Marta Daniels Letter To Charles Beck

December 12, 2007

Charles Beck
Vice President, Director of Radio
Maine Public Broadcasting Network
1450 Lisbon St.
Lewiston, ME 04240

Dear Mr. Beck,

Listening to MPBN each Friday night, I’m reminded how much I miss Maine’s best old time jazz and humor show, The humble Farmer, hosted by Robert Skoglund. It’s as though a close friend has died but his ghost on the radio is still walking around in our lives, a reminder of what we once had. The absence of this unique Friday night show—one of the few that gave a true voice to the state of Maine—is a great loss for public radio and its listeners. Finding a substitute is impossible.

You have been the public face of MPBN in the events leading up to Skoglund’s firing and the show’s elimination, so it is to you that I write this. My letter comes from one who cares about the public in public radio, and who admires many of your fine program offerings, both musical and topical. I would not like to go through the day without MPBN. But the hole in our listening life on Friday nights without The humble Farmer is the same as the hole we’d feel on Saturday nights without Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Probably MPBN will never change its position on Skoglund’s firing, nor will he ever come back from the MPBN dead, but as you go forward soliciting “public input” for your future “5 Year Plan,” you should know that many of us have serious questions remaining as to why Skoglund was fired, and that a deep residue of ill will towards the station persists in Maine’s public radio land. Partly this is because of the disrespect we feel Skoglund and his supporters were shown by management during and after his firing—a disrespect unbefitting a state funded, publicly financed organization seeking to maintain and expand listener support.

This letter shares widely held concerns among former MPBN loyal supporters—once part of your “public”—in the hope something might be done to heal a bruised constituency, and to make some amends to Robert Skoglund, the unpaid, 28-year host of your longest running, locally produced program, The humble Farmer. Based on personal discussions, and the reading of hundreds of protest letters to MPBN from his supporters, posted on the Internet, I believe I speak here for thousands of Maine citizens in your radio audience. I apologize for the length of this letter. I hope you’ll give it your time.

Most of us who wrote letters of concern to you or your CEO, Mr. Dowe, prior to Skoglund’s firing—pleading for continuation and then re-instatement of his show—never got a response to our questions about why this happened. His removal from MPBN listings last summer was never even acknowledged on air. In the spirit of closure and a proper burial for the man’s show and its extraordinary 28-year run on Maine’s public airwaves, we look to your explanations for why this show was cancelled, and respectfully seek your response to some real questions these raise for us.

1. MPBN maintains that Skoglund had recently become, or was “perceived” to have become, too “political,” using the show inappropriately for personal, political opinions (real or perceived). This was unacceptable because MPBN couldn’t be seen as “biased” as this would threaten the credibility of the station, and would betray the public’s trust.

Robert Skoglund produced his traditional jazz, humor and social commentary show for your radio station faithfully every week, for 52 weeks a year, for over 28 years—more than a quarter century. That’s a very long time for a station to have kept someone around who was a true threat to the public trust. Surely a program host’s opinions would have come to your attention sooner than the 27th year of its production. And surely, someone of Skoglund’s strong individuality and long held beliefs would have been immune to such abrupt, overnight transformations. Anyone who’s listened to Skoglund over the years knows that MPBN’s assertions about his sudden “politicization of the airwaves” are simply not credible.

We suspect that it was MPBN that changed.

We can’t know for certain, but we believe that the politics of fear, generated by the current conservative political atmosphere in our country, was primary. Neither prior nor post-mortem evidence was ever given us for complaints against Skoglund, or for revenue loss, or for what might have happened if he was allowed to continue “uncensored,” commenting as he has for over 28 years on issues of the day. You may feel that you were under no obligation to tell us, but 28+ years of service, 15,000 unique humble Farmer ramts in 1500 shows, plus a listener base of loyal, income-generating fans, suggest otherwise.

If his “rants” (on Hitler? Mussolini? war?) were suddenly a problem for MPBN, there was an easy, available remedy: As with your 1 o’clock public affairs programs, a simple station disclaimer before and after each humble Farmer show would have sufficed to protect the station against bias charges—something you refused to do with Skoglund’s show. Instead, a very heavy, controlling hand was lowered on him in the form of a set of censoring guidelines. That assertive repressiveness is what Skoglund fans will remember about MPBN’s management as we go into the future. Because of it, you lost hundreds of members and listeners, and a considerable amount of the very “public trust” you say you sought to preserve by eliminating him.

