After years of trying to meet the competing demands of its radio listeners, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network plans to launch a separate classical music service on May 9.

The new service will offer more classical music, nearly 24 hours a day, but for many MPBN listeners, including those in Portland, it may be harder to find.

Maine Public Classical will be available over the air from new MPBN radio stations in Waterville, Bangor and Fryeburg, as well as online and on HD radios statewide. The broadcaster’s regular classical offerings, including Robin Rilette’s three-hour weekday morning show, will move to that network, making room for more news, information and entertainment on the seven-station Maine Public Radio network.

MPBN management hopes to launch a Portland-area classical station soon, Chief Executive Mark Vogelzang said. The broadcasting network is actively looking for available signals, in particular to cover Portland, the midcoast and York County.

The creation of a separate classical network has been part of MPBN’s strategic plan since 2013, because news and information is a “growth area,” Vogelzang said, with younger listeners wanting more of it. MPBN officials will announce the new network on Maine Public Radio stations Wednesday in advance of the network’s “Super Thursday” fundraising drive April 28.

The creation of Maine Public Classical “goes hand-in-hand with our expansion of the news. Classical music has real merit for an important segment of our listening audience,” Vogelzang said. “This allows us to have a full-time news and information service and a strong commitment to the future, and present, of classical music.”


By moving classical music to Maine Public Classical, Maine Public Radio can air two popular syndicated call-in shows live on weekday mornings, “Diane Rehm” and “On Point.” Rehm’s show had been airing as a delayed broadcast, so Maine audience members couldn’t call in. The syndicated show “Here and Now” also will be added to the lineup, at noon.

MPBN’s local call-in program, “Maine Calling,” expands to five days a week and moves an hour later to 1 p.m. There still will be music and entertainment shows on Maine Public Radio, including “Prairie Home Companion,” “Thistle & Shamrock,” and “World Cafe” on weekends. (For a complete schedule go to

Classical music fans have long been among Maine Public Radio’s most loyal, and vocal, listeners. During the past two decades, as MPBN has made classical music cuts and added more news and information, classical music fans have made their displeasure known with letters and phone calls.

While listeners have been asking for more classical music, some see the launch of Maine Public Classical as a worrisome trade-off. The new network will offer fans a lot more music – about 160 hours a week compared to the 26 hours a week currently on Maine Public Radio – but its three stations will reach about 250,000 people over the air, compared to the 1 million people reached by Maine Public Radio.

“I’m somewhat saddened to think that people in remote parts of the state who don’t have HD radios or don’t listen online won’t have access to this,” said Alice Kornhauser, executive director of the Portland Chamber Music Festival. “I hope this will be successful and they can buy stations, hire staff and expand coverage.”

Maine Public Classical’s over-the-air reach will be far greater for people who have HD radios. The new network will be broadcast using HD signals, piggybacked on MPBN’s existing radio signals. That means Maine Public Classical can be heard on an HD radio anywhere that MPBN’s signal is now heard. For example, if someone gets Maine Public Radio now on 90.1 FM, he could tune an HD radio to 90.1 HD-2 and get Maine Public Classical’s programming. But HD radios, which start at about $50 and also come in some new car models, are not yet commonplace.


Maine Public Classical’s schedule will feature local host Rilette on air from 9 a.m. to noon each weekday, as she is now on existing signals, with classical music and music programs from other public radio stations filling out the rest of most days.

Vogelzang said MPBN may expand Maine Public Classical’s over-the-air signal, depending on when radio station signals become available for purchase and how much they cost.

Having more airtime for news and information is important to MPBN’s efforts to attract, and keep, younger listeners, said Brenda Garrand, an MBPN board member. Therefore, it’s important to the network’s future.

“We know that for the 25-plus audience, news and information programming is a strength,” said Garrand, who is chief executive of the marketing and communications firm GarrandPartners in Portland. “As a public broadcaster, what we do will never be done strictly for financial reasons. But we know our future success depends on our ability to make a product that is appealing and supportable.”


So far, the cost of launching the new classical network has been about $200,000, largely for purchase of equipment and licenses for the new stations, Vogelzang said. A lead anonymous donor has helped fund the expansion, he said, and MPBN management feels the network’s operation can be covered by revenue from classical listeners and area businesses. Vogelzang said he didn’t have an exact dollar amount for what Maine Public Classical’s budget would be.


Of MPBN’s annual $11.8 million budget – which includes a television network – nearly 70 percent comes from donations, memberships, foundations and underwriting. About 13 percent comes from state funding and about 14 percent comes from federal funding, with the rest from other sources.

Increasingly, public broadcasters are developing separate radio networks for specific programming, as they try to grow their audience and their potential fundraising base, said Tom Thomas, co-chief executive of the Station Resource Group, a membership organization for public broadcasters.

