May 21, 2018
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MPBN’s Mission Control

Like countless businesses, non-profits and governments facing budget crises, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network developed a plan to cut expenses. Jobs were eliminated and discretionary spending was reined in. Part of that plan — for a savings of just $71,000 — included shutting down radio transmission in Calais and Fort Kent and TV transmission in Calais.

Problem is it consulted state government, which might have been able to help, after deciding on the shutdown.

Though MPBN officials say those blackouts would affect less than 2 percent of its audience, the response has been loud and angry. MPBN officials, justifying their decision, noted — accurately — that very little of its financial support came from those corners of Maine. They also noted — accurately — that a 1992 law required the state to fund the network to cover the cost of broadcasting statewide. The state subsidy of $2.2 million was adequate in 1992, but the cost of statewide transmission has grown to $3.6 million, MPBN has said, and the subsidy has not kept pace.

Rather than meeting privately with the governor and legislative leaders first, MPBN officials went public with their plan to shut down radio and TV transmission in the northern and eastern parts of the state. And they blamed the blackouts — in part, at least — on the state for failing to fully fund transmission costs.

Not surprisingly, Washington County Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, has taken action. His bill, LD 266, scheduled for a public hearing on Feb. 12, would force MPBN to broadcast its radio and TV programming from all of its existing towers in order to receive state funding.

There is more than a little irony in this turn of events.

By acting in such a unilateral fashion, MPBN has inadvertently invited close state oversight. Instead of leveraging more state funding, the network would — if LD 266 wins approval — be mandated to continue broadcasting in Washington and Aroostook counties at current funding levels.

There is a lesson to be learned here.

Working collaboratively with state government leaders weeks before the bombshell announcement might have led to a solution. Gov. Baldacci’s staff and MPBN leaders are now working closely to find other ways to bridge the funding gap without shutting down towers. Several BDN letters to the editor have suggested that the “pain” be shared around the state, perhaps by cutting programs or shortening broadcast schedules. Further job cuts may also close the budget gap.

To their credit, MPBN officials have stalled the transmission blackout until the end of the month. But sadly, their original plan to write off part of the state — the more rural, economically challenged part of the state — has hurt the network’s image and undermined its claim to be a statewide cultural and information resource. Sen. Raye’s bill is not punitive in nature, but if MPBN resists its aim of insisting the network do what it was created to do, further external discipline may be coming.

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