And along with us, you lost a show that was irreplaceable. The humble Farmer was not just any show. It was the only original work on MPBN that had a deliberate and focused Maine flavor. Of all your other fine, Maine-generated shows, it was unique—for its personal creativity and social wit, for the brilliant musical knowledge of its host, and for the fall down funny stories of everyday Maine life invented by a true genius of Maine storytelling. Many of us feel that you fired a state treasure, misunderstanding the role of a social humorist in both historical and contemporary terms. Skoglund was not, and is not, political. He is a humorist.

He follows in a long and respected tradition of Maine humorists going back to the great Seba Smith of the mid-19th century, who celebrated Maine life and language in his stories, and was the first in America to create a simple, homely character and through him to make shrewd comments on politics and life. Skoglund is among a dying breed of Maine storytellers whose talents deserve to be honored and preserved, not squelched. In fact, MPBN missed a great opportunity to tap into the large, existing reservoir of interest for Maine humor, and syndicate Skoglund’s show nationally. With an experienced, classic Maine humorist in house, you could have exported The humble Farmer through NPR, and reaped both admiration and financial reward with a true, homegrown Maine product. Instead, you eliminated entirely this uniquely Maine-focused humor program so that now, not even the people of the state of Maine can enjoy it. (Its absence also nearly wipes out your offerings of traditional early jazz, of which his expertly annotated selections were the best).

This kind of programming decision is shortsighted at best, and at worst, is part of what many see as the increasing outsourcing and homogenization of Maine’s public airwaves. His show was special because it was so Maine centered, but also inventive, anchored in the imaginative personality of Robert Skoglund. When we tune in to your other MPBN-produced shows, we tune in to listen to the great selection of music made by program hosts such as the avuncular Mr. LeBoutillier (Down Memory Lane), or the pleasant Suzanne Nance (Classical Music). These hosts are not the program; if they left, they could be replaced and the program would continue. When we tune into the humble Farmer, we tune in to hear him, as well as the music he plays. He is the program, and cannot be replaced. This is what made him utterly different.

We’ve struggled to see the reasoning behind MPBN’s firing of Skoglund. Among your most frequently cited examples of his unacceptable behavior are: a) making “support-your local-candidate,” robo phone calls to Democrats prior to election day, Nov. ‘06; and b) reading a letter the same month on his show from a fan in Maryland on the impact of their state tax cuts on the poor. Does your first complaint mean we lose our basic rights as citizens (like common criminals in prison) if we become MPBN hosts? Does a person forfeit participation in state and national political life if they work for MPBN? It’s shocking to think that MPBN staffers would lose their civil liberties and be barred from exercising what is normally viewed as a time-honored civic activity in our democratic process. Skoglund’s phone calls advocated no candidate, and simply urged voters to get out and support their choice, whoever it was.

On the letter from Maryland, let us accept your point of view that reading it on his show crossed some invisible line (though it did not advocate a position on the TABOR referendum soon to be voted on in Maine, and never once mentioned it by name). Even if this one “rant”—out of the 15,000 delivered by Skoglund over the years—was “over the line,” doesn’t a person’s body of work for 28 years count for anything? Doesn’t an audience who is committed and faithful in a difficult Friday night programming time slot count for something? Did anyone sue MPBN for this kind of commentary, or any other that was actually delivered by Skoglund? Was MPBN threatened with a fine from the FCC? We were never told what terrible fate might have befallen the station, and we would truly like to know.

In hindsight, it seemed to us that MPBN’s response to these imagined threats was first to censor his TABOR-related letter show (it never aired, and was available only on Skoglund’s website), and then to make a beeline for the lawyers to figure out how to muzzle him for good. Many of us feel this was an unnecessarily harsh, unwarranted response, a result of being too easily persuaded that a “perceived” danger was a real danger. It appeared that MPBN caved in to an imaginary foe before anything really happened. (Who needs government censors when local management does it for them?) Surely the station could have weathered whatever storm might have come up, and thousands of us would have rallied to defend you.

