MPBN delays service reductions

Posted Jan. 06, 2009, at 8:45 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Public Broadcasting Network President James Dowe told lawmakers Tuesday that the public broadcaster is delaying turning off transmitters in Fort Kent and Calais, but warned that is only a temporary action and the network still faces serious revenue problems.

“We have some very active discussions going on with various parties within state government, and frankly outside of state government, that gives us some confidence to delay the shutting down of the two towers until February 28th,” he told members of both the Appropriations Committee and the Education Committee at a joint hearing on the emergency budget to fund state government for the rest of this budget year.

Under committee questioning, Dowe said the network would save roughly $71,000 by ceasing transmission of the broadcast signals of the two radio towers in Fort Kent and Calais and the TV transmitter in Calais. While saying it was a difficult decision, he defended the reasoning.

“We looked at which ones of those stations had the smallest audience, and therefore would impact the fewest number of people,” he said.

But lawmakers said they have received a lot of e-mail and phone calls from constituents upset at the network’s decision. Rep. Harold McFadden, R-Dennysville, said he had received more communications upset at MPBN’s action than he received on the controversial school consolidation legislation last year.

“I have been blasted with calls,” he said.

Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, told Dowe and other network officials the Fort Kent radio transmitter is the only emergency broadcast radio station that serves that part of the state and that it is unacceptable that it be turned off.

“Without it, especially in this last flood this last year, we would have had no ability to deliver any type of emergency information whatsoever,” he said.

Martin said there should be some federal help available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assure the operation of the Fort Kent transmitter. He offered to work with network officials to obtain that funding.

But, such funding may not be available in the Calais area because there are other commercial radio stations that serve that region and can provide emergency broadcast coverage.

Senate GOP Leader Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said he has been working behind the scenes to assure none of the transmitters is turned off, even temporarily. That included several discussions with lawmakers and a meeting with Gov. John Baldacci early Tuesday.

“The governor told me that in response to the concerns I raised with him, he called MPBN CEO Jim Dowe into his office and told him that he cannot accept MPBN’s decision to shut down the Washington County and St. John Valley towers,” Raye said.

The budget before lawmakers would cut $116,000 from MPBN’s state appropriation, which is just over $2 million a year. It’s a relatively small part of the overall network budget which was originally $12,225,000 this year.

Dowe detailed the network’s revenue problems. They total just over $1 million, with most of the shortfall from a drop in major contributions and corporate support, which were down $750,000. He said steps already taken by the network have saved $150,000 through staff reductions, a hiring freeze, the elimination of network matching contributions to employee retirement plans and salary reductions for remaining staff.

“We have to come up with a long-term way to sustain the network,” he told lawmakers, “Not just the short-term.”

Martin praised MPBN staff for agreeing to take a reduction in pay to help keep the network budget within available resources.

“I wish some others in government would do that,” he said.

But Raye was very critical of the way MPBN has handled the budget problems. He said the way the network has dealt with lawmakers was a “fundamental miscalculation” by the network.

“I think that it was intended as a way to ensure that they got an increase in funding,” Raye said. He added that is very unlikely given the state’s budget situation.

“So it was clear [there has to be ways to find] efficiencies in cost savings, but it can’t be done in a way that just absolutely leaves one part of the state without access to the emergency broadcasting network and without access to the programming of public broadcasting,” he said.

Members of both committees asked for more details about the MPBN budget and options for the network and that will be discussed in work sessions next week. The Appropriations Committee hopes to complete work on the emergency budget by Jan. 23.

BDN writer Diana Graettinger contributed to this report. Mal Leary is the former managing editor for radio news at MPBN, and Capitol News Service provides news to MPBN.

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