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February 19, 2018 Focus: Communications & Technology

Maine Public CEO Mark Vogelzang charts a new course for the public broadcaster

Photo / Courtesy Kevin Brusie Photography Mark Vogelzang, pictured here in Maine Public's technical hub in Bangor, says the upcoming five-year strategic plan will continue to focus on content and technology.

On a Saturday morning in January, it's Falmouth High School in blue versus St. Dominic in black, in a high-stakes brain-power competition. They're duking it out on “High School Quiz Show: Maine” at Maine Public Television studios.

After stage manager Luke Merkel warms up the audience with Trivial Pursuit questions, host Shannon Moss takes over for the main event, which consists of four rounds. Off camera, the judges intervene once, to verify that pertussis is the same as whooping cough.

When the episode airs this spring, it should make for riveting prime-time viewing. Maine Public has high hopes for Season 2 after 12,000 households tuned in weekly during the pilot. This season is twice as long, and saw 60 schools apply for 16 slots.

“Maine Public is known for years as a place where people watch basketball tournaments,” says Mark Vogelzang, Maine Public's president and CEO. With the new show, “academics get front and center.”

It's among many initiatives the industry veteran has launched since taking the reins in 2012 to keep Maine Public fresh and relevant to viewers and listeners, and he's just getting started.

“We know that we have a mandate to continue to serve Maine with unique and relevant content,” says Vogelzang. Besides the new game show, he promises more in-depth journalism and continued investment in digital technology. All that costs money and resources, as fundraising becomes more challenging for all non-profits.

From MPBN to Maine Public

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network was created from the 1992 merger of the educational stations provided by the University of Maine System and the WCBB public TV station operated by Colby, Bates and Bowdoin colleges. It was rebranded as Maine Public in 2016.

Henry “Hank” Schmelzer, then chairman of Maine Public's board, says that while it took Vogelzang a while to win over the board, “he does what he says he's going to do.” He also admires Vogelzang's fundraising acumen, saying his one-day campaigns are “the envy of a lot of the public broadcasters throughout the country.”

Photo / Jim Neuger
View from the audience during taping of 'High School Quiz Show: Maine' at Maine Public's studio in Lewiston.

Maine Public employs close to 100 people — in Lewiston, Portland, Bangor and Augusta — and has an annual operating budget of around $13 million. It operates five TV stations, including a PBS Kids free over-the-air channel launched last year as well as seven radio news stations and the Maine Public Classical music channel that debuted in 2016 with six FM stations. Together they provide core PBS and NPR programming to Maine, as well as parts of New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada. Every week, radio gets around 225,000 listeners and TV around 200,000 viewers.

“Mainers recognize the value of public broadcasting perhaps to a larger extent than any other state in America,” owing in part to being a large state with a small population, notes Michael Socolow, who teaches journalism at the University of Maine. He adds: “At a time when the commercial industry faces serious challenges, Maine Public is providing a vital public service that's more important than ever.”

For Vogelzang, who spends much of his time connecting with constituents, the key metric is the more than 50,000 households who contributed to Maine Public in the past year. The nonprofit gets 51% of its funding from membership and donor support, 19% from corporate support and 12% each from state and federal coffers. While state support for public broadcasting is rare, Augusta relies on the only statewide broadcaster for its Emergency Alert System.

'All things Maine'

Maine Public's core service is independent news.

To boost capacity for reporting and original journalism in both radio and TV, Vogelzang has added news and digital staff, expanded news and public affairs programming, and upgraded Maine Public's digital platform, laid out in a five-year strategic plan that's about to conclude. Vogelzang says the next plan will have a similar focus.

He underscores that independent journalism is more important than ever in a society where government officials speak of “alternative facts” and denigrate and even threaten reporters. “It's troubling and yet at the same time encouraging to know we're on the right side of history here when it comes to the importance of a free press,” he says.

On radio, news and public affairs programming includes “Morning Edition,” produced and hosted by Irwin Gratz (with more than 115,000 weekly listeners); “Maine Calling” hosted by Jennifer Rooks and news director Keith Shortall; and “Maine Things Considered,” hosted by Nora Flaherty. Vogelzang, who increased the frequency of “Maine Calling” to five days a week, says that Mainers have a “clear appetite for news and information.” The news department employs 16 people and the digital department six. Robert Holt, formerly a programmer with Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., was hired in 2014 as head of digital.

Maine Public is also investing heavily in digital technology, including a mobile app introduced last year and a revamped website that allows listeners to live-stream from anywhere.

Devotees include Brenda Garrand, CEO of Portland advertising and marketing firm Garrand and Partners, whose first job out of college was at Maine Public in 1979. Speaking by phone from a vacation in Florence, Italy, she says that she and her husband like listening to “Morning Edition” with Irwin Gratz in the afternoon there. “It's six hours difference in time, but we listen to what we call Radio Free Irwin.”

TV news and educational programming

On TV, news and public affairs content includes the “PBS Newshour” and “Nightly Business Report,” international news from the BBC and Deutsche Welle, and original coverage in Maine of the governor's address from Augusta as well as debates and candidate profiles and interviews during election years..

Educational programming includes the new PBS Kids channel, which Vogelzang says he would hold up against any other children's program on cable TV. “I would absolutely think parents would choose PBS Kids every single time,” he says, “because of the high quality educational nature of it. It exhibits the very best quality of what public broadcasting should exhibit.” One PBS show that's done well nationwide is “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood,” an animated series based on a character from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” the series created and hosted by the Fred Rogers in the late 1960s. “Sesame Street,” from the same era, is as “strong as ever,” Vogelzang says.

'Quiz show' ambitions

For its new locally produced “High School Quiz Show: Maine,” Maine Public raised $150,000 from foundations and individuals as part of a longer-running capital campaign that brought in a record $35 million to fund ongoing operations. That $150,000 in seed money was used to build a set, hire people and create a show for three years. After that, the plan is to keep raising money or secure underwriting for some costs.

In a year or two, Vogelzang would love to see all Maine high schools apply to be on the show.

So who from this year's academic 'Sweet 16' will win the $1,000 grand prize and go on to Boston to compete against other regional champions? All will be revealed in the season finale, Thursday, May 17, at 8 p.m. on Maine Public TV.

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