The price of being steadfast, of standing up for a long-running stellar program, and of courageously facing “perceived” threats to the station, would have been far less costly than the high price we are now paying for Skoglund’s firing, both as listeners and as citizens in a democracy. That cost includes further erosion to our civil liberties as mediated on the public airwaves, a chilling resurrection of the repressive tactics of the McCarthy era (loyalty oaths in the form of guidelines) and a backdoor assault on a once-democratic institution, MPBN.

2. The only official reason MPBN gave for Skoglund’s firing was that he himself lost his show because he wouldn’t sign the station’s guidelines submitted to all staff equally, and created to ensure the neutrality of the station.

After several unsuccessful threatening memos last year to Skoglund, attempting to micro-manage and censor what he could or could not say each Friday night, MPBN instituted its own “guidelines”—a document that smacks of a loyalty oath. Every staffer was required to sign it or be fired. Signing meant that Skoglund would self-censor his own program. Not signing meant the end of his show. In these guidelines, MPBN management even invoked the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics to give credibility to this clumsy legal sword (virtually unheard of at any other public radio station). The SPJ Code was written for journalists in reporting the news without opinion, and was never meant for commentators or humorists. (Your web site says it’s for all staff.) Trying to apply the code to Skoglund is like prohibiting Jay Leno from making jokes about the day’s news. Knowing most of us would not realize this distinction, you invoked the SPJ Code as a badge of honor, implicitly damning (as biased) anyone who didn’t sign. Such guidelines were completely inappropriate for one of Maine’s most creative humorists, Robert Skoglund, and his social commentary and humor show. Courageously, he would not sign. How absurd, and how badly did MPBN misunderstand the nature of a personality-driven humor program.

Skoglund could no more sign such a document than could Mark Twain. Applying your guidelines, if Will Rogers showed up on MPBN’s doorsteps, he would be barred from your airwaves. If The Car Talk Guys, who host Click and Clack, worked from Maine, they would get the boot. The sad truth is that these repressive guidelines, written purely with Skoglund in mind, were a heavy handed, legalistic ploy, created to mask the real intent of avoiding firing him outright. If he refused to sign them, it would look like he had fired himself! And because it was given to all staffers, it appeared evenhanded; but it was a selective and insincere gesture: you and we knew Skoglund could never sign it. No patriotic American could.

3. MPBN asserts that as an MPBN program host, whose show originates in Maine, Skoglund cannot say things that are “political” or that might be perceived as “political” lest they be seen as opinions coming from, or supported by, the station.

Most of us see this as a very fine distinction, and while used to legally justify MPBN’s rationale for firing Skoglund, it holds no water with listeners. Of the farrago of reasons we’ve heard from MPBN, this one is the most contradictory and the least supportable. Anything emanating from MPBN’s airwaves is assumed by us, the listening public, to be “coming from MPBN.” We do not make this hair splitting, discriminating distinction when we listen to the station. What we know is that it is all coming from MPBN, Maine’s only public radio station. You are choosing each and every program we hear over the MPBN airwaves. When you muzzle a Maine host, but not one “from away,” it seems to us to be an unequal and unfair application of your own stated guidelines and values.

It’s a fact that MPBN weekly pays large amounts for airing Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me, and for the even more incendiary Capitol Steps. All of these “entertainment” programs are far more direct than Skoglund ever has been in their “political” attacks on the current administration, and for espousing liberal viewpoints on issues of national import that often have profound state and local affects. Keillor’s own show has taken on state and local issues wherever his show travels. He’s been scathing in his exposure of local political corruption, abrasive in opposition to undemocratic statewide initiatives, and with withering ridicule, never misses an opportunity to pillory local politicians and federal Congressmen he deems enemies of democracy (with a small d).

And yet, not only do you air and promote these nationally syndicated programs, you want us to accept that their opinionated content is somehow categorically different from the viewpoints that might be “perceived” as coming from a locally produced show of Skoglund’s. You want us to believe in—and ask us to pay for—these shows, but tell us that only Skoglund’s show is somehow jeopardizing the integrity of the station. How powerful you make Mr. Skoglund! MPBN’s enthusiasm and promotion for one kind of program, but not the other, is contradictory at best, and at worst, demeans the intelligence of your listeners.

