ST. GEORGE, Maine — Robert Skoglund — better known as radio’s “humble Farmer” — learned recently that he has been a lifelong sufferer from sleep apnea.
His insurance company provided him with a sleeping mask to use, and then a stretchy chin strap to hold the mask on. According to the company, the chin strap cost $220.
Another person might have shrugged, sighed about the state of American health care, and then forgotten all about it.
Skoglund, 73, investigated the pricey strap, discovered that it retails for $19.95, and then donned the entire ridiculous get-up for his community access cable television show to deliver a powerful monologue.
“I know that every time we tolerate this blatant madness, the cost of your health insurance and the cost of my health insurance rocket skyward,” he said on camera.
His face swaddled in the mask and strap, the wild-eyed Skoglund is impossible to ignore.
That’s one reason his “humble Farmer” television show has grown in popularity since its on-air debut at the beginning of 2008. The show now is seen on community access stations around Maine and as far away as Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
It mostly sticks to the humble Farmer’s tried-and-true radio format: old-time jazz interspersed with tightly scripted rants delivered in a deadpan Maine accent that’s as thick as the rolling coastal fog. His sight gags and silent film reels are new additions to the formula.
“This is what people want to see on television,” Skoglund said recently from his bed-and-breakfast and rhubarb farm, where he lives with his wife, Marsha.
“Something different. Something off-the-wall and something interesting. Very often I have something to say, you know. It isn’t just foolishness.”
Maine humorist Tim Sample said the humble Farmer fits squarely in the tongue-in-cheek tradition of Maine storyteller John Gould.
“Bobby always struck me as a person who could put the authentic, true Maine humor point of view across in the written word,” Sample said. “Bobby takes his silly stuff seriously, in that respect. He’s aware that he’s coming from an oral tradition, a tradition of humor that has tremendous value and history of legacy from our an-cestors. Bobby, as silly as he can be — and he can be ridiculous — doesn’t take that Maine perspective at all lightly.”
Skoglund’s silly was never more serious than in the spring of 2007, when his political ranting, he is convinced, got his Friday night radio show taken off Maine Public Radio after 28 years.
“I disappeared. Just poof, I didn’t exist,” Skoglund said. “My listeners were saddened that this could happen in a country that pays lip service to freedom of speech.”
Skoglund is full of energy as he prowls around his cozy coastal farmhouse. He shows off his state-of-the-art video camera, cranks his Model T station wagon and teases Marsha, better known as the “almost perfect woman.” With the cable show, the bed-and-breakfast, the rhubarb patch and his public speaking bookings, Skoglund is busy.
But it is quickly apparent that the years have not mellowed his feelings about his parting of ways with Maine Public Radio, which seemed to take place largely in the public arena.
At the time, Maine newspapers were full of letters from humble’s fans.
“In days of yore the court jester entertained the king and was often the only person who could get away with satirical political commentary,” said one letter in the Bangor Daily News from fan Gerald Metz in Addison. “We lost two jesters recently, Art Buchwald and Molly Ivins, and a third was muzzled by thin-skinned MPBN management: Robert Skoglund, the Humble Farmer … Sorry, Humble: I miss your wit.”
Skoglund believes that when his show was cut, the radio station lost a lot of his listeners — and their pledge dollars.
“I’m not angry, but I feel sad for the people of Maine,” he said.
According to a Maine Public Broadcasting Network official, the station had no choice in the matter of taking the humble Farmer off the air. Skoglund refused to sign the ethical standards agreement that all on-air talent sign, said David Morse, vice president of MPBN.
“A lot of dust got kicked up, and we were sorry it all happened,” Morse said. “We begged him to sign it. We feel he was one of the most knowledgeable jazz aficionados around.”
Morse said that over time, humble’s strong political views could have created trouble for the station, adding that his absence has not cost them money, status or listening ears.
“He would advocate voting certain ways,” Morse said. “We cannot skip FCC rules. We cannot tell people how to vote. … It wasn’t appropriate for a jazz show, and we had talked about it.”
However, Skoglund feels that his show appealed to a particular audience that makes up Maine’s “intelligentsia.” They expected more than just music from him, and he said he has the fan interactions to prove it.
“I was making a difference,” he said. “People would look at me, and take my hand, and cry, and say, ‘I wouldn’t have gotten through my husband’s death without your show.’”
The “humble Farmer” television show has been airing at 9:30 a.m. Friday and 9 p.m. Tuesday on BCTV2 in Belfast and at 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Maine Coast Channel 7 in Rockland. Check local community access cable channels for more information, or visit http://thehumblefarmer.com.