Local access cable station at risk
- Published: February 26, 2009
Tune in to Yellow Springs’ public access television station and you might find a Village Council meeting, a Community Band performance or a local resident singing in the shower, viewed from the neck up, thanking the television audience for their patronage. (“Thank you, thank you very much. I’ll be here all week.”)
At the same time down at the station, a Channel 5 volunteer might be battling an audio buzz, testing a microphone malfunction or watching while a computer crash eats a just-completed, hour-long exposé.
What began as a friendly exchange between volunteers has now become the station’s official motto: Channel 5. It’s always something!
“Someone told me the other day that the first thing she does when she wakes up is check to see what’s on Channel 5,” said program manager Jean Payne.
Payne came to the station in 2003 when, as a participant in the Leadership Institute of Yellow Springs, she shadowed volunteers to better understand how the station worked. In the time it took to load a cassette into a video camera, she was hooked.
“Not too many towns of this size have their own public access station,” said Payne, who oversees the program schedule and trains volunteers. “I want to get more volunteers, more content and more people enthusiastic about having their own television station. We’re a town of artists and people with opinions and projects. This is a chance to get their message out to fellow villagers.”
Sadly, just as the station is gaining momentum, the entire operation is under threat of extinction.
“Everything we have is based on franchise fees [station revenue] which we are now in the process of losing,” said Payne.
Former station volunteer and Yellow Springs resident Chad Johnston wants the community to realize what is at stake. Now the executive director of The Peoples Channel, a nonprofit community media center and public access station for Chapel Hill, N.C., Johnston will speak on Saturday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. at the Senior Center as part of Nonstop Presents! to address the growing crisis in public media.
“What I try to do in these lectures,” said Johnston, “is engage people in a conversation about how they understand media and democracy. I tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter what your issue is, media needs to be just above that because without access to media, your issue is dead in the water.’”
Public access has been in existence for over 30 years. As the cable television industry began to grow in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a mandate was placed on cable companies requiring them to provide funding, access and training for community-initiated programming that would address local issues and concerns. This mandate became a form of “rent” that cable companies paid in exchange for running their cable wires through public right-of-ways such as roads and sidewalks.
Through recent legislation, phone and cable companies have succeeded in relaxing the regulations to the point where they have very little obligation to give access channels to local communities. In January, Yellow Springs Village Council received a letter from Time Warner Cable that sets the downward spiral in motion.
Johnston points out the difficulties of getting people to care about a threatened industry that they may not be fully aware of or invested in. When a television viewer breezes past a Village Council meeting, they may appreciate that it’s there but not realize what its loss would mean in the bigger picture. More than helping villagers to be informed citizens, Channel 5 is a record of the community’s past, present and future.
The Yellow Springs station has been in existence since 1980 and is there for the public to use. Many public access (also called “community access”) stations such as Channel 5 are completely volunteer-based. Programs come from individuals as well as community groups and monies from cable franchise fees are used to operate the facilities.
“One of the things I’m excited about is that we’ve been archiving tapes,” said Payne, who wants villagers to take a closer look at those long-forgotten vhs tapes sitting around in their homes. “Villagers have important footage in their possession — interviews with residents who are still here or have passed on, community concerts and events. This is the history of Yellow Springs on VHS tape, which is going to disappear unless we can save it.”
Volunteers work closely with one another — literally. The station is located in a closet off the Council room on the second floor of the Bryan Center. Payne and others can be found working shoulder-to-shoulder at the station on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Interested residents are encouraged to drop by, get acquainted and sign up to volunteer.
“There are the people who do it because they’re artistic,” Payne explained. “They want to create. Then you have the person that wants to make sure the village governance is transparent and open and everybody is involved. And then you have people who see it as a social thing to do.”
Station archivist Millard Mier has spent the last three years transferring past programs from VHS tape to DVD. When he’s not archiving tapes, Mier enjoys filming local concerts such as Chamber Music Yellow Springs.
Dorothy Scott types up the weekly announcements for the “bulletin,” which runs between scheduled programs. Since working as a volunteer for the station back in the ’80s when it was a much smaller operation, Scott has noticed a significant increase in programs produced by local residents.
Station manager and “resident techie” Paul Abendroth first started volunteering in 2000, helping videotape Council meetings with Ken Tregillus, who had been station manager since 1991.
“Ken carried the station for a long time by himself,” said Payne of the long-time mentor and supporter who died last year.
“It used to be, you’d have one tape of a Council meeting and that would run every couple hours for two or three days,” said Abendroth. Later in the week, Tregillus would bike to the station, eject one VHS tape and pop in another, which would then play every couple hours for the next two or three days before the cycle would repeat. In between programs, the announcements bulletin would run.
When it was determined that the broadcasting equipment needed to be replaced, Abendroth took over the project to bring the station up-to-date.
“The timing was absolutely perfect because Ken, bless his heart, had been saving up money from franchise fees for years with the idea that someday this would all have to be replaced,” explained Payne.
The combination of Tregillus’ foresight, Payne’s leadership, Abendroth’s technical savvy and an ever-widening circle of new producers has fostered a spirit of community and creativity that can scarcely be contained in the 7 x 13-foot room. Residents who call the station asking for volunteers to videotape a local event are encouraged to come to the station, receive training and do the videotaping themselves. David “Super Dave” Bogress, Andrew Brouard, Al Schlueter, Abendroth and Payne cover the local government meetings. Veteran contributors including Patti Dallas, Jim Rose and Bill Mullins along with new producers Sharon Perry, Wesley Quick, and others (full disclosure: this reporter is one of the volunteers) have created a burgeoning program schedule that can be accessed on the Internet. A listing of highlights appears weekly in the Yellow Springs News.
Camera operator and producer Bogress has been capturing and recording the town’s identity since 1997 and has watched the station become an integral part of the village. According to Bogress, once people learn he is taping for the station, not only is he welcome, he’s embraced. An example of this happened last spring when he videotaped the annual Mills Lawn Elementary School bike trip.
“Parents were talking to me about their kids and how fun the bike ride was,” he said. “Officer Knoth was out there with all his ‘ducks in a row’ behind him. It’s Norman Rockwell kind of stuff. How do you get that anywhere else?”
For more information, call Channel 5 at 937-767-7803. To view the updated program schedule, go to http://yellowsprings45387.com/YSCA/index.html. For information about Chad Johnston and Nonstop Presents! call 937-319-4440.