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Saying goodbye to Maine radio and TV icon Chuck Foster

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A photo of Maine broadcasting icon Chuck Foster from the early 1980s. A photo of Maine broadcasting icon Chuck Foster from the early 1980s. (photo by Howie Soule)

Maine radio listeners and broadcasters alike lost a great friend last week with the passing of Chuck Foster, a Maine radio and TV icon for nearly five decades.

I consider myself very fortunate to have been one of Chuck’s friends.

Chuck’s friends – there are countless thousands of us. You’re one of them if you listened to him on Z107.3, in the old days on WGUY, Z62 (AM 620 WZON - “Bangor’s Big One!”), WWFX – “The Fox” or in his early days at WABK in Augusta, WLOB in Portland or one of the six other stations fortunate to employ Chuck during his lengthy radio and TV career.

Radio was his first love, but he was rightfully proud of his TV show. Chuck was the creator, producer and host of “All Hit Videos,” the longest-running music video program on broadcast TV. He started the show in the fall of 1983 and partnered with his friends at WVII TV, Channel 7 in Bangor, to get it into our homes.

MTV was barely two years old when Chuck launched “All Hit Videos.”

Unlike the MTV VJs, Chuck didn’t want to be seen, only heard. Strange as it may seem, Chuck was really kind of shy. He relished the relative anonymity radio provided, which is why we rarely ever saw him on his TV show. Each video was introduced with Chuck’s buttery-smooth baritone shaaring a tidbit about the artist or a funny observation about a particular scene to watch for.

“All Hit Videos” was “must-see TV” before we even knew what that was. When it moved to Saturday night, the show handily beat Saturday Night Live’s ratings on a regular basis. Chuck Foster was already a household name in eastern and central Maine, but “All Hit Videos” took that recognition to another level.

Chuck never let on that he knew he was a big deal. He seemed to be completely lacking in ego or sense of importance. I’m sure he knew that he was very good at his job, but he would never give an indication that he was aware of just how good.

I’ll never forget the day I met Chuck. It was in the fall of 1983, just after “All Hit Videos” hit the air. I was attending New England School of Broadcasting (now NESCom) and had landed a part-time job at Z62 as a kind of ‘swing guy.’ I did weekend overnights and fill-in work for jocks during the daytime when they were ill or on vacation. I didn’t rack up a lot of paid hours, but I practically lived at the radio station.

Chuck was asked to train me for the gig which meant that I was to shadow him on the air during his shift. It was pouring rain the first night as I walked a mile or so up Broadway. I pushed the button outside the radio station which illuminated a giant light bulb in the studio. Upon opening the door, Chuck, looking a bit like Wolfman Jack at that time, said “You’re soaked, I’ll find you a T-shirt. You should probably think about getting a car.” That was good advice.

The station had a killer on-air lineup. It was a radio dream-team with Mike O’Hara in the morning, Bobby Russell on the midday shift, “Mighty” John Marshall in the afternoon, Chuck Foster at 6:00 pm and J.J. West at 10:00 pm. Rick Andrews covered the overnight shift during the week. I was way out of my league and desperate to learn how to be half as good as those guys.

Chuck recognized that I had the radio bug in a bad way and he liked that.

Off the air, we had incredibly deep conversations about life, radio, girls, school, food, TV shows – almost everything. His shift ended at 10 p.m. and mine didn’t begin until midnight, but he would stay late if we were in the middle of a good talk or call me during my shift so we could continue talking.

If Chuck heard me do something on the air that wasn’t quite right, he would gently suggest a different way of doing it. I had a lot to learn about this radio thing and he was being helpful and protective. “I just don’t want you to get in trouble,” he’d say.

I actually had a conversation with Chuck this morning in the car on my way to the office. I told him that I was asked to write something about the Chuck Foster that I knew for The Maine Edge.

“Why would you want to do that, boys?” I could almost hear him say.

Chuck and I used to talk to each other as Chief Wiggum from “The Simpsons.” I don’t remember when or why that started but it goes back to the early days of Z107.3, when the station was originally based in Old Town.

(By the way, for the record, Z107.3 signed on in July of 1995, not in 1996, as indicated in recent published tributes to Chuck. He probably would have laughed at all of the errors in those accounts, including the incorrect spelling of his birth name.)

At the outset, Z107.3 had an all-70s format and would play everything from ABBA to Zeppelin. The station had kind of a renegade image and sounded very much like it was operated by a gang of professional broadcasting pirates. In a way, it was. Everyone on the air was a pro but we were given the freedom to do pretty much anything we wanted.

“Broadcasting live from an abandoned convenience store!” was part of the top of the hour station ID, and that was true. The building used to be home to a small store that sold beer, cigarettes, chips, candy and Spam.

