WEST BATH — At a time when many radio stations consider the “oldies” to be songs from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Bob Bittner is keeping the real oldies going strong.
Having operated WJTO from his Berry’s Mill Pond studio since 1997, Bittner this month purchased his fifth and sixth stations – WLAM (AM 1470) in Lewiston and WLVP (AM 870) in greater Portland, based in Gorham. WJIB (AM 740) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was his first in 1991; WJTO has AM (AM 730) and FM stations (FM 98.3), and WJYE (AM 1280) in central Maine rounds out the pack.
None of Bittner’s mostly AM stations air commercials. Instead they are entirely supported by listener donations, which he procures largely through fundraisers each summer.
He gets the word out through short on-air announcements. “When I get the amount that I think that it’s going to cost to run the station for the next year, I stop,” he said. “And no more. I don’t need more.”
Bittner receives no income from that support, either.
“I prefer that, because that makes it a hobby instead of a business,” he said in an interview Monday.
It can cost around $30,000 to run a station on an annual basis, although the Massachusetts station costs as much as $98,000, Bittner said. He also provides potential donors a breakdown of his expenses.
Another factor making the stations unique is the catalogue of songs they use from the ’40s through ’80s – an era of music close to Bittner’s heart, which bring back memories of the 66-year-old’s youth, and the tunes enjoyed by his parents.
Memories are a huge part of what Bittner’s stations are all about. He calls them “The Memories Stations.”
His West Bath studio, which neighbors his home, is packed with memories. Framed newspaper stories from throughout the years. Thick books filled with letters received from listeners. Shelves of CDs. And vinyl – lots and lots of vinyl, in all their 33 1/3-, 45-, and 78-rpm glory.
“This is my man cave,” Bittner grinned as he led a tour through his musical museum.
Bittner, a frequent visitor to coastal Maine since 1963, started in the radio business at a New York progressive rock station in 1970. About a decade after buying the West Bath station, Bittner and his wife moved from Massachusetts to live in town full time.
When the West Bath station was built in 1971, it took up to a dozen people to run it, Bittner recalled. But computers have whittled that number down. Bittner plans ultimately to control programming for his six stations entirely from his West Bath headquarters.
He records music from records and CDs onto a computer for use in his programs.
“The computer, unless I tell it to stop, could just keep going for 10 years,” Bittner said.
The stations boast strong signals, covering the coast between Maine and Massachusetts, and even reaching as far as Nova Scotia, Bittner said.
And they help keep AM radio, and those classic pop songs of yore, alive in people’s ears and on their radios.
“AM stations have been suffering, and older people still know AM radio. They grew up with it; it’s their friend,” Bittner noted. “So if you play that kind of music which no one’s playing anyway, then you’ve got an audience.”
The ’40s-’80s time frame is a personal taste, too. “I like old, sweet music,” he said. “… I would not be caught dead playing rap music, or even today’s country.”
Yesterday’s country gets plenty of airplay with Bittner, though. He plans to play all country oldies from the likes of Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and others every Saturday beginning next month on his new Lewiston and Portland stations. Fridays will feature rock acts like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley, with some doo-wop thrown in.
Meanwhile, Bittner’s Bath-area stations will continue to play hits, deeper tracks from albums, and instrumentals.
Asked what inspired him to purchase two stations on top of the ones already keeping him busy, Bittner replied, “I asked my wife that. She said, ‘Don’t do it. What do you need another station for?'”
It comes, in large part, down to timing.
“My thing isn’t really to expand to be a big group of stations, but when I see a station for sale … I might call (the owner) up,” and check into it, Bittner said. In the most recent case, the owner, Binnie Media of Portland, had two for sale.
“I buy when I see things that are attractive,” he said.
It’s also about Bittner’s lifelong love for radio.
“I was always fascinated with radio, since I was a teenager; more so than just the average teen listening to radio,” he said. “I just thought the science of it was interesting, I loved the music, I loved the energy the deejays had.
“I just love music,” Bittner added. “I love playing music for people, and making them happy.”
With his recent purchase of AM radio stations in greater Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, Bob Bittner has two new sets of call letters to add to the sign outside his West Bath home studio.
Bob Bittner bought what his now his radio headquarters in West Bath in 1997.