The phrase “on the air” entered the nation’s vocabulary in the early 1920s as radio became the newest popular sensation.

It was 1922 when Maine’s first licensed radio station appeared in Auburn. That pioneering effort was known as WMB and it lasted for only a short time. Nevertheless, it captured the enterprising spirit that would lead to a rich broadcasting history in the Twin Cities.

The station originated through the scientific interest and enthusiasm of Elmer Nickerson and Thurl Wilson. Nickerson owned Auburn Electrical Company, a store on Court Street and a battery and tire store at 95 Turner St. Wilson, recently graduated from Edward Little High School, went to work for Nickerson in 1916.

The WMB story is told in the pages of “The History of Broadcasting in Maine” by Ellie Thompson, published about 20 years ago by the Maine Association of Broadcasters. It says Wilson worked after hours and at his own expense at the battery store to build his own transmitting set.

Wilson sent out his own personal brand of programming. He recited poetry such as “The Face on the Bar Room Floor,” and he sang and played the mandolin and banjo.

Owners of crystal sets, which could pick up some far-away radio stations, complained that Wilson’s signal was interfering with reception and, furthermore, they said neither the small station nor Wilson were licensed.

It was only a minor setback. Another Auburn resident, D. Wayne Bendix, did have a license to operate a broadcast station. In April 1922, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued Maine’s first radio station license for WMB to Auburn Electrical Company with Bendix as operator and Wilson as assistant. WMB became one of only 24 licensed radio station in the U.S. and the only one north of Massachusetts. That meant it was required to broadcast all government radio reports including crop information, weather forecasts and all government speeches.

The first official WMB program was an Arbor Day speech on Friday, April 18, 1922, which was repeated the next evening.

The Lewiston Evening Journal said, ” …local doctors will deliver into the air special speeches on hygiene and care of the body, local bankers will speak on thrift and banking principles, (and there will be) orchestra selections, as well as addresses by prominent persons who have come to Auburn or Lewiston.”

The newspaper also mentioned ambitious plans that were extremely far-sighted.

“As now contemplated,” reports said, “the Auburn Electrical Company station will make wire connections with such place as the Lewiston City Hall when some famous speaker or well known singer is present, and will broadcast the speech or song, whichever the case may be.”

In May, the station moved into the third floor of Auburn Hall and a large L-shaped aerial was fitted over the street to accommodate broadcast of a speech dedicating the brand-new YMCA building on Turner Street. The next day, city officials ordered that the aerial be taken down. The Androscoggin Electric Company of Lewiston had complained that the four-strand wire passed dangerously close over hundreds of power lines and trolley wires.

Another engineering problem involved the transmitter’s 24 wire connections which would overheat. It caused Wilson to shut down his broadcasting three or four times a night.

Although the station’s 100-watt transmitter had a predicted 50-mile range, the station received mail that said it was heard as far away as Denver, Colo.

Commercials were not allowed, and when WMB plugged Lawrence Music Company, the station ran into license problems. Probably the main reason for WMB’s end was the toll if took on Wilson. He had to work a full-time day job and then broadcast at night without pay.

Some reports say the station did not complete a full year of operation. Others say it ceased broadcasting sometime before 1926.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and an Auburn native. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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