Actually the Spam didn’t sell well which explains why the former owner left cases of the stuff behind. To get rid of it, the morning show did a “Spam cook-off” event which drew hundreds of listeners to Main St. in Old Town.

Z 107.3 was established by Chuck Foster and Mike Elliott (with whom I did “The Mike and Mike Show” in later years). They had worked together at WGUY in the 1970s and remained close friends. When Chuck acquired the construction permit for a new radio station, he convinced Mike to partner with him on the venture as co-owner. Chuck held down the afternoon shift while Mike became co-owner, program director and morning host, along with Bob Terwilliger (KC Grim).

A few months after the station signed on, I joined the gang at ‘The Z’ in the 6-10 p.m. slot.

Since my shift began when Chuck’s ended, we picked up where we left off back in the 1980s. That included crashing each other’s shows and hanging out at Chuck’s house on weekends.

Chuck’s enormous talent on the air was only exceeded by the size of his heart.

He opened his home to countless people going through very difficult times in their lives. Whether it was an addiction problem, homelessness, a young person from a broken home or someone who needed to escape abuse, they found safe haven with Chuck. He gave them a warm room, plenty to eat, and in some cases, employment through his “All Hit Videos” teen dances, held throughout Maine, New Hampshire and parts of Canada.

I lost count of the number of dogs and cats who lived with Chuck at various times at his home in Bangor. Someone would tell Chuck about a dog or cat in need of a home or else he would visit Bangor Humane Society to see the pets waiting to be adopted, and inevitably bring one home with him. Chuck’s animals worshipped him.

I remember watching Chuck edit an episode of “All Hit Videos” in the upstairs studio at his house, with a chocolate Labrador retriever at each foot. Every time Chuck moved, the dogs moved with him.

You can probably tell that Chuck was an important person in my life but I’m only one friend of many. Chuck had a lot of friends, but there is one friend in particular who came back into his life when he really needed her. Thank you, Cheryl, for being a true friend and advocate for Chuck.

Everyone who worked with Chuck Foster has a story to tell and I’m hopeful that his radio and TV family will be able to all gather in one place to share them.

I could fill several issues of The Maine Edge with stories connected to Chuck but I’ll leave you with one just more. It demonstrates his ingenuity, his humor, and his unwillingness to give up.

Before Chuck Foster and Mike Elliott put Z107.3 on the air in 1995, they faced no shortage of setbacks while trying to get the station off the ground. One of the problems they encountered was a lack of electricity at the tower site, located on a hill in rural Alton, a quarter mile or so from the nearest home.

The 50,000-watt transmitter required a three-phase power hookup but it wasn’t economically viable for Bangor Hydro to install one just for the station. Chuck and Mike hadn’t foreseen this problem and therefore hadn’t budgeted for it in the station’s startup costs.

Mike Elliott came up with the brilliant idea of powering the transmitter with diesel generators. As luck would have it, a new fuel company was launching just as Z107.3 was getting ready to sign on. The station worked out a simple trade arrangement with the company that kept diesel in the tank in exchange for playing the fuel company’s commercials.

Chuck and Mike soon discovered that a 50,000-watt radio station can gobble up an incredible amount of fuel. Nearly every commercial break during the first couple of years featured one of the fuel company’s messages.

“We ordered two diesel generators but they sent gas-powered generators so we had to use them until the diesel ones arrived,” Mike Elliott told me for this story. “We couldn’t put gas in the tanks because they were full of diesel.”

One Friday night during the fall of 1995, the station went silent when we ran out of fuel at the tower site. I called Chuck to tell him we were off the air. He asked if I wanted to take a ride. A half-hour later, he arrived to pick me up in his station wagon and we set for the transmitter site.

“I have an idea,” he said. I thought he meant he had an idea about how to get us back on the air. He did but he actually meant that we were first going to stop at Angelo’s Pizzeria in Old Town for a steak and cheese.

After fueling up, we headed to Alton. Upon driving off the main road onto a dirt road and rounding the hill to the tower, Chuck parked the station wagon close to the fuel tanks next to the transmitter building. He handed me a flashlight and we walked inside.

“Here, take this and see how far it will reach. I have more if we need it,” Chuck said, handing me the end of a hose.

What happened next is something I’m not sure I would believe if I hadn’t witnessed it.

Chuck inserted one end of a hose into another and yet another until he had essentially crafted a siphon long enough to extend from his vehicle to the generator. Then he turned the key and Z107.3 roared back to life. Well … coughed back to life is probably more accurate. But at least we were back on the air.

“Every time Chuck stepped on the gas, the lights on the meters got brighter and the radio station got louder,” Mike Elliott says. “He gunned it and we ended up getting calls from Boston. We used Chuck’s station wagon to power the radio station for the weekend.”

We love you, Chuck and we miss you.

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