Lights, camera … action?

Who knows how many latent videographers may lurk in Asheville?

Pretty soon, anyone with cable TV and a spark of curiosity will have a chance to discover the answer. At least, that’s what city officials predict. “Before Christmas” is City Manager Jim Westbrook‘s guarded forecast for the debut of Asheville’s long-awaited, controversy-riddled public-access cable station. But recent developments suggest that a crucial step in getting the much-debated station up and running may be taken in the weeks ahead.

In late June, the city sent a draft of a request for proposals to nonprofit organizations that had expressed an interest in operating the public-access station. Among a host of other stipulations, this initial RFP requires bidding nonprofits to: display a knowledge of state and federal laws concerning First Amendment rights and controversial programming; describe their strategy for encouraging beginners to produce programs; explain their philosophy on program diversity and minority needs; and detail a funding plan to keep the channel operating. Throughout July, Asheville’s Public and Community Information Coordinator, Robin Westbrook(no relation to Jim Westbrook) was awaiting public input on the RFP’s wording and content; at press time, she was planning to present the final draft to City Council on Tuesday, Aug. 17.

Ms. Westbrook expects Council to publicly release the official RFP soon thereafter. At that time, interested nonprofits can pick up a copy of the RFP from the city; they’ll have about six weeks to bid for the right to run the station. But she is quick to note that even not-yet-established groups may submit proposals for running the station. In fact, Westbrook encourages interested individuals to consider forming a new nonprofit expressly for that purpose.

It sounds logical enough: Simply be the group that best satisfies the city’s criteria, and an extremely potent vessel of free speech will be yours to fill. So why has it taken Asheville so long to reach this turning point? Until last year, when the city negotiated a new cable-franchise agreement with Intermedia Partners, the city had been operating under a woefully inadequate 1967 franchise, dating from the early days of cable. Among other changes, the new agreement provides for the creation of three noncommercial channels, called PEG (for public access, education and government). And while local government programming can now be seen on Channel 20, and the education channel is gearing up (City Council appointed a commission to run it earlier this year), the public channel still sits in limbo, as the city grapples with the daunting task of birthing an all-encompassing forum for local public expression.

Of course, the other PEG channels also had to be created from scratch, though Ms. Westbrook notes, “with government [programming], it will [always] be the [local] government that runs it, while with education, it will naturally be people involved with education.” A public-access station, she suggests, takes much longer to create due to the sheer volume of programming issues involved.

“There’s a lot of interest in public access here, and we didn’t want to exclude anybody [in creating the channel],” she insists. Some local citizens, however, fear that the city is doing precisely that.

A recipe for success

“A public-access station exists to serve the public,” declared West Asheville resident Nelda Holder during a recent interview. “That means outreach, to get people interested in training and producing, and then teaching them how to use the equipment.” Such training is generally free, she says, though some cities do charge a nominal fee for equipment rental. “It also means making sure the station is functioning so people can come in and pick up equipment — [that] the staff is really there to serve the local producers,” continues Holder.

As the former executive director of Middlebury, Vt.’s public-access cable station, Holder has some definite ideas about how the Asheville station might best be run:

“The public-access movement more or less began in Vermont,” she observes. “They had some of the earliest stations, and [therefore] a big background in public access and what it meant. When Middlebury signed their cable franchise, access was vigilantly included. [And] the Burlington station had been [established] for several years when we went into operation, [so] we had really good mentors.” Holder also notes that the state of Vermont requires cable companies to provide for public access. “And they set up the basis that we’ve been asking for here — and which is the national norm — which is, you establish a commission that is widely representative of the community. You want people to believe in the concept. … You want community involvement and community ownership.” After that, she explains, the commission sets up a nonprofit “that will serve the goals of public access [as established by the commission].

“That’s why I’m not real happy about this RFP, because so far, the public has been closed out,” charges Holder. “The way the draft is written, [the city wants] a full-blown organization that can meet [the] standards they have set forth, and that’s where I have the problem. You’ve taken it from the city setting up the regulations, and how they want it, to giving it to another entity that’s already in existence and was not founded on [public-access] principles. So, in both places, you’ve excluded the kind of groundwork you need to really establish a healthy station. If you pull in some organization that has another focus, it just seems so untrue to the principles of access and to the involvement of the community that you want. It’s a problem for me … I don’t understand what they’re trying to do.”

