Don’t tune out MPBN when the money gets tight

Posted Dec. 26, 2008, at 6:45 p.m.

Those of us at Maine Public Broadcasting Network appreciate the BDN’s supportive editorial in Tuesday’s edition. There are a few additional points we would like to make.

First, shutting off radio overnight statewide and shutting down the Fort Kent and Calais radio towers and the Calais television tower are temporary measures taken to eliminate a shortfall in this fiscal year’s budget and will take effect by Jan. 15.

Our plans are to revert to normal operation on July 1, and it bears repeating that television viewers in the Calais area who watch over cable or satellite systems will see no interruption in service (only “over-the-air” viewers will be affected), and that many radio listeners in Aroostook County can also pick up MPBN’s radio signal from WMEM-FM 106.1 in Presque Isle.

Second, when MPBN was established in 1992, the Legislature passed a bill that was very explicit: In exchange for MPBN building towers and deploying equipment to distribute radio and television signals throughout the state, the Legislature agreed to fund the cost of this transmission infrastructure. The state has reduced fund-ing from the initial amount of $2.2 million in 1992 to $2 million today (a reduction of 8 percent); meanwhile, these costs have risen a modest 36 percent, from $2.5 million 1992 to $3.4 million today.

MPBN has covered the state’s funding shortfall for years by reducing locally produced programming and conducting more pledge drives. In effect, our members, audience and remaining staff are increasingly subsidizing the cost of signal distribution and maintenance of the Emergency Alert System, despite the fact that the agreement with the state in 1992 stipulated that the state would fund the signal distribution in total.

In the past six years, MPBN has reduced its staff by 42 percent (from 148 full-time employees in 2002 to 86 today) and cut costs throughout the organization. We notified the legislative leadership before these changes when the financial conditions necessitated them. As announced last week, we laid off eight more employees and announced a hiring freeze on three additional open positions, and six months ago we shut down one of our buildings in Bangor and moved all staff there into one facility.

We also recently stopped producing nonessential programs such as “Made in Maine” and “Maine Experience” – shows that were popular with our audience, but unrelated to our core mission of covering news and public affairs.

The issues facing MPBN are not unlike those facing other public broadcasters around the country. A couple of weeks ago, National Public Radio announced layoffs and cutbacks in service after what it called a “manageable” estimated deficit of $2 million only six months ago had ballooned into a $23 million shortfall by the end of 2008.

With the state reducing the funding for our signal distribution, we have no option but to cut back this signal distribution to a level that we can afford. The only other option would be to eliminate our news-gathering operation and stop producing Maine’s only weekday statewide radio newscast, “Maine Things Considered,” and the state’s only weekly statewide public affairs program, “Maine Watch with Jennifer Rooks,” actions that we would consider to be an abdication of our responsibility to keep the residents of Maine informed about what is happening in their state.

David Morse is MPBN’s vice president for advancement and new media.

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