Ready & Able
Maine Public Broadcasting Network has the staff, gear, and mandate to reach every corner of Maine with news, culture, discourse, emergency alerts, and Big Bird, too.
Irwin Gratz gets out of bed at an hour when most roosters are still snoring, and drives to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s Portland studio in the dark, arriving just after four in the morning. Legend has it that he stores a cot somewhere in the building in case a snowstorm threatens to keep him from his thousands of listeners who begin their day with his popular radio program, Morning Edition.
“For years and years there was a fold-up cot in one of the back studios,” says Lou Morin, MPBN’s director of marketing and public relations. “If it looked like it was going to be really nasty, he’d sleep there just to make sure that he would be on the air on time. I haven’t seen one in the new space. We haven’t been in there all that long, so I don’t know if he’s just got it hidden somewhere.”
At any given moment, Gratz’s voice reaches some 30,000 pairs of ears throughout Maine and in spillover pockets in Canada, New Hampshire, and even Vermont. His total audience during the week is around 170,000. When he goes on vacation, MPBN has to warn listeners in advance to head off the deluge of phone calls from his loyal listeners.
Gratz is the producer of Morning Edition, which he has anchored for 19 years. He’s also a past president of the Society of Professional Journalists, an amateur astronomer, and an avid swimmer who has completed five Peaks Island-to-Portland swims. But in the halls of MPBN, he’s hardly unique: The network is filled with interesting and accomplished professionals, most of whom have been at their jobs for a considerable length of time.
Suzanne Nance, who hosts a classical music program every weekday, is a talented opera singer who performs throughout Maine and abroad in cities including London and Prague. Jennifer Rooks, television anchor for Maine Watch, spent 13 years in commercial television in Portland and has won two Edward R. Murrow awards, for coverage of Maine National Guard soldiers deployed in Bosnia and Hungary, and for the documentary Citizen King, about independent governor (and former Maine Watch host) Angus King. Chief technology officer Gil Maxwell, who oversees the transmission center in Bangor, has worked for MPBN for 24 years. Vice president for TV and radio Charles Beck spent much of his youth in Europe and is
fluent in Swedish. He’s in his 31st year at MPBN.
“This organization has a reputation for longevity of its employees,” says Rich Tozier, whose Friday night jazz program emanates from the Bangor radio studio. “It’s a good place to work. You have a lot of people who have put their blood, sweat, and guts into this organization to help it succeed. And we’ve had a lot of alumni who’ve left here and gone on to bigger and better things.” He proceeds to rattle off a list of names of former MPBN employees now working for CNN, National Public Radio, and commercial stations in Boston and beyond.
While MPBN has highly regarded talent, many don’t realize how popular MPBN is in terms of ratings, especially when it comes to radio. MPBN’s total listening audience is larger than that of any commercial radio station in the state. While the television ratings aren’t as spectacular, polls consistently show that PBS is the most trustworthy brand on TV for both children’s programming and news.
“We serve a diverse population across the state that we’re touching every day,” says Erin Merrill, who works in the fundraising arm of the Lewiston office with major donors and special events. “Parents will tell us that we are the only station they’ll let their kid watch during the day, because they know they won’t see an ad for violent video games or sugary snack foods.”
The core of what MPBN provides, says chief financial officer John Isacke, simply would not be provided by commercial broadcasters. “We devote half of every weekday to educational offerings that other broadcasters, even specialty broadcasters, are not doing.”
Gil Maxwell, who makes sure the orchestra of sound waves, TV signals, and digital information is always flowing, stands in front of a bank of TV screens displaying children’s programming currently on air. “If it wasn’t for public broadcasting, would Sesame Street have ever started?” asks Maxwell. “Think of our programming as research and development. The ultimate goal is not to make money, but to educate, inform, and enlighten. Sometimes we get a hit.”
Maxwell makes sure that every household in Maine with a television can tune in to the educational antics of Big Bird, Barney the purple dinosaur, and Sid the science kid. With five television transmitters in strategic locations around the state, MPBN is the only broadcast entity that can touch the entire state.
MPBN also runs seven FM radio stations, with an additional seven towers, which likewise provide statewide coverage.
It’s all done from three studios, in Portland, Lewiston, and Bangor. The Lewiston station houses MPBN’s television studio, where the public affairs program Maine Watch with Jennifer Rooks is recorded. The administrative staff is also based in Lewiston.
Radio programming broadcasts from the Portland and Bangor studios. The radio studios can link into the National Public Broadcasting network. Stephen King, for example, can sit in the Bangor studio and be interviewed by an NPR reporter in Washington, D.C., and it will sound like they are in the same room. Bangor is also where technicians monitor the transmission equipment around the state.
“We are the result of a merger,” says Morin. “We didn’t set out to have three centers in three different cities.”
The Lewiston facility is the former headquarters of WCBB, the combined television station of Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin Colleges, which began broadcasting in 1961. Two years after that, WMEB-TV began broadcasting from the University of Maine at Orono. The Portland station grew out of a similar program at USM. On the radio side, WMEH-FM began broadcasting from UMaine in the early ’70s, and was joined by five other stations around the state over the ensuing decade. The stations merged to form MPBN in 1992.