Ironically, Holder is serving as a consultant to the League of Women Voters, a nonprofit group with a strong interest in the station — but their work involves redefining the role the city dictates for the chosen nonprofit. And Holder isn’t the only one who seems confused about the city’s intentions:

“I want to reserve judgment, [because] I come at [the issue of public access] as a citizens’ free-speech advocate with no hands-on capability, [but] people still aren’t clear on the process. … There are a lot of questions,” admits Wally Bowen, director of Citizens for Media Literacy, before adding, “I give my best hope that everything is going on the right track, and I’d love to be proven wrong [about misgivings concerning the city's handling of the issue].”

But Westbrook reveals that Council does intend to form a public-access commission, around the same time that it advertises the RFP. The commission, she says, will set policy, while the chosen nonprofit will manage the station. What’s more, Westbrook argues that having the city-appointed commission assemble the nonprofit, as is commonly done — instead of letting the group emerge from the community at large — would only limit the station’s possibilities.

For her, it’s an Asheville thing: There’s so much talent here, Westbrook maintains, that “We wanted to include everybody, see what was out there.” And, rather than mimic other cities, she asserts, “This is the way you establish new ground.”

Even among interested local nonprofits, though, opinion varies as to the chosen group’s proper role. As mentioned before, one potential bidder is the Asheville chapter of the League of Women Voters, a 75-year-old, nonpartisan organization that seeks to involve citizens in community issues, encouraging them to vote and take a deeper interest in how their local government operates.

Member Talmadge Neece sees the League’s talents as more inaugural than operational: “We mean to expedite the process. … We are not trying to take over anything. We would want to get the organization set up, to get the technical side working, and then fade out of the picture. In short, we [would be] implementing it, not managing it. [Since] we don’t have any political viewpoint to sell, we feel the community would profit by [our] approach, but this should be a community endeavor, not limited to the League of Women Voters.”

If that approach seems at odds with the city’s vision of what the chosen nonprofit would do, the League’s ultimate aim echoes the founding principles of public access: “We’d like to see the channel become a soapbox for the community, keep it as open as possible — within the realm of good taste and legal limits. It’s another way to educate citizens [about] the issues that concern them, and keep these issues alive in the community,” he concludes.

Another possible nonprofit contender is The Institute at Mars Hill College, a group which helps other nonprofits identify and develop their resources. The Institute owns the rights to two award-winning strategic planning systems, which it uses in its work with nonprofits.

Director Dan Ray, though reluctant to confirm his group’s intention to bid until more is known about the function of the future public-access commission, has already expanded his vision:

“What I would hope to do is establish a system that has gone over very well in other cities, and that is to [build] a regional access network. We can broaden it and get a much bigger piece of the pie,” he avows, adding, “There is an enormous potential for a public-access station here, if done properly. … If you run a professional organization, then the level of quality goes up in that process, and people respond to that professionalism.”

Another touchy issue is the city’s decision to separate the PEG allotments into three separate channels. Holder, for one, expresses “serious misgivings about the direction they’ve chosen to go in. … When you’re trying to create programming and get people interested in a local station, I [found] it was useful to have all three PEG [functions] together on one [channel], because people get used to watching that [channel]. If you get more people trained to use the equipment and produce their own shows, then the need for breaking [the station] down into government, public access and education may become apparent, but doing it this way is a waste of money. … They’re already paying someone to run the government station, when they could have paid somebody to set up a whole system.”

Westbrook’s answer to this criticism reflects a keen confidence in Asheville’s cultural diversity: “We felt that, given the amount of talent and interest here, there would eventually be enough programming to fill three channels. We felt we couldn’t combine them without slighting all three of them,” she explains.

See no evil

Charting new territory is never easy, and a certain amount of confusion about launching an infant station is perhaps understandable. But many of those interviewed acknowledged a deeper concern: naivete — among both the public and some city officials — about the limits of public access.