Many of us were shocked to learn that MPBN had solicited the appearance of Garrison Keillor in Bangor, Maine for next May. In the August 2007 issue of MPBN’s Experience Magazine, on page 13, you write that “after much discussion,” you succeeded in convincing him to come to Maine and do his show. You were proud of this accomplishment and wanted readers to know of your effort. To many of us, this was the ultimate in MPBN hypocrisy. Surely you know that Robert Skoglund is called “The Garrison Keillor of Maine.” Surely you know of Keillor’s overtly left leaning political views (read his book, Home Grown Democrat), which are always part of every show. How do we square this with the reasons you’ve given for Skoglund’s firing, or explain such a terrible contradiction?

Finally (and this is not a question), there is the big issue of respect, vis-à-vis Mr. Skoglund’s 28+ years of dedicated, uninterrupted free service to MPBN and the people of the state of Maine, and all of its millions of summer time Friday night commuters.

In this same August issue of Experience Magazine, on the same page 13, you personally bid a fond and very respectful farewell to former MPBN classical music host, Elena See, who left for another job last July, after five years as a fully paid employee (replaced by Suzanne Nance). You profusely thank her and wish her well. Many of us were also sorry to see her go, and your gesture to her was welcome. Yet not a word is said of Skoglund’s disappearance in the same month from the airwaves of MPBN, after 28 years of free, uninterrupted service, delivering entertainment to Maine’s people, and to the millions of others “from away,” who faithfully tuned in to listen to him while on their Friday night summer commutes up the Maine Turnpike to vacationland. When he was “let go” last summer, there was not even the courtesy of telling the listening public he wasn’t part of the lineup anymore. You just erased him from your schedule without a word, as though he never existed. This was discourteous and disrespectful of Mr. Skoglund, and deeply offensive to us, his listeners.

From where we sat on the MPBN radio dial, we had to conclude that Skoglund’s 28 years of free entertainment for the station meant nothing, and that his listening audience meant even less. We simply didn’t—and don’t—matter. (We really do believe that’s the way you and the MPBN board feel about us). With relatively few exceptions, none of the hundreds of protest letters you received from us prior to Skoglund’s canning, and afterwards (especially during the last fall fund appeal where many listeners cancelled memberships and kept wallets closed), got even a simple acknowledgement of our concerns. Now MPBN management is traveling the state “soliciting” public input for its “5-Year Plan” for future programming. We wonder, how is it possible that so many of us can be so easily and completely ignored??

When President Clinton was asked why he did what he did with Monica Lewinsky, he responded, “Because I could.” He meant that he had the power to engage in bad behavior, and to do so with impunity, without consequences, or so he thought. As your listeners, we feel you and the board did what you did to Skoglund and his audience because you could. You took a measure of what power he and his listeners had, and made a calculated guess: Maybe some ripples for a while, but it would all blow over eventually, and you would not be seriously affected in either your fund raising or in the public’s perception of the organization. State tax dollars would continue, and other contributors would replace us. Only time will tell. But perhaps there were more important consequences that should have been measured. Not as tangible as money or status, they are more lasting, and much more influential. They are about the health of a democratic society, the open access of the public airwaves, and the growth of a vibrant, critically thinking public, all things MPBN says it cares about.

We would really like to know how much better off you believe the station is today, having removed Skoglund from your airwaves, but aware that as you head into the future, you will have to drink from a fairly deep reservoir of ill will generated by this action. We ask you sincerely, what was it really worth to you?

People didn’t write you so many letters like the one you’re reading now because we hated the program or hated MPBN. We wrote because we loved it, and we cared deeply about the station. We would renew our support in a heartbeat if you would undo what you did and give us back this very special program. As we listen (or not) on Friday nights, we will always know that MPBN’s management and board actively brought about the demise of The humble Farmer show, a thought-provoking, brilliant, funny, musically superb, one-of-a-kind, Maine-celebrating tour-de-force that we miss more than anything else in public radio land.

As members of “the public,” we would still really like to know: Why is it gone?

Marta Daniels
49 Honey Rd.
Little Deer Isle, ME 04650
Tel: 207-348-6096

CC: Joseph Wishcamper, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, MPBN
James Dowe, President and CEO, MPBN
Erik Jorgensen, Chair, Community Advisory Board, MPBN

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Robert Skoglund
785 River Road
St. George, ME 04860
(207) 226-7442

© 2007 Robert Karl Skoglund