MPBN’s Burden

Posted Dec. 22, 2008, at 7:08 p.m.

Like the rest of the state, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network has a problem: its revenues fall short of its expenses, so it must cut costs. The network made lawmakers and the public keenly aware of this problem last week when it said it would close its budget gap by turning off two radio transmitters — one in Fort Kent and the other in Calais — and the television transmitter in Calais. It would also stop overnight broadcasts.

Worse than depriving these areas of the network’s programming, the shutdowns leave a gaping hole in the state’s emergency alert system, which relies on MPBN.

Given the state’s budget problems — a nearly $1 billion gap between expenses and revenue must be closed between now and 2011 — it can’t give MPBN more money. But lawmakers’ willingness to work with the network to find a solution is a welcome step. MPBN must respond by remaining open to other ways to save money.

The network is right that if it must serve a statewide function, as it does by hosting the state’s emergency broadcasting system, it deserves state funding. The question in these difficult budget times is how much state funding is appropriate.

At the same time, the network has seen its federal, corporate and donor support shrink. Further, much of that support comes from southern Maine and out-of-state.

Nearly a decade ago Maine voters strongly approved a $9.4 million bond issue to help MPBN convert to digital broadcasting. The Legislature also allocated $2 million to the network for the switch. Since voters surely expected this money to be used statewide, will MPBN return some of that money if it stops broadcasting to portions of the state?

Sen. John Martin, who represents much of Aroostook County, said he understands MPBN’s problems, but that cutting off the emergency broadcasting system was unacceptable. The emergency network was the only form of communication available during the major flooding in the St. John Valley earlier this year.

Several years ago, MPBN also said it planned to shut down towers to save money. The Legislature rejected the move then because of its impact on the emergency network.

Sen. Kevin Raye, who represents Washington County, was harsher in his assessment. “It is profoundly disturbing that MPBN would determine that an appropriate response to those pressures is to abandon certain parts of Maine.”

MPBN should be eager to work with lawmakers to find an alternative, rather than having the Legislature find one for them. Several years ago, when the University of Maine System proposed to combine operations of the campuses in Fort Kent, Presque Isle and Machias, Sen. Martin sponsored an amendment that established a seven-campus system in law. Now, structural changes cannot be made without changing the law.

This would be a bad result for MPBN.

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