard, a senior. “We’ve gotten more likes and messages on social media from this than I can ever remember us getting before.”

Emily Burnham was music director for WMEB 91.9 FM between the years of 2002 and 2005, as well as station manager for the summer of 2003, while she was a student at the University of Maine.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.