Volunteer Profile: Valerie Cartonio

WMPG volunteers are passionate and dedicated folks. Valerie Cartonio is certainly no exception. If you’re a regular listener, you no doubt know Valerie as the host of “Echoes In the Wind” (Mondays, 10:30am-Noon), a Native American music and news program which has become one of the most widely heard and passionately produced shows on the WMPG schedule.

Like many of the programs on MPG, “Echoes” is the continuation of a show that began prior to the current host’s involvement at the station. In this case, Valerie gradually took the reins of the Native American program, “Voice of the Four Winds,” hosted by Nightshade Wolfstone Francis, when he moved to Farmington. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s back up a bit.

Valerie Cartonio has had a lifelong fascination with Native culture. As early as the age of eight, she remembers being intrigued by Native history and was a voracious reader of anything she could find pertaining to North America’s indigenous peoples. Her curiosity has never waned and her many weekly listeners are beneficiaries of her passionate research and fascination. The source of her passion can be traced to stories she heard as a young girl that her estranged father was part Native. The details of Valerie’s ancestry have been difficult to pin down and, to this day, she isn’t sure just how much validity there is to the stories regarding her father’s bloodlines. But there is little debate that a deep appreciation for all things Native runs deep in her soul.

Although Valerie has been a mainstay at WMPG for more than a decade, it took this Maine native, who grew up in Scarborough, many years to go from occasional listener to part time volunteer to on-air host.

In 1978, while studying Communication and Sociology at the University of Southern Maine, Valerie attended classes with Howard Duperly (currently a reggae DJ in Miami, Florida). Duperly’s roommate in ’78 was Richard Cook, host of “Positive Vibration,” a reggae show on WMPG (which just so happens to be the longest running program at the station. You can catch it on Saturday afternoons, pm- pm, with current host Johnny Cool). Duperly knew Valerie was fond of reggae and suggested she give it a listen, which she did, and she tuned in regularly. At that time, Valerie relates, “WMPG was broadcasting out of a broom closet in Gorham” (a former cafeteria storage room at USM), and she didn’t listen to any other shows on the upstart campus station for years – more than a decade, in fact. And then, as if by destiny, in 1990 a friend asked Valerie if she’d heard the Native program hosted by Nightshade on WMPG.

She started listening to “Voice of the Four Winds” religiously and even made occasional forays to WMPG to chat with Nightshade. Her research of Native culture widened to include music beyond traditional flute and drums and she familiarized herself with the contemporary scene. By 1992, she was regularly visiting the station to provide updates from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee for “Voice of the Four Winds.” Also in 1992, then-Program Director Jim Rand encouraged her to take the on-air training course, which she reluctantly did.

After about a year of practice, Valerie’s comfort level behind a microphone built up and she made her radio debut as host of “The Primal Beat,” a world music program. Her tenure in this capacity would last two years. It was then, in 1994, that Nightshade moved to Farmington. Finding the weekly commute to Portland to be prohibitive, he arranged for Valerie to fill in on weeks he was unable to make the trip. Eventually, the rigors of the road forced Nightshade to relinquish his show. The station actively recruited in the Native community and, after six months without finding a willing successor for Nightshade, Valerie took over the program full-time. It was a fortuitous arrangement for WMPG and fans of Native programming. She chose the show name “Echoes in the Wind” to convey the feeling she gets while listening to traditional flute and drum music.

By this time, Valerie was a regular at the station and had begun working in the music department with volunteer Global Music Director Jackie Nice. In less than one year, the Native music collection at the station grew from a smattering of about 30 recordings (mostly cassette tapes) to 82 CDs. The connections she made with record labels are still benefiting the station today. Largely due to the efforts of Valerie, WMPG boasts one of, if not the, most comprehensive libraries of contemporary Native music in Maine (more than 1000 CDs). There are currently six major Native music labels, eight small labels, and many independently recording artists. Thanks to Valerie, each of them is familiar with the excellent Native programming emanating from the little house on Bedford Street in Portland, Maine and she receives parcels on an almost daily basis. The library is growing at a rate of roughly 50 new releases each year and labels now seek her out.

