PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Jim Dowe, president and CEO of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, was in the Star City Jan. 24 to listen as members of MPBN’s radio and television audience aired their concerns over the network’s future.
“We’re in the early stages (of planning our future). The long-range plan is to go around the state and listen to ideas of what the public thinks our priorities should be,” said Dowe.
Wednesday’s session was the sixth meeting of its kind to take place in the state. Meetings were scheduled for: Presque Isle, Lewiston, Bangor, Portland, Augusta, Saco, Machias and Ellsworth, according to Dowe. Board members Bob Umphrey and Barry McCrum were present at the Presque Isle gathering to hear what people had to say.
“We want to hear what the priority issues facing the state of Maine are – the common thoughts and themes emerging. We want to know what the major issues are and what role MPBN can play in the process,” said Dowe.
Dowe said as he’s been covering the various regions of the state, he’s had the opportunity to meet a variety of people and has heard a lot of good feedback.
“We’re having wonderful conversations with the people of Maine,” said Dowe. “We want to come away with public-inspired ideas that are long-range. Something we can focus on in the next five to 10 years – for the present and future.”
Charles Beck, vice president of Radio Services, was on hand as well and discussed how the industry started in Maine and where it is headed.
“We’re celebrating a birthday of sorts. Public broadcasting was created 40 years ago – actually started in two different places, Orono and Lewiston. In 1992, the two entities joined to become MPBN,” said Beck. “Our challenge is reaching the entire state.”
Beck noted that the world is ever-changing and the younger generation is opting for other alternatives to obtain news.
“Young people are reading news online. Our subscriptions are down. We’re seeing more competition. What we used to handle can now be found online or through satellite and cable channels,” said Beck.
Despite the initial drop in memberships, interest in public broadcasting has been growing the last couple of years.
“It’s been slow. We have more to listen to – more on lifestyle changes,” said Beck, indicating it’s not just about choices but the way people’s lives are changing.
To better serve patrons of the network, Dowe and Beck have been traveling the state to hear what matters.
“We want to know what their interests are, what’s relevant to them and how we can better serve the public,” said Beck.
Dowe assured those present that MPBN has no intention of “drifting to chase an audience.”
“People want us to be comprehensive with coverage, digging into issues. People listen to us in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and the provinces of Canada. There’s a lot of diversity,” said Dowe.
Brenda Jepson, Viking Video Production class instructor at Caribou High School, brought several of videos her classes have put together in the last few years and asked what could be done to get productions like them on air in an effort to attract a younger audience, since videos are created by high school students.
“The videos are marvelous showcase of what we’ve done. I’ve seen very little independent production on MPBN. What are the plans for such in the future?” asked Jepson.
Jepson held up a selection of videos the class had produced, including one on the 2006 biathlon in Presque Isle, the POW camp in Houlton, the store that featured 10 cent coffee and the Acadian village in the St. John Valley.
“Are there any plans to include more independent work? As a teacher, it’s a pity to lose students when they’re too old for “Sesame Street.” To showcase work by kids their age maintains interest,” Jepson continued.
Dowe acknowledged MPBN hadn’t done a lot to, “engage independent film producers.”
“We’re trying to search out high-quality productions and bring content back. It’s something that’s come up and we plan to look into,” said Dowe.
Dowe admitted he’s relatively new to the industry and that Maine was full of talent.
“Maine is full of artistic people – artists, musicians, videographers,” said Dowe, adding he’d like to attract more interest to those mediums.
A former class member of Jepson’s said aired videos would attract a variety of viewers.
“News will spread all over (when videos air). Grandparents, family and friends will see and talk about them,” said Josh Archer, of Presque Isle, a former student of Jepson’s class.
Jepson saw the positive impact airing videos would have on young people.
“Students have a hard time getting into some stuff. But material by independent artists – students – would hold their interest more,” said Jepson.
Dowe acknowledged when kids are 5 to 7, it’s easier to keep their interest. But after that, children lose interest in MPBN for a time.
“There’s a market for those 20-35 that we should try to find more content for,” said Dowe.
Archer said airing such programming as the Viking videos would help attract a younger audience.
“Airing something people can watch regularly would be beneficial. Getting back to the art aspect, the more they see young people having a vision, the more interest they’ll have,” said Archer. “Maine is a great place to film. If you started weekly with independent films, things for teens to watch, they’ll want to stay in Maine and do more.”
Dowe discussed the possibility of airing more independent work later in the evening.
“Late in the evening would be a good time to air such material, since young people are usually up later,” said Dowe.
“We’ll certainly look at carrying more independent programming,” added Beck.
Other audience members expressed their views on both radio and television programming, particularly MPBN’s record of being an ‘independent voice’ when it comes to news coverage. Concern was raised over MPBN sponsors affecting coverage of sensitive issues.
“Our audience outweighs our corporate relationships,” said Dowe.
Beck made reference to a case where MPBN received support from Maine Yankee when at the same time the power facility was raising public concern.
“Maine Yankee was one of our supporters airing ads, but we often spoke against them. We had underwriting from them, but we continued to look at them critically,” said Beck.
Dowe said MPBN’s future plans also include continued upgrades to the Web site, www.mpbn.net.
“We have a lot of content to view online. Folks can check us out online, even download material to iPods,” said Dowe.
Dowe has been amazed at just how far-reaching MPBN is.
“Folks can get us anywhere in the world. I hear weekly from people who listen to us from all over, including some people from Maine who listen to us daily in Germany,” said Dowe.
Comments are also being solicited on the Web site. The public is encouraged to send their thoughts and suggestions on ways MPBN can improve service in the years to come.
“We’re also interested in hearing from folks who want to become members. They can do that by visiting us online or by calling 800-8840-1717,” said Dowe.