Second Thoughts on the Shutdown
Shutdown shuffle: Both the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and its legislative critics appear to be engaging in a carefully choreographed public-relations production designed to score some extra state cash for MPBN.
On Dec. 18, the network announced that due to budget problems, it would be shutting down its TV transmitter in Calais and its radio transmitters in Calais and Fort Kent in January. This was met by predictable howls of outrage from legislators. “It’s a very disturbing decision,” Republican state Sen. Kevin Raye, whose district includes Calais, told the Bangor Daily News, “and I think that it should be reversed.”
“It’s incredibly concerning that folks will lose access,” said Democratic House Speaker Hannah Pingree in the same story. “Public broadcasting is supposed to be statewide.”
Before we dig the state budget even deeper into the red, let’s get real for a moment.
Public broadcasting has never been statewide. In western Maine, places where one can listen to public radio are scattered and spotty at best, including large pieces of Oxford, Franklin and Somerset counties. Coverage is a lot better in southern New Hampshire, where there are lots of people with high disposable incomes, than it is in northern Piscataquis County, where there aren’t. Public TV is more readily available in these rural outposts, but only because a high percentage of the population has cable or satellite dishes. Over-the-air broadcasts are mostly reserved for the wealthier sections of the state.
If WMED-TV in Calais is turned off next month, much of its faithful audience will still be able to watch MPBN on cable or dish, just like lots of other people (including me) who live in the boonies. I suspect the number of public TV fans who’ll be adversely affected by the shutdown is minimal – MPBN says all its viewership in the affected areas amounts to just 3 percent of its total audience – so we’re only talking about the tiny fraction of that small percentage who watch the network over the air. It probably would cost the state less to extend cable lines to the few households that would be deprived than it will to meet public TV’s bail-out request.
But is such a bailout even necessary? If public TV really needs to save money, maybe it should consider taking the Calais TV closing a step or two further by shutting down most of its television broadcast operations. Relying on cable and satellite to deliver its programming to almost everyone might free up enough money to boost its feeble local public-affairs offerings.
Radio is a different matter. While MPBN offers audio of its offerings on the Web, accessing this material is neither as convenient or portable as listening over the air (and good luck with the on-line audio if you’ve got a Mac). The Calais radio station, in particular, reaches an audience that has no other options for receiving the broadcasts. That’s less true of the Fort Kent signal, which shares a significant overlap with MPBN’s Presque Isle station. If any radio station has to be shut down, Fort Kent makes some sense, although an argument could be made that the Camden area is served by transmitters in Waterville, Bangor and Portland, so its local tower is largely redundant. Nevertheless, not shutting any of the radio stations down makes even more sense.
Unlike the network’s TV programming, public radio devotes a significant amount of airtime to local news and public affairs. It’s one of the few news outlets left with a full-time reporter at the State House. If the price of maintaining this service is to pull the plug on another TV transmitter or two, it’s well worth it.
Back from the grave: PolitickerME.com is again functioning, although feebly. The site, caught up in a nationwide budget cutback by its parent company on Dec. 12, is carrying sporadic updates on what other political sites in the state are reporting. The selection is far from thoughtful – it appears to be the random picks of some New York staffer with no clue as what’s happening in Maine – and only serves to remind us of what we’ve lost.
Put this thing out of its misery.
No extra effort: Speaking of making wimpy use of the Web, consider the Portland Press Herald. On Dec. 20, it printed a story about legislative committee appointments, listing a few local senators and representatives who’d received key posts. But what about the full roster of committee assignments? Surely, some readers would have been interested in that. I understand that the Saturday paper, with its ever-shrinking news hole, has no space for such a lengthy list, but the Web has no such limits.
Unfortunately, the Press Herald didn’t bother putting the complete committee memberships online, nor did it provide a link to the Legislature’s own Web site where the information is available.
A Blethen holiday: Nothing new to report on the sale of the Press Herald and its sister papers owned by the Blethen Maine Newspapers to Maine Media Investments, although the deadline for completing that deal is just over a week away. But if the sale doesn’t happen, it seems likely many Blethen employees here will soon face the sort of cutbacks afflicting the parent company in Seattle. Five hundred nonunion workers and managers are being told to take a week off without pay between now and February.
The company didn’t say how much it expects to save from the furloughs.
Hot site: The great thing about the Web is how easy it is to use it to annoy people, even if you’re not trying. For an excellent example, check out the story in some editions of the Dec. 22 Lewiston Sun Journal in which Rumford Selectman J. Arthur Boivin attacks a Web site set up by the local firefighters union.
At a selectmen’s’ meeting last week, Boivin called the union’s site, which clearly lists Local 1601 of the International Association of Fire Fighters as its owner, a “takeover” of the fire department because its address is rumfordfire.org. Town Manager Len Greaney said he didn’t think such a name was “proper” and planned to discuss it with the fire chief. Boivin was also annoyed that the site lists his e-mail address.
“I do not do any town business on the Internet,” Boivin said. “I want that taken off that site while you’re at it.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.