AUGUSTA, Maine — Residents of Washington and Aroostook counties will continue to receive radio and television transmissions from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network under an agreement announced Thursday.
MPBN officials sparked an uproar in far northern and eastern Maine last year when they announced plans to shut down two radio towers and a television tower in Calais and Fort Kent as a cost-saving measure. The towers were scheduled to go silent on Feb. 28.
Faced with growing pressure from politicians and devoted listeners in the affected areas, MPBN officials said Thursday they will continue operating the towers. Instead, the network will explore other ways to save money that do not disproportionately affect one area of the state.
“The only thing I hope is that people are going to work with us on this,” said Jim Dowe, MPBN’s president.
Gov. John Baldacci’s office, which has been heavily involved in the towers debate, and legislative leaders have pledged to work with the network on funding issues. MPBN receives just shy of $2 million in state funding to support statewide broadcasting.
The decision was welcomed by those leading the effort to save the television and radio broadcasts into some of Maine’s farthest-flung communities.
Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who is sponsoring a bill tying state funding for MPBN to continued statewide broadcasts, credited the network’s employees for their willingness to accept pay cuts last winter. Ten percent of MPBN’s staff also was eliminated.
“It demonstrates a very significant commitment to the work that they do every day and the value they place on the service they provide,” Raye told a legislative committee hearing his bill. The committee endorsed the measure, LD 266, in a unanimous vote.
But MPBN’s reversal did not spare the network from being rebuked by loyal listeners still smarting over the fact that they were nearly cut off. Some predicted it would have lasting impacts on donations from their corners of the state.
Bob Peacock of Eastport was among a handful of Washington County residents who made the four-hour drive to Augusta to speak in support of Raye’s bill. Peacock noted that the decision to stop operating the towers happened around the same time as a pledge drive.
“I know people who donated and then found out the next day they’re not going to get any coverage,” Peacock told members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. “Where is the fairness in that?”
Several speakers accused network executives of ignoring the needs of residents most dependent on MPBN’s services to stay connected with the rest of the state. Such decisions only exacerbate perceptions of the existence of “two Maines,” Raye and others said.
Machias resident Frank Cassidy accused MPBN officials of deciding that people in Washington County and far northern Maine were unequal to those in the state’s more urban areas.
In some communities along Maine’s northern and eastern borders, MPBN broadcasts are the only U.S. signals available to residents.
“We would have known more about Canada than what was going on in Maine,” said Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais.
Dowe accepted full responsibility for the original decision, adding that he found the strong response from angry listeners reaffirming about the network’s importance. Asked where else MPBN could save money, Dowe said those decisions have not been made yet.
“It may impact people, it may impact places,” he said. “We would like to think it will be solved with a revenue answer.”
Dowe said MPBN’s leadership supports Raye’s amended bill tying state funding for MPBN to continued broadcasts throughout the state. That bill now heads to the full Legislature for consideration.
Baldacci also welcomed the decision to continue broadcasting.
“It recognizes that we are one state and all our people are equally important,” Baldacci said in a statement. “In addition to providing educational and cultural programming, MPBN plays a key role in the state’s emergency broadcasting system, and those services must be maintained throughout the state.”
But Suzanne Goucher, executive director of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, which represents television and radio stations across the state, said MPBN’s financial troubles are not unique. This case has simply received more media attention, she said.
“This is not happening in a vacuum,” Goucher said. “It is throughout our industry. We are all feeling it.”