It’s difficult to imagine the financial pressures on a commercial radio station. They have certain hours of the day that are so important, so crucial to their financial well-being that if there is any true spontaneity left it sounds formatted. “Drive time,” those hours of flux between dawn and work are the most brutal. Listeners are in and out of the shower, finding a matching sock, wiping the baby, spilling the coffee and commuting to work. And the numbers for a radio station can be enormously significant. Advertising numbers, listener numbers, the demographics of those listeners and the economic status of particular age groups. Stations compete with one another with traffic updates, weather reports, one sentence “news” updates, and happy talk. Lots and lots of happy talk…. Non-commercial stations, those below 92 on your dial, breathe ever so slightly easier. They don’t work on the premise that listeners have the attention span of a gnat. They may drop in the weather report but the possibility of a partly cloudy day never seems to warrant two minutes of chattiness about a cold front that that may have a thirty percent chance of reaching us in four days…
At WMPG the weekday DJ’s who work the morning “drive time” slots have never seemed overly pressured by the numbers, or overly concerned with their listeners’ short attention span. When the station constructed a loose “strip” format (similar shows are heard at the same time on weekdays) the 6:30 to 9:00 a.m. slot was formatted as “eclectic”. A listener may easily hear African pop followed by southern soul, then country blues, then Brit-pop, then a little tart commentary. If the shows on commercial radio sound smooth and undistinguishable‹ a blender drink of sound‹ then the “MPG morning DJ’s usually construct shows more akin to a fruit salad. If Monday’s host prefers honeydew and Wednesday’s host has an affection for strawberries, it doesn’t mean you won’t get banana slices in your mix.
Steve Hirshon has the Thursday slot. Has had it for years. And the program “Hukkin’ a Chainek” (ask him to explain) may be the folksiest broadcast in the state. “I’m not trying to be a radio star or anything. I’m just a guy who plays some music and talks a little bit.” Despite his disclaimer Steve’s show is one of the freshest, most spontaneous programs at the station. Week after week his far-flung mix of music, amusing asides and occasional on-air wanderings knit a comfortable old sweater of a show together. “The morning slot is good for me. It allows me to play a lot of different music. I like to arrive at the station close to my start time and just kind of stare at the CD racks. I’ll start my show with a set of jazz or maybe something foreign just to get going. Then it just goes from there.”
Steve started with the station in the 70’s when he was a student at the university. At the time it was a noisy little hole in the wall not far from the ne’er-do-well student pub. Back then it was a brief association for him, but ten years later he was having coffee at the Good Egg Cafe on Congress Street when the owner mentioned to Steve that the station had a new director (Ernie Freeburg), a new direction (community radio) and a new boost in power. He attended a couple of meetings and re-upped.
It would be an understatement to describe Hirshon as a Portland fixture. He grew up in the Woodfords area, attended USM, and moved onto the peninsula twenty-five years ago. For years he owned a small newsstand / tobacco shop in the back of 10 Exchange which became something of a hub for news and commentary about the Old Port. Steve was considered something akin to a neighborhood mayor‹ he knew everybody and everybody knew him (either as Steve or as “Fang,” again, ask him). More recently he’s been employed by a Portland-based investment firm and has involved himself with the Bayside Neighborhood Association.
WMPG is a natural extension of the former faux-mayor’s civic affection. He has spent several years on the board of directors and his weekly program includes interviews with a staff member of one of Portland’s alternative newspapers: Casco Bay Weekly. “I started doing the CBW segment because it gave the show more focus. Now (he laughs), it allows me to vent.”
“My perfect show would have several musical sections, several talk sections and maybe a couple of set pieces. I just try to let the music flow naturally, because when I think about it too much in advance some of my ideas won’t seem like good ideas by the time I’m on the air.”
Despite the vagaries that occasionally trip up any close community, Steve’s affection for the station does not seem to have been tempered over the years. “The mission of this station is to serve the university and community. I once believed that it was also about giving the underserved communities a voice, but we’re at a point when anyone with a lousy microphone, a lousy headset and a computer with Internet access can be broadcasting around the world in ten minutes. If you listen to some of this stuff it shows.”
“Over the years ‘MPG has changed enormously and almost all for the better. There may be a little less spontaneity, a little less wackiness, but frankly, there are fewer fringe personalities, fewer people with some axe to grind on the air. Volunteers have to establish their commitment by virtue of going through the training program and it makes the programming better.
“Occasionally commercial stations give the local focus thing a shot but ‘MPG manages to be both local and bring the world to Portland. That’s the station’s greatest achievement and it’s a significant one.”