In the nine years, “Echoes” has been on the air, the reputation of the show has carried like, well, an echo in the wind. Thanks to WMPG’s live streaming capability (www.wmpg.org) and Valerie’s own website (echoesinthewind.com) and email newsletters, the show boasts regular listeners in New York, California, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Canada, and even Austria and Japan! The work required to accomplish this is truly remarkable. Remember, Valerie is a volunteer. Nevertheless, she regularly spends more than twenty hours per week answering emails, contacting musicians and labels, updating her site, downloading Native news to share, and previewing music.

Valerie also creates a number of intriguing special programs throughout the year, including: an annual Columbus Day special which aims to correct some of the revisionist history responsible for lionizing the explorer (not an easy undertaking for a woman with an Italian surname, she points out), an annual Red Road special (named for the Native substance abuse prevention program), a month of all women’s music each March called “All Women, All Month,” a storytellers show, a children’s special, a show featuring songs about frybread, and a traditional drum and flute show called “Traditional Flair.” She’s currently considering a program called “The Number 9 Special,” during which she’ll play nothing but track 9s from her favorite CDs. But, as is the case with the Columbus Day show, her shows often tackle difficult issues. An example was her show last year about the casino debate in Southern Maine, which included an in-studio appearance by Biddeford Mayor Donna Dionne.

You would think this kind of a time commitment would be enough. Not so with this amazing volunteer. In addition to her show, Valerie has worked pretty much every Begathon since 1992, contributes regularly to the WMPG epistle email newsletter, often writes stories for the program guide, has helped with numerous WMPG concerts and events, and will generally lend a hand any time she is asked. This commitment to WMPG even extends to her family. Valerie’s husband, Tony, sons Michael and Brock, and daughters Tianna, Nancy, and Julie have all been regular volunteers at the station. Nancy and Julie, both talented musicians, have even appeared on “Local Motives.” Valerie is also a very proud grandmother of two, who one would have to think, will soon be lending their touch to WMPG. Additionally, Valerie volunteers for the Native American Inter-Tribal Foundation and helps to organize and promote their various drives for toys, school supplies, winter clothing, bicycles, and new baby supplies. A current project aims to provide playground equipment for each of Maine’s five reservations (two Pasamaquoddy, Penobscot, Mic Mac, and Maliseet).

Valerie’s experiences illustrate the opportunities available to volunteers at the station, but, more importantly, her story shows just how valuable volunteers are to the well-being and quality of WMPG.

Someone who once listened exclusively to one show on the station for twelve years, Valerie has seen her own tastes in music evolve over the years as her involvement at the station deepened. Once almost exclusively a fan of reggae, Valerie now listens to just about every genre on WMPG. Her favorites besides Native? Techno. I kid you not. When asked what programs she enjoys most on the MPG schedule, she didn’t hesitate to remark “I love DJ Shade’s “‘Electronic Naptime’ (Mondays, 3pm-5pm). And, yes, there are Native techno artists; Luna Drive and Neko Black, to name a few. Valerie is also a regular listener and fan of “Blunt Youth Radio” (Mondays, 7:30pm-8:30pm), “Eastern Sands” (Sundays, 3:30pm-5pm), “You’ll Dance to Anything” (Sundays, 9pm-11pm), “stuck in the 80s’ (Sundays, 7pm-9pm), “Juxtaposition 2003” (8:30pm-11pm), and “Positive Vibration” still.

Would she recommend getting involved at WMPG to others? “Definitely,” she said, “there’s always something for someone to do. I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with WMPG; it’s so diverse.” And while such a wide range of tastes and personalities might make someone think of conflicts and incongruity, Valerie is quick to point out, “Everyone gets along well. And it’s a good representation of Portland; it goes above and beyond as far as getting unique programs on the air. We rank right up there at the top. It’s the only radio station there is.”