MPBN pulls plug on ‘Memory Lane,’ ending 30-plus year run

Posted Nov. 29, 2012, at 1:53 p.m.
Toby Leboutillier
Courtesy of MPBN
Toby Leboutillier

BANGOR, Maine — Bing Crosby will no longer croon from your car radio on Friday afternoons. The Andrews Sisters will no longer harmonize, and the mellow sounds of Kay Kyser and His Orchestra will be muted.

Maine Public Broadcasting Network has canceled the “Down Memory Lane” show, hosted by Toby Leboutillier for the last 33 years. In an announcement posted on its website, MPBN noted that Leboutillier’s last show will be Friday, Nov. 30. The move comes as part of a revamp of the Friday radio schedule.

Leboutillier spoke to the BDN Wednesday, expressing dismay at the network’s direction in recent years. A longtime MPBN employee, Leboutillier, 71, of Brewer retired in 2002 and has been hosting his show as a volunteer in recent years.

The network’s move to feature more talk radio does not sit well with him.

“They’ve curried the favor of people who want to listen to ‘blab’ all day,” he said.

“Everything is all about money now,” Leboutillier said, citing the perennial threats by state and federal governments to cut its funding. “Public broadcasting has gotten so mass media. It’s just disgusting.”

Still, he said, “I understand their reasoning. It’s been fun.”

He launched the show in 1979 and featured hits from 1940 to 1955. He hosted two other programs that featured music from other eras, then merged them into “Down Memory Lane.”

During the most recent shows, which aired 2-4 p.m., Leboutillier played a few hit songs from 100 years ago, 90 years ago, and so on, ending with 40 years ago. In a distinctive, droll delivery, he noted what number the song charted at that week in, for example, November 1952, adding such tidbits as: “And, in what would be his last appearance in the Top 40, we have…”

Leboutillier also read news stories from that week’s Bangor Daily News from the same date and year of the hit songs.

Charles Beck, who oversees MPBN’s radio and TV programming, said Monday that the station is seeking to establish consistent, day-to-day offerings. For example, the Diane Rehm Show is now broadcast 2-3:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday. With the change, MPBN will be able to feature Rehm’s week in review show, Beck said, which its followers say is a favorite. Other new shows are being considered for the schedule, he said.

The Rehm show’s following is growing, he said. Talk shows in general do well, particularly in what Beck called radio’s prime-time hours, which is weekday afternoons. Friday’s new schedule also will feature “The World with Lisa Mullins” from 2 to 4 p.m.

In its announcement, MBPN noted the changes came after examining a “significant listener survey” and “repeated audience requests.” The network has 180,000 unique listeners each week, Beck said.

People listen to music very differently than in the past, Beck said, citing the rise of online, personalized radio stations such as Pandora and Spotify, and Sirius satellite radio.

MPBN and Beck have dealt with significant push-back in the past from program changes. In 2000, the network stopped carrying the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons, citing ratings dips when the program aired, but opera fans mobilized against the move and the show was restored. And in 2007, local host Robert Skoglund, aka the Humble Farmer, ran afoul of the network for making statements perceived as advocating a political view. The two parted ways.

Beck anticipated that some listeners would be unhappy with the change ending “Down Memory Lane.”

“Our goal is to provide the most valuable service to listeners,” he said, while acknowledging that “we can’t please all the people all the time.”

Already, a Facebook page dedicated to “Down Memory Lane” fans has appeared, posted by Brian Westbye of Auburn. In an email, Westbye said he had been listening to the show for 15 years.

“I have countless great memories involving the show,” he wrote. “Whether just cutting wood or having friends in town and exposing them to the joy of the show, ‘Down Memory Lane’ was always just there for me.”

At 40 years old, Westbye said his musical tastes have ranged from jazz, which he studied in college, to punk and alternative, which he played in bands in the Boston area. On the show, his favorite era is the 1930s-1950s: “Bing, Sinatra, Dorsey, Benny Goodman,” he wrote.

Westbye stressed that he was not trying to pressure MPBN into restoring the show, but rather trying to find another way to broadcast it.

“I’m sickened at the thought of losing it to an antiseptic, nationally syndicated show,” he wrote.

Rod O’Connor of Southwest Harbor wrote that he was “quite annoyed and saddened to hear of Toby’s last show coming up. Sorry to see him go. I have been listening to him weekly since I moved back here in 1999.”

Of the move to cut “Down Memory Lane,” Louis Sell of Whitefield wrote: “The decision is as unfortunate as it is incomprehensible. It removes one of the last authentic ‘Maine voices’ from what is supposedly the Maine public radio.”

Of Leboutillier, Beck said, “We go way, way back.” Leboutillier began his career in radio at a Waterville station in 1967 then joined the Maine ETC Network, the predecessor to MBPN, in 1968. Before that, he worked at WLBZ-TV in Bangor from 1965 to 1967.

“Toby is one of Maine’s radio pioneers and has contributed mightily to the success of MPBN, first as an employee and later as a volunteer,” Beck said in the network’s announcement. “Toby will always be considered a member of the MPBN family.”

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