April 17-24, 2002

A Rainy Day in Bangor, Maine

The northernmost radio market of any significant size in New England, Bangor has plenty to offer the dedicated tower buff - and better yet, you can see most of it in a single day, as we did one rainy weekend in September, 1996.

Our tour began north of town on Broadway, aka Maine Route 15, which extends north from downtown Bangor, past the old Victorian mansion that's home to famed writer Stephen King, and eventually up to Dover-Foxcroft.

Long before you get there, though, you get to 861 Broadway, home of King's radio stations. WZON (620) is the descendant of Bangor's second-oldest radio station, WLBZ, which dates its legacy all the way back to the twenties. For most of its history, WLBZ was co-owned with Portland's WCSH under the Rines family's Maine Broadcasting System. MBS launched WCSH-TV in Portland and WLBZ-TV in Bangor to go with the radio stations in the fifties; three decades later, the radio stations would be sold off separately.

WLBZ(AM) became WACZ in March, 1981, playing rock as "Z-62." Two years later, King bought the station and renamed it WZON, still playing rock. Since then, King has sold the station and bought it back, and today it's the sports station for Bangor and northern Maine.

The FCC database puts the tall self-supporter in the middle of the picture at just under 400 feet; it certainly seemed taller when we were looking at it. In any case, that's the day tower; at night, WZON puts most of its power north, still running 5 kilowatts.

The building was being renovated when we saw it; today, we believe it houses not only WZON but also rocker WKIT (100.3 Brewer) and King's latest acquisition, WDME (103.1 Dover-Foxcroft). Just up Broadway, at number 1476, is the studio of religious WHCF (88.5) and Christian contemporary WHMX (105.7 Howland); the transmitters for both are north of town (just enough north of the 45th parallel to be in the FCC's "Zone II," where WHCF can be a full class C station instead of class B.)

Also up this way is Husson College, home of student-run noncomm WHSN (89.3).

Follow Broadway back into downtown, head over the Penobscot Bridge and you're in Brewer, Maine, where we find Bangor's other remaining AM station.

WABI, with transmitter out on Route 1A in Brewer, is the oldest radio station in Bangor, having signed on in 1924. It's also five kilowatts day and night, with a nighttime directional pattern that sends most of the signal north and west, away from Bangor. (Even so, WABI is widely heard by DXers in the Northeast.)

When we visited, WABI had just recently been sold by the Hildreth family, which had owned it and its sister FM and TV outlets for decades.

We'll see WABI-TV in a moment; first, we'll head back into Bangor and over to the city's east side to see the WLBZ studios on Mount Hope Avenue. This building is now a little emptier than it used to be; much of WLBZ's programming, including most of its weekend and morning newscasts, comes from sister station WCSH (Channel 6) down in Portland. (If you see "NewsCenter" without an identifying channel number, you're usually seeing Portland programming on Channel 2!)

Downtown Bangor doesn't have much, radio-wise; WABI radio, sister FM WWBX (97.1) and WZON all had studios in the heart of the city when we were there.

Over on the west side of town, we stayed near the airport, which boasts one of the longest runways in New England and is a common stopping-point for trans-Atlantic jetliners needing to make an emergency landing.

Not far away, at 65 Texas Avenue, is one of the campuses of Maine Public Broadcasting. This was the headquarters of the system, both TV and radio, before the consolidation that merged the existing "MPBN" TV network (including WMEB-TV 12 in Orono, just north of Bangor) with WCBB-TV (Channel 10) in Augusta, the station that had been operated by Colby, Bates and Bowdoin Colleges. In 1996, there were still two networks: WCBB fed WMEB, WMED (Channel 13) in Calais and WMEM (Channel 10) up in Presque Isle, while separate programming was offered over the air in southern Maine as "MPBN Plus" over WMEA-TV (Channel 26) in Biddeford. Bangor received MPBN Plus on an LPTV, on channel 30; the rest of the state saw it on cable.

Soon after our visit, MPBN Plus went away. Today, WMEA relays the other four TV outlets, and channel 30 is "WCKD-CA," running UPN (and soon, Fox) programming from the WVII-TV (Channel 7) studios.

(Maine Public Broadcasting still operates the Texas Avenue complex, as well as facilities in Lewiston - the old WCBB studios - and Portland.)

WVII, the ABC affiliate for Portland, is also near the airport. Target Industrial Circle can be found just off US 2, near the I-95 interchange south of the airport, and WVII lives in a big metal building there.

It's Maine small-market TV, to be sure - but how many other cities this size have three local newscasts?