Some public radio networks in large metropolitan areas have had separate classical services for many years. In the past decade, public radio networks in several states comparable in size to Maine, including Vermont, have launched classical radio networks while expanding news and information on their main networks.

“We’ve seen across the country that when (public broadcasters) make this kind of change, the result is more listeners. The audiences for both (classical and news) increases,” said Thomas, adding that many people who are used to listening to a public station will listen to both of its networks.

Expanding the listening audience expands the base for fundraising, Thomas said. He said that when public broadcasters create a network that’s more focused, either on news or on classical music, it creates loyal audiences who want to financially support that focus.

“It’s a programming decision that satisfies an audience need, so when a station asks for funding and says, ‘Think of how important this station is to you,’ it’s easier for people to respond,” Thomas said.


At Vermont Public Radio, which launched VPR Classical in 2007, the change has definitely meant more listeners, said Robin Turnau, president and chief executive of Vermont Public Radio. The network had an estimated 155,000 listeners a week before the change. Now the main news and information network has about that amount, while the classical network has about 40,000 listeners per week.

The VPR Classical network began with two stations and has grown over time, to cover most of the state, Turnau said. Now it has 18 transmitters or other pieces of equipment around the state airing the signal in Vermont’s hard-to-access mountain valleys. The network also has three local hosts playing classical music.

When Vermont Public Radio launched its classical network, Vogelzang was its head. He held that position from 1993 to 2009, before leaving to head the NPR Foundation in Washington, D.C., for two years. He became MPBN’s chief executive in 2012.

Vogelzang said surveys show that nationally, 11 million people a week tune into classical music on public radio, or an average of 218,000 people at any given moment. That helps illustrate the strong demand, he said.

MPBN’s decision to launch a classical network “validates” that there is an audience for classical music on the radio in Maine and that advertisers, or underwriters, want to reach classical listeners, said Pat Collins, vice president of Binnie Media, owner of the commercial WBACH classical radio stations, 96.9 FM in Portland and 106.9 FM in Rockland. Collins said his two stations have at least 30,000 to 40,000 listeners per week.



Over the years, MPBN has cut the amount of classical music it airs during the day to make room for more news and information, including a cut of two hours on weekdays and some weekend programming in 2000 that caused thousands of listeners to complain to the network. Eventually some programming was added back, but the amount of classical music on MPBN today is still less than it was two decades ago.

Deb Gallagher of South Portland, a longtime fan of classical music on public radio, moved to Maine from Boston around that time. She said she continues to listen to classical music on MPBN because of the local connection, including the mentions of local events, and the variety of music. She also is a radio volunteer, hosting a jazz and classical show on community station WMPG in Portland.

Gallagher voiced an opinion, held by many MPBN classical music listeners, that commercial classical stations, like Maine’s two WBACH stations, play the same pieces over and over and usually just the most well-known.

So she’s happy at the prospect of Maine Public Classical playing music similar to what MPBN plays now, but more of it.

“To be able to hear music you can’t hear anywhere else sort of opens your ears,” said Gallagher, 61, who works in social services.

Carl Tubbesing, 72, of Freeport is a loyal fan of classical music who called it “encouraging” that MPBN is launching a classical service that’s not just online. He said he’s talked to MPBN staff and feels they are “dedicated” to expanding the network. But he would like to see more local hosts on throughout the day.


“One of the key things about a classical network, for me, is the symbiosis between the music and things going on around the state,” Tubbesing said. “I’m certainly happy to hear about what’s happening so far.”

The Maine Public Classical stations in Waterville (99.7 FM) and in Bangor (106.1 FM) already are airing programming. Fryeburg (91.5 FM) will be up and running before the May 9 official launch.

The tentative weekday schedule will feature music programming with live hosts from outside the state, including from Minnesota Public Radio, 24 hours a day. Rilette’s show will fill the 9 a.m. to noon slot, followed by the syndicated show “Performance Today with Fred Child” from noon to 2 p.m. Classical music from other sources will air from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. Each weeknight a different program will air at 8, including broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Mondays), The Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Tuesdays), the locally produced “Maine Stage” (Wednesdays), the New York Philharmonic (Thursdays) and the locally produced “Jazz Tonight” with Rich Tozier on Friday nights. There will be two opera broadcasts on the weekends, on Saturday afternoons and on Sunday nights.

Maine Public Classical also will feature the return of the popular music show “Down Memory Lane with Toby Leboutillier.” The show features songs that were hits several decades ago, along with Maine newspaper headlines from those years. The show was taken off MBPN’s airwaves in 2012, but has been available online. It will air Friday afternoons.

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