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April 6, 2013

Staff File Photo

In this April 2012 file photo, Maine Public Broadcasting Network's "Maine Watch" is taped at their television studio in Lewiston. Up to 10 employees of MPBN will lose their jobs as state and federal money is cut, and "Maine Watch" is going on hiatus.

Funding reductions force MPBN layoffs

By Matt Byrne
mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network said Friday that it will lay off as many as 10 employees because of reductions in state and federal funding and difficulty raising donations in the still-recovering economy.

The broadcaster is the latest agency in Maine to feel the sting of the $85 billion, across-the-board federal spending cuts that took effect March 1. In all, it lost more than $400,000 from its current annual budget from the combination of factors, and more than $100,000 is blamed on new, unanticipated federal and state cuts.

Most of the layoffs will affect workers in the network's in-house video production unit. The network's locally produced news program, "Maine Watch," will go on hiatus for the spring and summer.

All other programming will continue as planned.

The layoffs represent about 12 percent of the Lewiston-based network's 80 or so employees.

Mark Vogelzang, MPBN's president and chief executive officer, said the network planned on losing about $260,000 in state funding. The federal cuts, known as sequestration, tipped the scale toward a staff reduction. Coupled with a difficult fundraising climate left over from the deep recession, the losses were too much to bear.

"This additional unexpected shortfall simply can't be absorbed in our already tight operating budget and it is truly unfortunate that this will affect our team," Vogelzang said in a press statement. "The severity of our cuts in funding -- especially the federal funding piece -- really tied our hands."

The Maine network is not alone in feeling the pinch.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes most of its federal funding to local stations in the form of community service grants, took a $34.7 million cut from the sequestration.

Also, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was approved for $30 million less than the $445 million budget it sought from Congress for the next year, said Henry Schmelzer, chairman of the MPBN board of directors.

In Maine, state funding that recently was as high as $1.9 million has been on the decline by roughly $200,000 each year over the last three years, Schmelzer said.

"It's a terrible thing to have to deal with," Schmelzer said of the cuts. "It's something no one wants to do."

The in-house video production unit is expected to lose six of its nine workers because of the layoffs, said Ross Ferrell, a Maine Education Association employee who works with the broadcaster's union group.

Other positions identified for elimination are in audience services, information technology and radio news production.

It will take about two months to determine whether some layoffs may be avoided by offering qualified employees early-retirement options, which could ease pressure to lay off workers, officials said.

In a memo circulated to the staff and obtained by the Portland Press Herald, Vogelzang said the layoffs were approved by MPBN's board of trustees. He acknowledged the impact the cuts will have.

"This is very, very difficult for our colleagues, and for the entire organization," he wrote.

In an interview Friday, Vogelzang said the network's Maine Capitol Connection programming was not in its original annual spending plan and required MPBN to reshuffle its budget mid-year.

Capitol Connection was launched in February. Its live broadcasts of committee hearings and other legislative action reflect a trend in public broadcasting toward more live coverage at lower costs.

"We want to remain committed as possible ... to the journalism that we're doing, and to remain relevant. That's the challenge," Vogelzang said.

MPBN's last major layoff occurred in 2008, Ferrell said, when the network shed six or seven positions during the economic downturn.

He said only a small number of those positions have been restored.

It was unclear Friday whether supervisors or managers would be affected by the latest cuts, Ferrell said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com





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