CALAIS, Maine — Officials from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network got an earful Tuesday night during a town meeting at the Calais Motor Inn.
MPBN is holding a series of town meetings across the state in the coming year to obtain feedback about the public’s media consumption habits and how they might be changing over time. Broadcast officials say the meetings are part of an effort by MPBN to plan for the next five to 10 years.
Jim Dowe, president and CEO of MPBN, and John Isacke, the network’s chief financial officer, fielded questions and comments from the small but vocal group that attended the meeting.
MPBN got off to a wobbly start this year after it had announced that residents in Washington and Aroostook counties no longer would receive radio and television transmissions from the network.
The public outcry was heard all the way to Augusta.
Faced with growing pressure from politicians and listeners, MPBN officials reversed their decision and announced in February that they would not shut their two towers down.
The decision to eliminate broadcasting to Maine’s most rural areas was all about money.
When MPBN was formed in 1992, the state enacted a statute that said it would provide an annual appropriation to the public broadcasting network.
“What they said they would do back in 1992 when this organization was formed was provide funding to support the cost of delivering this very expensive system in the state that is as big and as rural as Maine is,” Dowe said.
But the state fell short of that commitment. “The amount of money the state has not paid us based upon our cost and their appropriation over the last 16 years is just about $16 million, about $1 million a year,” Dowe said.
Before the decision was made to silence the transmitters, Isacke said, they had cut everything they could in-house including the work force by 10 percent and employee salaries 8 percent to 20 percent among other cuts.
The decision was based on what would have the least impact on the larger urban listening audience. “That’s why we chose Calais and Fort Kent,” Isacke said.
That statement brought a response from Calais resident Jim Thompson. “You’ve got to stop regarding us as a minor percentage of the state,” he said.
Dowe promised that he had heard the outcry from Washington and Aroostook county residents. “Lesson learned,” he said.
The meeting then turned to a discussion about programming.
Dowe said high school basketball was popular and the network had two more years on its contract with the Maine School Superintendents Association.
MBPN also has connected with public broadcasting networks in New Hampshire and Vermont to do some collaborative program pieces.
Dowe said that he and Isacke were headed to New Brunswick because MPBN reaches about 200,000 households there.
Thompson urged the two men to do more programming on some of the border issues between Maine and New Brunswick such as passports and traffic flows.
“There is a whole separate energy to border towns,” Calais resident Christine Felker said. “You can feel the difference. It has to do with looking at different perspectives always.”