Maine Public Radio Goes for Ratings
By Al Diamon
Without news, you lose: The Maine Public Broadcasting Network has consistently drawn some of the highest Arbitron ratings for radio of any public stations in the country. In both the Portland and Bangor markets, MPBN is generally in the top three for all listeners age 12 and up, and occasionally number one.
But those figures are a little misleading. Public radio’s listenership varies dramatically depending on what kind of programming it’s airing. Its morning and afternoon news blocks are ratings giants, but it suffers significant declines during midmorning, when it’s airing classical music, and at other times when it offers music. On weekends, the loss of listeners is even more pronounced, as the network airs little news and local coverage is limited to ripping and reading the Associated Press wire.
It seems like a no-brainer for MPBN to program more news and talk and less music. But public broadcasting in Maine has been notoriously timid about making such moves, because the audience for serious music has proved itself to be small but influential. Older, high-income folks listen to those shows and are quick to make their displeasure at being displaced known by cutting off donations. For instance, a 2001 decision to drop opera broadcasts – a serious ratings downer – produced such a storm of protest that the network’s board of trustees intervened to restore that programming.
For years, MPBN staffers have argued in favor of more news and public affairs, pointing out that the larger number of listeners those shows attract would more than offset the defection of the aging audience for Beethoven, Bach and Wagner. For years, upper management, recalling the spanking it got over the opera fiasco, has been overly cautious in protecting the status quo.
Finally, though, there seems to be some acceptance of reality. Republican Gov. Paul LePage has twice tried to eliminate state funding for public broadcasting. Although the Legislature rejected those moves in favor of a smaller reduction, more cuts are likely in the future.
If MPBN wants to attract more underwriters (the euphemism it employs to avoid such a plebian term as “advertisers”) to make up for that impending loss, it needs to convince the large audiences it attracts for “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” to hang around during other parts of the day. And it needs to get those folks to tune in on Saturdays and Sundays.
To that end, MPBN has announced some programming changes that will beef up the afternoon and weekend lineups, eliminating such dinosaurs as Toby Leboutillier’s “Down Memory Lane” on Friday afternoons and classical music on weekend mornings. Classical music will survive (for now) on weekday mornings.
MPBN president Mark Vogelzang told the Portland Press Herald the changes were made only after extensive research, including surveys of members and listeners.
“It’s fair to say that the programming changes are really a reflection of our desires and audience requests over time,” Vogelzang said. “We’re seeing a continued strong growth of news on public radio. Public radio news continues to remain strong, and continues to be our most-listened-to hours. Listeners want more news on their public radio station. It is a national trend.”
High time Maine caught up with it.
When a reporter calls: I received an e-mail from a reader concerned about a notice put out by the Maine Public Relations Council promoting a program called “Help! I’m Being Investigated.”
According to the Council’s website, John Christie and Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting “will provide you with tips and anecdotes about what not to do, and what you should do, when responding to inquires on stories you don’t want to tell.”
The reader asked, “It is appropriate for them to be handing out – for free or for compensation – this kind of advice?”
I passed that query on to Schalit, who responded, “[I]t’s not inappropriate because we’re going to tell them to be straight and honest with reporters. Also, doing this is part of our pledge to be transparent about how we work. Whoever is concerned about this can certainly come to the talk and cover what we have to say.”
The event takes place Nov. 30, from 8-10 a.m., at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.
Covering up: The Nov. 28 Portland Press Herald carried a story by staff writer Kelley Bouchard about a mysterious state help-wanted ad for a “health exchange coordinator.” Maine has no health exchange, and Gov. Paul LePage has said he’s not willing to set one up, because he disagrees with the federal Affordable Care Act.
In the article, Bouchard notes that the coordinator, if one is ever hired, will report to the commissioner of the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, identified by Bouchard as Anne Hood.
Close, but off by a few hairs.
The commissioner’s name is actually Anne Head.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.