The Lewiston studio is in a small building on the edge of town whose dominant feature is the parabolic dish antenna on the roof. The studio itself is tiny. At the center is the round table where Rooks interviews her Maine Watch guests. From her seat she can read from a teleprompter and check a monitor to see the show as it’s being recorded.
Off to one side stand three lecterns resembling those used on Jeopardy! MPBN is planning to use them when it revives its iconic but long-dormant Maine-based game show, So You Think You Know Maine, in 2012.
MPBN runs four channels concurrently, their main broadcast channel and three sub-channels: PBS Kids (24-hour children’s programming), CreateTV (featuring cooking and other instructional shows), and MPBN World (featuring round-the-clock news and public affairs programming). As Morin explains, “Not everybody had kids; there are grandparents and other viewers out there who want to watch public broadcasting programming, but not necessarily Curious George.”
The most popular television broadcasts, by far, are the annual high school basketball tournaments in February. That’s a lesson MPBN’s strategic planners are taking to heart as they try to map out the network’s future.
MPBN’s last five-year strategic plan, Morin says, expires in 2012. The committee charged with writing the next five-year plan—which will include MPBN’s new president, Mark Vogelzang, who succeeds retiring CEO Jim Dowe—will have to look at the rapid transformations brought about by the switch from analog to digital broadcasting, and the thinning line between television and computers.
“There’s only a certain amount of broadcast spectrum,” Morin says. “It’s finite, and there’s increasing competition with cellular and broadband and first responders. It’s getting crowded. That’s what the transition to digital was all about. The digital broadcast technology of today uses vastly less spectrum than the old analog technology.” Hence, MPBN was able to broadcast additional sub-channels after the switch to digital. But more change is certain.
“Our new plan makes the point of not referring to television, but to visual content. The delivery mechanism may be in flux, but we will still be producing visual content.”
As more people are able to watch Nova and other shows online via video on demand, they eventually may not need MPBN’s TV signal, Morin admits. “What will differentiate us in the future is the creation of local content.”
On the TV end, in addition to reviving So You Think You Know Maine, MPBN is negotiating with the Maine Principals Association to air more scholastic events, such as the state spelling bee and high school jazz competitions.
On the radio side, MPBN’s local news content is already well-known and respected. MPBN employs eight news reporters, whose numbers include veteran journalists covering the capitol and other hot spots around the state, led by news and public affairs director Keith Shortall. An additional reporter will soon be hired to cover the midcoast area; that person will have a desk at the Portland office but will work mostly from the field.
On the web at www.mpbn.net, three staffers work full-time updating content throughout the day and responding or anticipating the constant changes in technology offerings and user expectations.
All this takes money. And budget-conscious government officials often look at “soft” areas of the budget like public broadcasting when contemplating cuts.
“Government funding is at risk, both at the federal and state level,” Isacke says.
In its initial budget proposals, the Le-Page administration eliminated the state appropriation for public broadcasting. Cooler heads prevailed, but MPBN will still see less revenue from the state this year. “We were successful in convincing the appropriations and financial affairs committee that eliminating our funding was not a good idea,” Isacke says, in part because MPBN is the focal point of the state’s emergency alert system (see sidebar).
MPBN’s annual budget is approximately $11.5 million, 64% of which comes from membership donations and business underwriting. The annual appropriation from the state makes up another 19%, and federal funding and grants make up 14%. “We get grants for this, that, and the other thing,” Morin says. “We just got a grant for about $200,000 to upgrade our cameras to high definition. We’re HD capable in broadcast, but that’s only good if you have the HD cameras to send the signal out. That grant will pay for four HD cameras.”
But grants have been hard to come by of late. “Government funding, broadly, has declined dramatically over the last 10 years,” Isacke says. “Not in the form of annual operating support from either the state or the federal level; that annual operating support has held up reasonably well. The area of funding from a government standpoint that has diminished dramatically is grant funding through various government sources, whether those grants are for replacing aging equipment or for developing content.”
The private sector has at least partially stepped in to fill the breach. “Corporate funding for us has been up in the last several years,” Isacke says. “A lot of it has to do with Lou, when he took over our corporate support two years ago.”
Lou Morin has since become marketing and PR director, and corporate support is now led by Susan Tran.
“The job is a lot easier,” Morin says, “when you have the radio ratings that we do. We hear stories of people who have learned English listening to public radio or watching PBS. We are part of people’s lives. When I hear things like that, it makes me feel like I’m working for the good guys.”
But even good guys sometimes have to fight battles.
“We welcome the opportunity to describe what it is we do and the reason for our existence, which needs to be done every couple of years,” Morin says. “People can start to take us for granted. They turn on the TV and there’s Maine Watch; they turn on the radio and there’s All Things Considered. A lot of people don’t know how that all happens.”
Another challenge Morin sometimes faces is criticism from the political right that its programming slants liberal. “A lie that’s repeated often enough becomes accepted as wisdom,” he says. “I defy you to find a regular station that does what we do. We run public affairs programs in the afternoon. Often the speakers are very conservative. We give them half an hour to an hour to expound on whatever they want to talk about. Right-wing radio doesn’t have those kinds of extended, balanced, civil conversations.”
