For nearly three decades, folksy Maine public radio host Robert Skoglund, better known as “the humble Farmer,” has won fans in New England and beyond for a weekly jazz program interspersed with his wry, country-common-sense commentaries delivered in a distinct Down East accent.
But now Maine Public Broadcasting Network has indicated it may stop carrying the Friday night fixture as an internal reprimand erupts into an increasingly public dispute. The nonprofit, state-assisted network, weary of what it says are thinly veiled political statements, has warned Skoglund to shape up or ship out.
[Update: He has to ship out. The Maine network canceled Skoglund's show in June 2007, the Portland Press-Herald reported.]
The host, in turn, is publicly decrying the network as an agent of censorship. According to MPBN reps, Skoglund is orchestrating a press and letter-writing campaign urging state legislators to defund the network.
Until a couple of weeks ago, this was an internal matter we thought we could resolve without getting into a shouting match in the media,” says Lou Morin, marketing and communications manager. “We don’t want to make a bad situation worse. But if he’s going to make it worse on his own, then we may decide to rip the Band-Aid off on our own.”
Says Skoglund: “I’m not a troublemaker.”
The kerfuffle started Nov. 3, days before Maine voters were to decide on a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights—a tax-restraint measure of the kind that could cut spending on state-subsidized services such as public broadcasting (they defeated it.) On that evening’s program, Skoglund read a letter from a Maryland listener outlining negative effects of a similar measure in that state.
MPBN opted not to run the show because it didn’t want to appear to weigh in on a political proposal, Morin says, especially one that directly affected it — the network receives roughly $2.2 million from the state each year. MPBN instead ran an earlier edition of “The humble Farmer” (the lowercase “h” is meant to signal his humility).
The network also warned Skoglund that his next on-air political statement, explicit or perceived, would be his last. It also ordered him not to mention his relationship with the pubcaster without prior approval during his speaking engagements.
Skoglund essentially went on a charm strike. He began turning in shows, which he records at home, completely devoid of his trademark rustic wisdom and humor.
“Basically, he’s saying, ‘I want the right to say what I want, anytime at all, or say nothing,’” Morin says. “Our opinion is, ‘Great, say nothing. But we’re not going to have you comparing Bush to Hitler.’”
Yes, Skoglund had done that in an earlier commentary. In February 2003, as war with Iraq appeared increasingly inevitable, he read a commentary in which he condemned war and an unnamed “war-mongering, rat-faced wimp” who “calls himself the leader” and is spoiling for a conflict.
“Every time I see him blabbing on TV I wonder how anyone could possibly have been stupid enough to vote for such an idiot,” he said. “I comfort myself by knowing that most of the people who went to the polls didn’t.”
Later in the spiel he contends that he’s talking about Adolf Hitler, not any modern leader.
In August, a Skoglund commentary searched for parallels between Italian fascism and “what is happening in our country today.”
After that, the November commentary was the last straw, Morin says.
Skoglund, 71, has continued to send the usual homespun versions of his shows to WDNA in Miami and KGLP in Gallup, N.M., the other two pubcasters that carry The humble Farmer. The dispute in Maine will have no bearing on carriage on Miami, says Joe Cassara, WDNA operations manager.
Frequently described as the “Garrison Keillor of Maine,” Skoglund and the Minnesota star share tastes for rusticity and progressive politics. Last fall, Skoglund taped a series of robo-calls on behalf of some Democratic candidates in Maine.
But he says his political remarks have stirred complaints in only three or four of the 1,300 to 1,400 programs he’s produced over the past 28 years.
“Everybody laughs at funny old humble farmer and his wisdom,” he says.
Skoglund acknowledges that he recently began talking with the press, lawmakers and anti-censorship groups about his situation in the hope that the network will let him be himself on air, perhaps with a disclaimer explaining that his views don’t represent those of the station.
But he doesn’t want to lose his weekly gig. He says he and his wife, who was recently diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, rely on the $30 a week MPBN gives him for his effort.
Beyond that, “it’s a flattering thing to be a clown for the most intelligent people in New England,” he says.
He doesn’t agree with MPBN’s view that his past commentaries are politically charged. If listeners or station management perceive parallels between Maryland and Maine ballot initiatives or political leaders, he says, that has more to do with their views than his. But he does comprehend that he’s in hot chowder.
“What people perceive is not my problem,” he says. “But if I get thrown off the radio for what people perceive, it becomes my problem.”
Whether that happens or not depends on how the next few weeks unfold.
MPBN wants to limit political commentary to its public affairs shows and keep its Friday night entertainment shows entertaining, not polemical, Morin says. That policy isn’t going to change, no matter how much attention the humble Farmer draws to the situation, he says.
“We’re letting him throw his little tantrum and stomp his feet, but we hope he realizes he’s not doing himself any favors,” Morin says. “He has not shown any indication that he will stop.”
“Our patience is not unlimited.”
Web page posted June 15, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee