MPBN Going Commercial?
W-BACH-up plan: In the April 21 Bangor Daily News, business reporter Matt Wickenheiser examines the implications in Maine of the scheduled May 8 court-ordered auction of the bankrupt Nassau Broadcasting chain.
Nassau owns ten radio stations in the state, including such popular outlets as classic hits WFNK (107.5 FM) in Lewiston and country WTHT (99.9 FM) in Portland. There should be plenty of interested buyers for top-rated stations like those, but it’s unlikely any of them will be the top bidder. That’s because a group of investors in Nassau led by Goldman Sachs is owed over $280 million by the company and can use that debt to put in its own bids. The money folks may figure they can get a better deal by buying most of Nassau and reselling the parts on their own. That makes it difficult to predict who’ll end up with any of the stations.
As Wickenheiser reports, one party who’ll be watching the proceedings carefully from the sidelines will be the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. MPBN is interested in the three WBACH stations (104.7 FM, 106.9 FM and 107.7 FM) in Scarborough, Thomaston, and Bar Harbor that broadcast a commercial classical-music format along the Maine coast. MPBN president Mark Vogelzang told the paper his interest is in somehow preserving classical music on those frequencies and WBACH’s connections with the state’s arts community. All of which sounds very high-minded and altruistic. But there’s another, more important reason MPBN is concerned about the fate of its classical competition.
The WBACH chain is hardly a ratings powerhouse (two of the stations aren’t even in Arbitron markets), but it attracts a listenership that’s educated and relatively well-off, particularly in the summer months. That’s attractive to many advertisers. If MPBN could work a deal with whatever entity ends up owning WBACH to lease the operation, it could run it as a separate for-profit network that would generate much-needed revenue for the public stations.
MPBN needs new sources of cash because even though the Legislature earlier this month rejected Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to cut all funding for public broadcasting from the state budget – a move that would have reduced MPBN’s revenues by about $1.7 million per year – legislators also made it clear they’ll be revisiting the issue after a study group completes its work on services MPBN provides to the state. As state Senator Roger Katz told Capitol News Service, “Over the next five years, the appropriations to MPBN will gradually be reduced and replaced with a fee-for-service agreement.”
Translation: The money tap won’t be turned off, but it will be turned down.
There’s nothing unprecedented about public broadcasting outlets underwriting their operations with commercial subsidiaries. Vogelzang pointed to WGBH in Boston, which owns a for-profit classical station, WCRB.
There’s another advantage to an MPBN-WBACH alliance of some sort. Public radio’s news and public-affairs programming pulls in substantially more listeners than do its music shows. But wealthy – and cranky – classical listeners have reacted negatively to every attempt to reduce the hours the network plays their favorites, and replace them with talk shows and news. Being able to point to WBACH as an MPBN-operated alternative would likely mollify many of those important contributors (at least along the Maine coast, where most of them live or visit in the summer) while increasing the non-profit network’s overall ratings.
Of course, any changes depend on who owns WBACH after May 8 and whether a lease to MPBN (which can’t afford to buy the stations outright) makes financial sense. Stay tuned.
Speaking of finding extra money: The April 23 Bangor Daily’s editorial page has an interesting opinion piece on the implications of a federal court ruling in California that could greatly expand the types of advertising – excuse me, underwriting – that public stations can accept. An appellate court has decided that the ban on non-profit broadcasters airing paid announcements for political candidates or issues committees violates the First Amendment’s free speech protections.
While the court action has no immediate effect in Maine, MPBN board chairman Hank Schmelzer is quoted as saying it “could completely change the nature of public broadcasting. We are following developments closely at this point.”
That may be a bit of an overreaction. There’s no reason to think that just because politicians of all ideologies could pay to reach public broadcasting listeners and viewers that it would have any major impact on the network’s news judgment. In fact, anything that lessens MPBN’s dependence on its largest single donor – state government – is likely to leave public broadcasting less constrained and less inclined to either caution or bias.
Isacke out: There’s been a shakeup in the upper echelons of MPBN. In a memo to staff on April 23, Vogelzang announced that the networks’ vice president and chief financial officer, John Isacke, is departing at the end of this week. Isacke has held that position for about four years.
His departure doesn’t appear to be voluntary. In his memo, Vogelzang praises Isacke’s contributions to the operation, but also wrote, “I've decided to begin a search for a new Vice President & Chief Financial Officer. One of my responsibilities to the Board of Trustees is to determine the right organizational structure for the company and I've been conducting that review since coming to MPBN a little over three months ago.”
Vogelzang said he’d hired a consultant to conduct a search for a new CFO. In the interim, Vogelzang and two other staffers will share Isacke’s responsibilities.
Editorial malpractice: The April 22 Maine Sunday Telegram ran a decent story by State House reporter John Richardson on how the issues of birth-control access and abortion might impact the U.S. Senate race in the state. The best parts of the article were two sidebars, one on the candidates’ stands on those matters and the other on their voting records. That information put the conflicts in perspective and will, no doubt, be useful to many voters in making up their minds prior to the June primary.
All of which renders the editorial decision-making process at the Telegram’s sister paper, the Morning Sentinel, incomprehensible. The Sentinel ran Richardson’s main story on its front page, but didn’t bother to publish the sidebars. It did, however, leave in a couple of paragraphs that mention that the candidates differ on the issues, without saying how or who or much of anything useful.
I don’t know what clunkhead decided not to print the entire package, but that person displayed an astonishing lack of aptitude for newspaper editing.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.