The music and cultural scene in Greater Portland owes a debt to “Country Bob.”
Robert Gold, a longtime radio executive who purchased local station WPOR in 1971 and used it to bring country music to Maine airwaves, died last month at age 90. A celebration of life will be held this week for family and friends.
His legacy, though, lives on, according to those who knew him, even if locally owned radio stations like the one he built have become a relic of the past.
“He lived and breathed radio,” said Bob Fuller, who owned another well-known Portland station, WBLM, when Gold was turning WPOR into a country juggernaut. “Like all of us who succeeded in radio, he worked at it. He put a lot of hours in. There was no alternative.”
Fuller said he and Gold were technically rivals but had vastly different audiences so they were always cordial. WBLM was, and still is, a classic rock station. They formed a friendship that lasted 60 years.
“Even now, whenever I tell people that I lived in Portland and had radio stations here, people often will say, ‘Do you know Bob Gold?’ ” Fuller said.
Gold was born and raised in Portland and had a deep affection for his community. Before buying WPOR, he worked for former Maine Gov. Horace Hildreth, who owned a broadcasting company after his political career.
“He took his responsibility of owning a station very seriously,” said Kimberley Sheppard, Gold’s daughter. “He really understood that it was the responsibility of the station – and the people who ran it, of course – to take care of the public.”
By the 1960s, country music had started to branch more into mainstream culture with artists like Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Merle Haggard. But it was hard to find on radio stations in the Northeast until Gold came along and transformed WPOR.
“He saw that it was working in other markets, and there was a hole here, so he filled that void,” Fuller said.
In the early days of owning the station – before concert promoters – Gold also was responsible for bringing big-name country music acts to what was then City Hall Auditorium, now called Merrill Auditorium. Sheppard remembers meeting Lynn, who died this month, at the station before the show.
“She couldn’t have been more kind,” she said. “She came with her husband (Doolittle Lynn) and talked about her upbringing. I’m sure she said the same thing to every radio station, but she was just a gem.”
Sheppard also remembers her father bringing in Jerry Lee Lewis, the rockabilly pioneer known just as much for his insatiable interest in (young) women as he was for his hit song “Great Balls of Fire.” Lewis died just last week.
“When Jerry Lee came, I was a teenager and he almost made a beeline for me,” Sheppard recalled. “My father grabbed me and said, ‘Stay away from him.’ ”
Bonnie Grant, who worked with Gold for 21 years at WPOR, starting as a salesperson and ending as general manager, said his success as a leader was in hiring similarly decided people and empowering them.
“A lot of us worked for him for over 20 years, I think that says a lot about Bob,” she said. “He created a team that became a family.”
Grant said when she first interviewed with Gold, he asked her if she liked country music. She did not.
“He said, ‘Oh, you will.’ And he was right,” she said.
Tom Hennessey was another longtime WPOR employee. He started in 1975 and had come over from WCSH radio.
“He was a tough boss but a really principled guy,” he said. “And he loved the music business and the show biz aspect of what we did. I used to go to conventions all over the country with him, including in Nashville. They all loved Bob.”
Another example of Gold’s commitment to community was a segment he created for WPOR called “The Big Deal.” It would run every weekend and listeners could call in and describe items they wanted to sell and leave their number for others to contact if they were interested. It was like a call-in yard sale. It was Facebook Marketplace long before that site existed.
Fuller said Gold was a savvy broadcast executive who succeeded because he understood both his audience and his advertisers.
“In the early days, we were fighting over the same advertising dollars but as clients matured, they realized different formats worked for different businesses,” he said. “Many wanted that country audience, and Bob recognized that.”
Growing up, Sheppard remembers listeners would call their house thinking they could request a song from the radio station’s owner. Her father always took the call.
He was involved with the Children’s Miracle Network and other philanthropic causes over the years and served on the board of the Maine Association of Broadcasters. In his spare time, which was indeed spare, he played golf and raised three children, Sheppard and his sons, James and Jeffrey, with his wife, Durelle, who died in 2000.
Gold sold WPOR in 1996 to Saga Communications, which still owns the station and seven others in Maine, but stayed on for a few years as a manager before retiring.
Even though Gold was a high-level executive, he relished his nickname, “Country Bob.”
“He never grew into being a big shot,” his daughter said. “He was always grounded and humble about it.”