Broadcast Reprieve

Posted Jan. 08, 2009, at 4:36 p.m.

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s decision to look for other ways to save money without suspending broadcasts from Calais and Fort Kent is welcome. Discontinuing service to portions of the state undermines the network’s mission. At the same time, it was right to ask what role the state should play in sustaining the network as part of Maine’s emergency broadcast system.

Last month, MPBN announced that is would shut down, until July 1, radio towers in Calais and Fort Kent and its television transmitter in Calais. This would save the network about $71,000.

The network faces a shortfall of more than $1 million, out of a budget of a little more than $12 million. Major contributions and corporate support were down by $750,000. The supplemental budget now being considered by lawmakers would reduce state funding for the network by $116,000, out of a total of about $2 million.

To save money, MPBN has cut staff, reduced salaries and eliminated contributions to employee retirement accounts.

When that wasn’t enough, it said it would shut down the radio and television towers in Fort Kent and Calais, a move it now says it will delay until Feb. 28 while looking for alternative funding.

The condemnation of the decision was as swift as it was predictable. Criticism centered on MPBN’s obligation to serve the entire state, not just the wealthier areas where more of its financial contributions come from. This highlights the fact that MPBN is a mix of private enterprise — it raises much of the money needed to pay its bills — and public service — it is expected to serve a statewide audience.

The state law creating the network passed in 1992 says: “An annual appropriation for operating, constructing, equipping, maintaining, improving and replacing facilities of the corporation must be made in amounts sufficient to ensure delivery of broadcast sources throughout the state.” MPBN says providing statewide transmission capabilities costs $3.6 million now, compared to $2.2 million in 1992.

The 1992 legislation also said the intent of the state support was “so all the people of the state may share equitably in the advantages of public broadcasting, regardless of geographic location or economic circumstances.”

A key question for lawmakers and MPBN officials is what level of state support is appropriate, especially given the nearly $1 billion shortfall in state revenues expected in the next two years. Where does public broadcasting fall among the state’s priorities? What about emergency broadcasts? Is there a possibility of federal funding to help ensure a statewide emergency alert system?

With so many unanswered questions — and a reaffirmation of the public’s fondness for MPBN — the network is wise to slow down and work with the Legislature and others to look for alternative solutions.

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