MPBN to silence 3 towers

Posted Dec. 18, 2008, at 9:17 p.m.

LEWISTON, Maine — Maine Public Broadcasting Network announced Thursday that it will close two of its seven radio towers and one of its five television transmitters, citing decreasing federal and state subsidies as well as member donations.

Radio stations 89.7 WMED in Calais and 106.5 WMEF in Fort Kent, along with WMED-TV Channel 13 in Calais, will be shut down in January, according to an announcement made by MPBN President and CEO Jim Dowe.

“In response to reductions in funding at all levels, and particularly to cuts in state funding and the loss of various federal grants, it is essential that we take steps to protect MPBN’s valued programming on radio, television and on the Web,” Dowe said in a statement. “However, we have no choice but to make changes elsewhere in how we operate.”

MPBN also announced it would lay off six of 86 full-time staff members and impose a hiring freeze that will affect three open positions. Finally, employees will see temporary wage reductions of 5 to 20 percent and a temporary suspension of MPBN’s contributions to employees’ 403(b) retirement plans. Those on the lower ends of the pay scale will see 5 percent cuts while management will take the highest salary reductions.

“We had to look at the whole basket,” explained Craig Denekas, chairman of MPBN’s board of trustees. “We looked at everything and came up with a complete package. We made the best possible decision out of a bad situation.”

The specific positions to be eliminated will be announced later this month, but MPBN said it would not reduce its reporting staff.

“These changes will allow us to keep our local focus on news and public affairs while maintaining the cultural, science and children’s programming provided by our partners,” Dowe said.

Senate Minority Leader Kevin Raye, who represents Washington County, was among those unhappy with the news.

“It’s a very disturbing decision, and I think that it should be reversed,” Raye said Thursday, shortly after he conveyed the same message to Dowe. “I understand that MPBN is under pressure budgetwise, we all are, but it is profoundly disturbing that MPBN would determine that an appropriate response to those pressures is to abandon certain parts of Maine.”

“It’s incredibly concerning that folks will lose access. Public broadcasting is supposed to be statewide,” Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said Thursday. “I suspect this will be one of many issues the Legislature takes up in January.”

According to David Morse, MPBN vice president for advancement and new media, the stations that were targeted for closure were simply those that generated the least interest in terms of membership, likely small consolation for rural Mainers. MPBN also operates radio stations in Presque Isle, Bangor, Waterville, Camden and Portland, and television stations in Presque Isle, Bangor, Waterville and Portland.

MPBN was founded in 1992 through a Legislative Act that ensured more than $2 million in funding annually from the state. However, while the state appropriation has remained the same and recently decreased slightly, MPBN’s operating costs have jumped.

“To put this in perspective, since MPBN was created in 1992, our annual operating expenses related to transmission and infrastructure have risen by 50 percent,” said John Isake, the station’s chief financial officer. “Meanwhile, the state of Maine has increased its annual general fund spending by 97 percent while reducing MPBN’s appropriation by 8 percent over that same period.”

Denekas said the state’s appropriation used to cover transmission costs but no longer does.

“We don’t want to shut down any towers,” he said. “To lose any listener or viewer is disappointing.”

Another concern, Morse said, is how the closures will affect the emergency alert system. The state uses MPBN’s airwaves to announce emergencies, which is one of the reasons the state subsidized the radio station in the first place.

“I think it’s obvious that the emergency alert system will not be as effective,” Morse said.

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the governor has real concerns about the potential effect on the state’s emergency broadcast system, but Farmer said MPBN’s decision to close stations “seems drastic.”

“Support from the state has been consistent for MPBN,” he said. “And they have other places to go for funding. The state pays for 20 percent of their operating budget.”

While Raye was upset with the decision, he was not as optimistic as Pingree that state leaders will address MPBN’s gap in funding.

“We are in times where it’s extraordinarily difficult to increase anything,” he said. “But the savings associated with abandoning the station is $120,000 a year. I think they can find that somewhere else, and I’d like to see them examine every potential opportunity without abandoning rural Maine, which I believe is not in keeping with their responsibility.”

Dave Sharp, spokesman for the Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. Employees Association, which represents about 65 employees, said Thursday that morale among workers is “as good as can be expected.”

“We want to do what’s best for the company, but we don’t want to hurt the workers either,” he said.

Sharp said the union’s hope is that the wage cuts are indeed temporary, but he’s working on drawing up a memo of understanding to ensure workers are protected.

“That’s just good union practice,” he said. “And, frankly, sometimes management doesn’t always tell the truth.”

On the Web: www.mpbn.net

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