MPBN weighs loss of millions in state funding

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LEWISTON — If lawmakers decide to back the governor’s plan to end state funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, the network could turn off its over-the-air signals.

The state’s appropriation — $1.92 million this year — is the cost of transmitting the public TV and radio signal across Maine. The money and the network’s broadcasting mission are part of state law. If MPBN stops broadcasting, state law demands that the network return the money.

But what if the money dried up? Would MPBN stop transmitting? Probably not.

“It’s not an option for me at the moment,” MPBN President and CEO Jim Dowe said Thursday. 

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People at the network didn’t know how a sudden halt to state funding would affect broadcasting. Analysts including Chief Financial Officer John Isacke are working on the problem, Dowe said.

They learned of the proposed funding cut on Tuesday. It came about when Gov. Paul LePage shelved a proposal that would have ended public campaign financing for gubernatorial candidates. The MPBN cut is meant to make up for the campaign savings.

While MPBN’s trustees were meeting in Falmouth, John McGough, LePage’s chief of staff, delivered the news in a conversation with board Chairman Craig Denekas.

“It obviously was a total surprise and tremendously disappointing,” he said.

“This is fresh information to us,” Denekas said. “It would affect all we do, no question about it. It would have a significant, deep impact on the organization and what people know as MPBN.”

In the network’s current budget, state money accounts for about 18 percent of its total revenue of $10.8 million.

“My sole focus, the board’s sole focus and staff’s sole focus is on restoring that funding,” Denekas said.

Dowe said more money was being requested for the state’s upcoming two-year budget cycle: $2.43 million next year and $2.49 million in 2013. Those numbers reflect increasing technical costs associated with transmitting radio and TV signals statewide, he said.

According to state statutes that were revised as recently as 2009, the network must run TV stations in Presque Isle, Calais, Orono, Augusta and Biddeford and radio stations in  Fort Kent, Presque Isle, Calais, Bangor, Waterville, Camden and Portland. The administrative headquarters and much of its TV studio operations are in Lewiston.

Losing a portion of MPBN would be devastating, said Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters.

The network has been a leader in over-the-air transmission in Maine, transferring to a federally mandated digital signal before many Maine stations. 

Goucher plans to lobby for the state appropriation to “anyone who is standing still long enough,” she said.

She’ll likely be joined by staffers from MPBN.

On Thursday, the network’s staff gathered for a monthly all-hands meeting at the Lewiston office. About 85 people work full time for MPBN.

Dowe described their morale as “inspired.”

“They’re ready to go out and fight for this appropriation,” he said.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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