(It doesn't hurt that Bangor TV is seen on cable all the way north and east to the Canadian border; the only other commercial TV station north and east of here in Maine is CBS affiliate WAGM in Presque Isle. WLBZ is even seen in much of New Brunswick via cable, or at least was on cable a few years ago.)

Head west on US 2 from Target Industrial Circle and you'll soon arrive at Hildreth Street; that's where we found the more substantial studios of WABI-TV (Channel 5), the first TV station in Bangor. (It signed on in 1953, beating WLBZ-TV by a year; WVII didn't arrive until well into the sixties!)

WABI radio had been here as well; when we visited, it had just been sold (it now belongs to Clear Channel) and had moved its studios downtown.

There's at least one ghost to be acknowledged before we leave Bangor: the city once boasted a third AM station.

WGUY signed on as a 5 kilowatt daytimer on 1250 kHz in 1947, and was sold a few years later to Melvin Stone, who still remains active in New England radio as a broker. It spawned an FM in 1979, which soon moved from 100.9 to 100.3 and became today's WKIT; 1250 would move to 1200 and change community of license to Brewer (after a stint as WMLI, "Music of Your Life") as WKIT(AM) and WNSW before disappearing completely in 1995. We looked for its tower site but found nothing a year later.

While WGUY is dead and gone (though the calls live on at FM 102.1, a rimshotter from Dexter), three new AM signals will soon take to the Bangor airwaves. Daniel Priestly holds CPs for WNZT (1230 Hermon), WNZS (1340 Veazie) and WWZN (1400 Veazie); all will fill frequencies of defunct AM stations in the region (WBME 1230 in Belfast, WDME 1340 in Dover-Foxcroft and WMCS 1400 Machias).

Back to the living, then; following US 2 back into town took us to US 202 heading west - and that led, some six miles out of town, to Peaked Mountain, home to the WABI-TV transmitter, as well as former FM sister WWBX on 97.1.

Since we were there, Maine Public Broadcasting has made its own application for Peaked Mountain; it hopes to put WMEB-DT there on channel 9.

(I think there's a new tower up on Peaked Mountain now for WABI-TV/DT, WWBX and WMEB-DT.)

Those little towers on the left side of the picture aren't broadcast, as far as I can tell.

The other major TV and FM site for Bangor is southeast of town, with towers on Blackcap Mountain in East Eddington and nearby Hog Hill in East Holden.

Blackcap is accessible by car, and so we drove up the rocky road to see what awaited us up top. We knew the hill was home to at least four stations: WVII, WMEB-TV, WMEH-FM (the Maine Public Radio outlet on 90.9) and Bangor's last in-town class B allocation, WEZQ (92.9), which signed on in 1976 as WPBC. (Yes, as late as the mid-seventies, high-power FM CPs were available more or less on request in places like Bangor!)

We found them, of course; WVII is the tower on the left side of the picture at right (look at those clouds!), while WMEB and WMEH share the tower at right. (Why isn't the FM called WMEB-FM? That's the little student station on 91.9 at UMaine in Orono!)

But look what else we found: the building in the picture above has a sign that announces two microwave relays for Maine Broadcasting/WLBZ, even though WLBZ's own transmitter isn't up here on Blackcap. We think some of those microwave dishes are (were?) used to link WLBZ to WCSH; others, no doubt, link WMEB to its sister stations around the state. (From up here, you can hear pretty much every Maine Public Radio outlet except WMEF up in Fort Kent, which shares its 106.5 dial spot with WQCB Brewer. WQCB is another one of those Bangor-market stations that went just far enough north to be a full class C signal; we didn't get up to its tower up near Dexter, but we did see its studios on Acme Road in Brewer.)

Look carefully to the right of all that microwave stuff and you'll see the tower in the background with the six bays of WEZQ.

The gate leading up to Hog Hill was closed; our picture of WLBZ, then, comes from a distance. (That telephoto lens sure came in handy!)

Nearby Copeland Hill is home to WBGR-CA (Channel 33), which provides Pax programming to Bangor; WKIT has its tower a few miles south of here.

So we've seen all of the Bangor market, right? Not hardly - by the time we arrived six years ago, there had been significant FM move-in action. From Belfast, WWFX (104.7) was playing to the Bangor market (it became WBFB, country "Bear," the week after our visit); Old Town, just north of Bangor, had recently gotten a new C2 facility, WBZN (107.3); and the once-separate Ellsworth and Bar Harbor markets to the south and east were making their inroads into Bangor listenership as well.

We didn't get down there on this 1996 trip, so we'll save all of those stations for a future Site of the Week. Stay tuned...