Fear, argues Holder, may have more to do with the city’s lack of an access station than outdated franchise agreements or inevitable birthing pains: “The fact that it’s taken so long, and the fact that it’s being so carefully managed by having an RFP, would certainly lead me to think that they’re very nervous about having a public-access station. The thing that I’ve seen a lot of start-up systems be worried about is that people are going to put on pornography. But that is illegal on public access. … [That apprehension] comes from the fact that [some] cities have what are called local-origination stations, as well as [true] access stations.” Channel 10 in Asheville is such a station — and many city residents have, indeed, mistaken it for a public-access channel. The crucial difference? “A local-origination station sells time,” Holder explains. Each city’s cable provider governs what will air on its local-origination station, and in larger cities, the broadcasting of pornography has become a hot issue.

“You hear so many horror stories,” agrees Ray. “People fear what they don’t know, but they [also] confuse the whole idea of what public access is. … You can point to just as many success stories.”

Porn may be off limits, but the always-tricky issue of free speech will undoubtedly surface. What happens, for example, if a hate group wants to broadcast its message? They can’t be barred from making a program without negating the very idea of public access — but there are ways to lessen the impact of offensive shows (airing them in the wee hours of the morning is a common solution, notes Holder).

Apathy is another hurdle: Public access, Ray maintains, is “something that never gets city/county priority — it’s that simple.” Significant local efforts have been made to promote the concept — Citizens for Media Literacy, for instance, has produced a video, titled Public Access TV: A Community Voice, that interviews the directors of successful public-access stations, plus assorted Asheville residents and the leaders of local nonprofits. But an e-mail inquiry from Xpress, soliciting input about public access from a list of local citizens who had expressed an interest in cable-TV issues, yielded only one response.

The question ultimately becomes: What does Asheville miss by not having a public-access station?

Glued to the issues

“People will turn on TV before they pick up a newspaper, before they read a book, before they do a lot of things,” declares social worker Adela Mancias in the CML video, adding, “TV is the key, if you have a message you want to get out to the public.”

Asheville-Buncombe Human Relations Council Executive Director Bob Smith, also interviewed in the video, concurs: “[Our group] can’t afford to set up a lot of community meetings, we can’t afford mass mailings, but this is something we could afford. [The station] would be a godsend.”

And local videographer Scott Barber, who specializes in making videos for such groups, says public access is “a way to show people what nonprofit groups are doing.” Barber is currently working on a video for the Mountain Microenterprise Fund, which helps people launch small businesses.

“It’s important for any healthy community to know about the resources available to it. In cities where public access has been around, people love it,” he stresses. “But it’s a struggle to pull off [from scratch]. It takes someone to say, ‘This is what the community needs — let’s make it happen.'”

Robert Brown, co-editor of the Asheville Global Report, argues that the biggest hindrance to getting public access going in the city is local government’s failure to tap local talent.

“Lots of good people are left out of the loop here, people who are not on the ‘approved’ list, but [nevertheless] have a lot to offer,” he proclaims.

Dismissing the short periods allotted for public comment at city and county meetings as grossly inadequate, Brown casts his vote for community programming: “It’s a tragedy to have this many human resources we can’t access.”

Daniel Lightfoot, a Grove Park Inn employee and free-lance videographer often spotted at local events with camcorder in tow, is already hatching plans to mine the almost unlimited possiblities for personal expression:

“I’d like to do an investigative, 60 Minutes type of show, except one that’s more well-balanced. I’d like to show the other side of [local] news.”

The stories of ordinary citizens are also central to the concept of public access. Given Asheville’s intensely diverse population, Holder feels the lack of a public-access station here is a particular shame.

She becomes visibly moved recalling some of the human-interest programs aired by the Middlebury station: “Oh, it was so wonderful to see. … We literally dragged people in off the street. We’d say, ‘Come on in and we’ll teach you, and they’d be, like, ‘No, we don’t want to do this,’ and they’d see that they really could use the equipment — and they’d be really proud. There was a little old lady that … put her mind to learning that equipment. And then she would check [it] out every week, and document older families in farms up in her region. The programs were so beautiful. They weren’t professional programs, although she did a good job, but the people she captured and the stories that she captured and the history that she captured was absolutely priceless. That’s one of the things you get. You get what people are interested in — and that’s what makes people spend their energy doing programs.”

Stay tuned as Asheville moves toward establishing its own public forum.

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