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Accessing Democracy: Creating Community Communications in the Hudson Valley 

This article is first in a series that will focus on media issues in the Hudson Valley.


Why are the public access centers of New York state lagging far behind those in other regions of the country?

Public access centers are usually community media organizations that provide studios and equipment for use by individuals and community organizations. Many offer access to computers and electronic tools, such as graphics and editing programs. Others have initiated Web radio stations where many, especially teenagers, have found expression.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the Catskills and the Hudson Valley, important experiments in democratic media are flourishing in the United States, to which people around the world look for inspiration. I recently attended a un meeting called the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva, Switzerland. From across the globe, communication theorists, government officials, and non-governmental organizations activists came together to assess the “state of the world” communication.

Although much of this summit, like most meetings of the kind, was limited to rhetorical flourishes and governmental posturing, the presence of several community media practitioners from over 80 countries created a unique opportunity for sharing ideas and experiences. This resulted in the creation of a unified statement by the non-governmental groups, the so-called “Civil Society,” which many feel has historic significance: a universal declaration of communication rights.

In the Geneva media discussions, one model was mentioned as a significant example of regulatory protection and enhancement of communication rights: that of the public access provisions in the United states. Public, educational, and governmental [peg] access has been a unique community media experiment regarded by many media activists throughout the world as a successful way of developing local democratic media in the face of corporate monopolies. The use of television channels and equipment on an open “first come, first served” basis has evolved in several thousand us cities and towns with varying degrees of cooperation from the cable corporations required to provide the opportunity. For many communities this has meant that cable corporations are required to provide several public channels, equipment and studio infrastructure, as well as a fixed percentage (in New York state, five percent) of the gross cable bill.

The notion of access as implementation of a democratic project has rarely been recognized by the public or acknowledged by communication theorists. For the general public, Wayne’s World remains the image of access to media programming. This is largely due to the scorn and derision heaped upon public access by network news and mass-market periodicals.

Little mention is made of the televised city council meetings, the welfare rights advocacy programs, or the homework helper shows that teens have organized and produced. No mention is made of the radical television experiments by video and performance artists, the many documentaries rejected by pbs but shown on local access, nor are community ecological watchdog programs recognized.

Understanding public access television from the vantage point of mass media is like trying to understand the complexity of a city from the banner headlines of a tabloid newspaper. And like the tabloid papers, most mass-media outlets are in the hands of the same corporations that own and control cable tv in this country and see access as a threat to their profits.

These huge media corporations—such as Rupert Murdoch’s fox, which now dominates not only us media, but is prevalent all over the world through Star tv—use the public airwaves and public satellite paths to transmit their programming. The rationale behind access regulation is that in exchange for local public space and infrastructure, corporate media must repay towns and cities with a percentage of the monies earned from public “right of way” use. This money is not a tax, but a fee for a particular kind of “real estate.”

In most businesses, real estate costs range from 20 to 40 percent of the total cost of doing business. The five percent extracted in the typical case of community access is actually rather low. Especially considering that the corporation has few other ongoing costs once its lines are in. If you have ever tried to report a cable outage, only to be put on hold and routed from one branch of a phone tree to another, you will know how little Time Warner/AOL spends in terms of customer service. Why should they? It is this monopoly position that requires them to negotiate for the towns' permission.

it’s all in the negotiations
Negotiating a franchise is the one opportunity communities have to make media corporations attend to public needs. As these huge businesses have merged and consolidated, it becomes harder and harder to get local news or public service programming. peg channels can provide that service, but only if towns force the corporations to fund and equip good public studios. Town officials need to negotiate for the very best deal. They have to, in essence, play hard ball. That is the way negotiations with huge corporations have to be handled.

For instance, a town does not have to sign with a specific company and can actually set up municipal cable. Several cities have done this. Frankfurt, Kentucky, where cable bills are very low and they have good public access, is one example. Also, a town can choose not to give cable companies access to the streets or the telephone poles! Or they can say they will change providers.

Many local communities are now or soon will be in the process of negotiating such agreements. During franchise negotiations, citizens have the opportunity to insist on adequate resources for community communications, which should include not only public access, but educational and governmental access as well. Many communities across the country have good public access due to folks in those communities working to get it.

A few years ago, I traveled through Massachusetts as a consultant for the Massachusetts Cultural Council to evaluate access centers. I was surprised at how spiffy many of these facilities were, complete with separate buildings containing studios and editing rooms. Some towns use their media centers as art galleries. Most have state-of-the-art equipment and several channels. Moreover, they have salaried staff: small towns such as Falmouth have two or three full-time people, and several part-timers, while cities like Lowell have sizable staff and impressive equipment. All are capable of developing educational programs and art shows and hosting live musical concerts.

All communities could benefit from digital studios with computer graphic capability and editing bays. Local teachers and youth could use educational channels with studios in both elementary and high schools. Local arts organizations and theater groups can benefit from channels for presentations and promotion. Towns could employ governmental channels to broadcast town meetings. These facilities would, however, need support for staff and equipment, for which five percent of the Internet band could be set aside for public and educational use. This is not pie-in-the-sky theorizing—these types of structures already exist in many communities. Rather than being a hindrance to the cable corporation, local programming can bring in more subscribers.

To improve public media in the Hudson Valley, we need to set up nonprofit organizations to lobby for, operate, and promote community communication. These organizations should have representatives from a diverse assortment of local arts and civic groups, who all can benefit from good public communication facilities.

Getting involved in the cable franchise process is an important first step. We need to take an active role, not only in the production of our own television, but in the implementation, the nurturing, and the defending of local telecommunications structures. This work has global significance. For people all over the world, local control of electronic media has become crucial for self-determination and cultural expression. The models we create here can provide inspiration for local control everywhere.

DeeDee Halleck is a longtime media activist, founder of Paper Tiger Television and co-founder of Deep Dish TV, retired professor of communications at University of California at San Diego, and author of Hand Held Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media (Fordham University Press).

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