SKOWHEGAN — When WTOS-FM changed its musical format from alternative rock and breaking new music in Maine in October 1987 to a more classic rock format, then musical director Duane Bruce staged a public funeral through downtown Skowhegan, where station studios were located.

Bruce quit ‘TOS and became an alternative rock DJ at WFNX in Boston, one of the first American commercial stations to play alternative rock as a full-time format. Bruce hosted an all night “free format” radio show called Radio Free Boston and stayed until he was fired in a battle with management in 1992.

He spent the next two years at WBCN in Boston, then dropped the mic and got out of the business.

Fast forward to 2014, when upstart community radio station WXNZ — 98.1 — HooSkow Radio — took to the airwaves in the converted 1895 Somerset County Jail in Skowhegan and Bruce, 56, moved back home to care for his ailing mother.

Now Bruce’s “Rock and Parole” three-hour radio program airs Friday nights, playing on the jail house theme from Cell Block E in the former jail, converted as part of the Somerset Grist Mill and other businesses. He’ll play punk rock, reggae, hip-hop and goofy tunes from days gone by.

The “hoosegow” angle takes the Latin American Spanish word for jail and tags on Skow — short for Skowhegan — to become HooSkow Radio.

“My desire lessened as corporate radio took over and stations started being driven by computer more and more. Less humans needed, so less air shifts available,” Bruce said of his departure from radio. “It was no longer worth fighting for — until I came home to Skowhegan and kind of fell into WXNZ, where I once again can paint on my own canvas.”

Bruce, who grew up in Skowhegan, then wrote a book, a radio memoir, “Hang the DJ,” which was published in 2016, and now there are plans in the works to make it into a movie.

It starts in Skowhegan and it ends in Skowhegan.

The book tells all about the life and the drama, on and off the air, behind the microphone and in the studio.

“The book was a cathartic way to deal with two things: First, the fact that I never got to say goodbye to the beloved WTOS listening audience, and second, being fired from WFNX,” Bruce said. “It’s not uncommon to get fired in radio, but this was personal, and when you are married to your work, as I was and still am, it hurts.”

The book features firsthand stories with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer from The Clash, Kurt Cobain, Lou Reed, The Beastie Boys, The Ramones, Jane’s Addiction and others.

“It wound up coming in at over 400 pages, and the book has dozens of great pictures from Boston photographers,” he said.

Now, he says, Burnt Reindeer Productions, with whom Bruce did the main character voice-over for a feature film “Infinite Santa 8000” wants to make the book into a film. They have purchased the option to make the movie, Bruce said.

“The first half of the book is about Maine; the first five years,” he said. “Then we move to the ‘FNX years for five years and subsequent things that happened to me. It focuses on that particular decade from ’82-’92.”

So how is it that a once popular Boston radio jock ended up at a low-powered community radio station in a converted jail in Skowhegan?

“Magic,” Bruce said of his move back to Maine, where he now lives in Freeport.

Bruce said he had spent about 20 years in radio, from his days at a college station in Bangor to his final days at WFNX. He appears in the film “We Want The Airwaves: The WFNX Story.”

Bruce said he hopes WXNZ is liked and accepted by the community. He said thousands of hours have been donated by the air staff, including general manager Tom Hamilton and his wife and on-air partner, Peggy, who is a representative from WXNZ to Wesserunsett Arts Council board of directors.

He also shares air time in Skowhegan with old friend Tim Tron and Annie Stillwater Gray, his former colleague at WTOS.

“With his radio background and Skowhegan connection, he was a natural to come on board,” Gray said. “More than any other DJ, Duane has time to put into his radio contributions.”

Bruce said everybody at the Skowhegan station does a great job “bringing forth the music that they deem worthy of your attention.”

It’s kind a college radio for adults, he said.

“We play pro-marijuana songs — “One Draw” from Rita Marley,” Bruce said in a recent interview. “The irony is not lost on me that in this particular jail cell, which is now our on-air studio, people have been incarcerated for use of marijuana, and then here we are in the same studio where they laid for months simply because they smoked a joint.”

The Federal Communications Commission granted a construction permit to the Wesserunsett Arts Council in 2014 to operate a station at 98.1 on the FM radio dial. Grist Mill co-owner and founder Amber Lambke, of Skowhegan, is offering the space free to the arts council in exchange for on-air promotional considerations. It’s a noncommercial frequency, low power radio station operated by a handful of volunteer programmers 24 hours a day in computer generated segments broadcast from a tower on Bigelow Hill in Skowhegan.

“WXNZ community radio has given voice to the arts in Somerset County and shares with us diverse viewpoints and musical traditions from around the world,” Lambke said. “We are delighted that we could lend space for the radio station to make their home at the grist mill, reusing the old jail’s infrastructure and rooftop radio tower. In turn, organizers have helped us to spread the word about community resources and events.”

Musical segments are recorded at the jail house station and elsewhere in advance in 15-minute modules for now, until the station is able to secure all the needed equipment and microwave dishes to go live from the hoosegow. The recorded modules are then uploaded onto computers to connect remotely via TeamViewer software for the broadcast. Bruce’s show also can be found on Soundcloud. His show is rebroadcast Saturday nights.

The station is on 24 hours a day. Each night after 9 p.m. a DJ gets to do his or her own thing — within FCC guidelines — for three hours. Tim Tron also has his own show on Saturday afternoon, and Annie Stillwater Gray and her husband, Andy Wendall, have a radio show called The General Store.

Bruce is semi-retired now and does a bit of acting and writing when he is not programming “Rock and Parole.” He also is busy promoting his book and recently spent two days with a Burnt Reindeer crew taping a documentary to pitch the movie.

“It’s amazing to be on the air because it’s such a privilege,” Bruce said of his years on radio. “There’s only this one station that is doing this. There’s only a handful of people that work here.”

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]


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