April 22, 2018
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MPBN: Plan to close towers ‘not a tactic’

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff

Maine Public Broadcasting Network executives have not wavered in their plans to close transmission towers in Calais and Fort Kent, even as state officials continue to push for alternative cost-cutting measures.

“This has not been a quid pro quo,” David Morse, MPBN’s vice president for advancement and new media, said Tuesday, referring to the station’s recent decision. “We didn’t do this with the expectation that there would be negotiations. This is not a tactic. Our biggest fear is that, if the economy doesn’t improve, there may be more that we would have to do.”

David Farmer, spokesman for Gov. John Baldacci, said the governor’s office and members of the Legislature have been working to help resolve MPBN’s budget concerns.

“Public radio is supposed to be statewide, and we’re talking about diminished service,” Farmer said. “[Calais and Fort Kent] are population centers. They may not be like Bangor or Portland, but there are people there.”

Nevertheless, any state help is not likely to be financial.

“You can’t spend resources you don’t have,” Farmer said. “We’re looking at massive cuts to all levels of state funding. We would say the same thing to any other agency, and we have.”

MPBN announced its cost-saving measures late last week, which include the tower closures, some layoffs and wage reductions, and shutting down all service from midnight to 5 a.m.

“That’s a six-month arrangement, but it will enable us to save a lot on electric costs,” Morse said of the overnight shutdown, which doesn’t affect programming other than music.

MPBN’s budget comes from a combination of state and federal money, along with member donations, which have been declining in recent years. The state has flat-funded MPBN at about $2.2 million since 1992, which was designed to cover transmission costs. Morse said those costs have ballooned to well more than $3 million but the state has not increased its subsidy.

“The agreement was, we’ll fund the signal strength,” Morse said of the state. “And then they tied in the emergency alert system and said, ‘We’ll put that on you, too.’”

The emergency alert system, managed by the state’s emergency management agency, relies on MPBN as its primary carrier but there are backups in place. Farmer said it’s too early to tell what the impact of closing towers will have on emergency alerts but said the governor is genuinely concerned.

Farmer did respond sharply to MPBN’s claims that the state has somehow shirked its financial responsibility.

“This idea of a promise is crazy,” Farmer said. “And the fact is, they are still subsidized.”

Since last week’s announcement, the governor and some legislators have broached the idea of coming up with an alternative that would allow the towers in Calais and Fort Kent to remain open. Morse said it’s unlikely that MPBN will change its mind.

“We’ve reduced our staff since 2002 by over 30 percent,” he said. “We have shut down a building in Bangor. We’ve had massive cuts. When people are saying, ‘I’m sure they can find money elsewhere,’ we’re saying, ‘We’ve tried.’”

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