September 23, 2020

Maine PBS gambled on basketball, won ‘Radical’ idea now long-running series

It was the dead of winter in 1979. Disco was dying, gas prices were climbing, and the highest-rated public television shows involved Muppets or Mr. Rogers and the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

Ed Fowler was a producer at Maine Public Broadcasting Network-owned Bangor TV station WMEB. After four years on the job, he decided to pitch a bold idea to then-general manager Ed Winchester.

Fowler noticed the tremendous interest generated by Bangor station WABI’s broadcasts of the Eastern Maine Class A basketball tournaments while also noting the void existing for Classes B, C, and D TV tournament coverage.

So he approached Winchester and suggested that MPBN, which had never before aired a live sports broadcast, fill the void and broadcast “Tournament Week.” Winchester gave his approval and the experiment was under way.

“The first year we did it, there weren’t enough underwriters, so we didn’t even begin to cover our expenses, but I promoted it as a service to viewers and we did it anyway,” Fowler recalled.

The response from the general public was positive and encouraging, but not overwhelming. That came a year later, when MPBN officials elected not to broadcast the B-C-D regional semifinal and final games due primarily to financial reasons.

“We got a lot of calls and letters, as I recall,” said Fowler. “We didn’t realize how much people wanted it until we didn’t do it the following year.”

Twenty-five years and 24 B-C-D tournament week broadcasts after that first tourney coverage aired, MPBN is now Maine PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and/or Maine Public Broadcasting, its tournament week coverage is an institution, and Maine PBS is now airing all semifinal and final action in both regions and all four classes (A-B-C-D).

Maine PBS concluded another successful tourney season with the broadcast of the Class A state finals last Saturday.

Fowler is still with the station and still head producer of Maine PBS’ tourney coverage, but his title has changed. He’s now production manager.

“Ed was and still is the driving force behind our high school tournament coverage,” said Maine PBS vice-president of TV and education Bernie Roscetti, another institution at the station.

Roscetti, who was program manager back when Fowler made his radical proposal, was a cameraman for those first tourney broadcasts.

He still is.

“When basketball rolls around, it really takes most of the people on the staff to do it well, and since I’m going to be involved, I might as well do what I do best,” Roscetti said. “I can do that in my sleep.”

Speaking of sleep, Maine PBS’ tourney coverage has gone from risky proposition to a project that achieves undreamed-of ratings.

“I have to be honest, even I was surprised with the number of people tuning in. They are substantial,” Fowler said. “It’s the highest-rated programming we have.”

The coverage has not only benefited Maine PBS, it has had a positive impact on tournament interest and attendance, much to the surprise of tournament officials.

“Ironically, I think our coverage has helped increase tourney attendance and not the opposite,” Fowler said. “We initially had to fight that perception with [MPA officials] of taking away from the attendance early on. It’s like TV and the NFL. Television helped make the NFL what it is today.”

Tournament coverage has also served to help bring public television into the living rooms of countless homes that otherwise would never have it on.

“It’s really opened up a whole new audience to us and I hope we, in turn, have been able to do the same for some viewers who might not otherwise have ever watched public television,” Roscetti said. “It’s been a great promotional vehicle.”

All in the family

It’s funny, even with all the changes over the years, broadcast crew personnel – one of the more fluid components of broadcasting – has remained relatively stable.

Roscetti is still behind the camera, as is studio supervisor Earl Allen, who has been with Maine PBS for 34 years. Fowler is the third member of the Maine PBS “family” who can brag he’s been around for all 24 broadcasts. Guess that makes them the patriarchs.

“I’ve been there longer than either one of them,” said Allen, a self-professed nonsports fan who admits to being won over by the human drama of the tournament. “I started in 1970 as a cameraman and worked my way up to studio supervisor and building sets.”

That’s not to say there aren’t others with staying power. Boys hoop play-by-play man Joe Gould has called the action for 23 straight years now, making him dean of MPBS announcers.

“I started out doing the girls games with Shelly Gavett. She wouldn’t let me give the girls’ heights or weights,” Gould recalled with a chuckle. “I think when Keith [McKeen] came on, they moved me to the boys.”

McKeen is half of the longest-running broadcast partnership on Maine PBS. This year, while Gould was working with his sixth different broadcast partner (former Waterville coach Ken Lindloff), Keith McKeen (play-by-play) and Lisa Richards (color) were calling their 19th straight tourney.

McKeen is the only announcer who actually works for Maine PBS full time. When not calling game action, he is a news reporter and producer.

“Ed asked me if I wanted to do some games because he knew I did some Stearns and Schenck games for WMKR for a couple years,” McKeen said. “But that was radio. I was a little nervous where TV was concerned.”

McKeen said the butterflies are still there the first couple days of broadcasting each year.

“We only do these games for two or three weeks out of the year, so it takes a little bit to get back into a rhythm,” he said.

Butterflies and all, McKeen and his fellow announcers thoroughly enjoy their three-week break from the norm.

“It’s even better now,” said Gould, a former radio announcer at Lincoln’s WLKN and Dover-Foxcroft’s WDME who broke in with Maine PBS in 1981 with Dewey DeWitt. “It used to be that you were just getting warmed up and then the B-C-D was over, so having Class A games is really nice for us because we’re a lot more comfortable.”

Changing with the times

Class A finals coverage was added last year, after Bangor station WABI (Channel 5) and the Maine Principals Association opted to end a 50-year association.

This year, Maine PBS added “A” semifinals to the mix after securing the necessary funding.

Maine PBS officials point to the addition of Class A broadcasts and the advent of instant replay in the 1970s as two of the most important advances in tourney coverage.

“Changes have been very gradual, but the biggest leap in terms of what we aspired to do was last year with the addition of the ‘A’ games,” Roscetti said.

Other key developments include the addition of graphics in the 1980s and general technological advances that have seen Fowler’s operation go from two cameras and massive, heavy cables the first few years to a high of seven cameras in the ’80s to the current total of four and much lighter, thinner cables and equipment. The advent of satellite and digital technology has also helped make things easier.

As much as the technology has changed, the number of people (40 to 45) required to pull off this annual undertaking has remained the same.

“Yeah, and there’s something else that really hasn’t changed,” Fowler said.

That would be their philosophy.

“We like to let the games speak for themselves, basically,” said McKeen. “As a rule, we don’t criticize.”

“We try to do it with professionalism and not try to be clowns about the whole thing,” Gould added. “These are 16- and 17-year-old kids and this is their week.”

Thanks to Maine Public Television, it’s everyone’s.

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