Broadcast Progress

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 6 p.m.

While it is encouraging that lawmakers and the Maine Public Broadcasting Network appear to have reached an agreement to ensure statewide radio and television broadcasts, it is unclear that a long-term, sustainable solution has been found. Without such a resolution, ensuring that revenue and service expectations are aligned will continue to be a problem.

In December, MPBN announced that it 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. State support has also been cut.

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 later said it would delay until Feb. 28 while looking for alternative funding.

That search is ongoing.

In the meantime, Sen. Kevin Raye of Perry introduced a bill to require statewide broadcasts. An amended version of the bill, LD 266, was unanimously passed this week by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

If passed by the Legislature, the bill would require statewide broadcast coverage in exchange for state funding. If MPBN does not meet this obligation, it would have to return state funding. This puts the onus on the network to fulfill its obligations, while lessening the state’s responsibility.

The state law creating the network 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.”

This highlights MPBN’s unique situation. It 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.

If those two pieces don’t fit together — as they don’t now because private donations, federal funding and state support have been cut because of the recession — the network doesn’t function. This is an ongoing problem, one that can’t be solved by shutting off parts of the state.

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