But Morin says that funding worries are a constant, no matter what political party is in power. “Administrations come and go,” he says. “The cutting of our funding and the pressure to do so knows no party affiliation. Times are tough.”
In private sector broadcasting, ad sales are the lifeblood of commercial TV and radio. For MPBN, cash flow depends on the success of its fundraising staff.
Fundraising is subdivided into several departments. Four people work full-time with major donors, defined as those members who give $1,000 or more annually. MPBN has approximately 300 such members, some of whom give substantially more. Five sales reps and a manager comprise the corporate support department, which encourages businesses to underwrite programs and receive on-air recognition for doing so. An additional five employees work with the majority of MPBN’s membership, sending out reminder notices and the DVDs and CDs given out as thank-you gifts, and handling inquiries. Five more part-time tele-fundraisers work from a small phone room five nights a week.
An untapped—or perhaps undertapped—source of potential new revenue lies outside the state’s boundaries, in the parts of Canada reached by transmitters in Calais, Fort Kent, and Presque Isle. MPBN has recently created a nonprofit entity in Canada, with a Canadian board of trustees, so that, for the first time, donations made to the network by Canadian members will be tax deductible in Canada. And MPBN is negotiating with several cable providers in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to carry their television content.
All told, MPBN has between 40,000 and 45,000 members. “The traditional funding mechanism for public broadcasting is sort of a three-legged stool: government funding, corporate funding, and donations and foundation gifts,” Isacke says. “The longest leg is individuals.”
While the fundraising staff works to keep the cash flowing, keeping the information flowing is the job of chief technology officer Gil Maxwell in Bangor. The nerve center of the whole operation is housed in what he describes as “an old chow hall” left over from Dow Air Force Base, which closed in 1968. The building is now part of the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, near the airport.
It’s a maze of small rooms and corridors. There are three radio studios. A music library is filled with CDs, vinyl records, even some old 78s. The lunchroom serves as a phone room during pledge drives. The biggest visual wow is a room full of flat-screen monitors and data screens showing the status of signals emanating from a dozen towers in a dozen different locations. The technical heart of the facility is Bangor’s bank of electronic servers, senders, receivers, compressors, computers, and all the other hardware needed to keep the system operational statewide.
“The more you know about how this stuff works, the more it overwhelms you sometimes,” says Maxwell, who keeps up with new developments by teaching live sound wiring and electronic troubleshooting at the nearby New England School of Communications. The reliability of MPBN’s daily reach is something he’s proud of.
“You have a mechanism that is built and operational, and tested every day,” Maxwell says. “Every day you can turn on your radio and know it’s there. At the blink of an eye, we can communicate with every individual in the state of Maine. That infrastructure’s in place, and the cost to maintain it is peanuts compared to the cost of building out a whole new system. And, as an extra benefit, you get public radio and public TV.”
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The Maine Public Broadcasting Network is the only broadcaster in Maine with a statewide footprint. If there’s an emergency, you’ll find out about it on MPBN first.
“We are the focal point of the emergency alert system in Maine,” says Lou Morin, director of marketing and public relations.
What that means is that MPBN makes its statewide system available to federal and state authorities in the event of an emergency that requires rapid notification of the state’s population.
“If there were an earthquake or tsunami or terrorist attack or something like that, the warnings come from us first, and then get distributed to all the local radio and television stations around the state,” Morin says.
“Both multiple federal agencies and state agencies have the authority to step in, take over our broadcast signal on a moment’s notice, and broadcast throughout the state,” says CFO John Isacke. “And in turn, the other broadcasters can pick up that signal from us.”
To Gil Maxwell, senior vice president and chief technical officer, that alone is reason to keep the far-flung equipment in good working order. “We can communicate with every person in the state of Maine. How valuable is that?”
The bulk of the system has been in place for half a century. Because Maine is large and sparsely populated, statewide coverage means the installation and upkeep of equipment in remote locations. Veteran technicians tell stories of driving through blizzards and accessing towers with snowmobiles to get the signal out.
One of MPBN’s towers stands among the wind turbines on Mars Hill in Aroostook County. It’s now accessible via a service road built during the construction of the wind project; before the wind turbines were erected, technicians had to walk up an old cow path.
Maxwell says the system is a good bang for the buck. “What’s the guarantee that your cell phone or your Internet is going to work?” he asks. “A person at home can have a battery and a radio and still get information to tell them what’s going on.” Mainers who were here for the Ice Storm of ’98 remember that well.
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Maine Public Broadcasting Network
Lewiston, Portland, & Bangor, Maine
Year founded: 1992
Employees: 80 full-time; 22 part-time
Creation details: Merger of public broadcasting facilities at Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin Colleges with those at the University of Maine, Orono, and stations in the
Annual operating budget: $11.5 million
Positions: Technicians, electronic engineers, camera operators, radio operators, on-air talent, fundraisers, volunteers.
Future challenges: Actual and proposed cutbacks in state funding; cost of infrastructure and technology.
To learn more: www.mpbn.net