On recommendations from staff, Asheville City Council’s Finance Committee decided earlier today not to renew its contract with URTV, and to put out a request for another entity to take over its public access role.
Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley presents city staff’s recommendations on URTV. Photo by Jerry Nelson.
After a fight with Buncombe County over what funds were owed to the WNC Community Media Center, the nonprofit that runs the channel, its facilities have shut down, its staff are no longer on the payroll and several board members have resigned. City staff are currently taking inventory of remaining equipment, and will remove most of it. In the next one to two weeks, the channel, currently broadcasting pre-recorded material, will go dark.
Further, Administrative Services Director Lauren Bradley told the committee, communication between the city and the board has broken down.
“Is there a board to send notice [of the city’s decisions] to?” Council member Esther Manheimer asked.
“I don’t know, all that I know, unfortunately, is what I’ve read in the papers,” Bradley replied. “The board’s not sent anything to Council or to the city.” She added she had communicated with some of the center’s former staff.
“We have $30,000 in next year’s budget for public access management services,” Bradley said in an initial presentation summing up the situation. “We had gotten a funding request from [the center] for an amount that was just over $115,000.”
Council, in a work session, rejected that request and directed staff to communicate back that “given our budgetary concerns, it’s just not possible for us to increase our funding allocation by the amount you’ve set forth, but we’re open to new models and other proposals and we’d really like to hear back from you on other ideas of how we could make this work within the funding you know you’re going to get from the city and county. Let’s have dialogue”
In response, she said, the city received a detailed letter back “explaining why that was very difficult to do because of fixed expenses, staffing costs, studio space and difficulty in fundraising and getting revenue outside of video service taxes.”
Bradley was seeking authorization to formally communicate the center’s remaining board “the city’s intent not to extend their contract” which expired at the end of April, due to URTV’s inability to continue providing the service.
The city will continue to receive about $44,000 in PEG funds annually — fees charged to all cable subscribers to support government and public access channels — and Bradley said the city can choose to use those for the government channel if it so chooses, and no successor to URTV comes forward. The city will store the removed equipment in City Hall.
Bradley also sought permission to develop a request for proposal “from the community for the continuation of community media development services. It’s a whole new world since we launched public access and there are new ways to communicate. There’s a lot of creativity and entrepreneurship in this community, so we might see some really interesting things come forward.”
The city has been in touch with the county, and she added they have expressed interest in working together on an RFP for URTV’s successor. This time, however, the RFP might be “more seed money to get something going, but then there would be a viable business plan behind it so city and county funding weren’t necessary in perpetuity.”
Council member Bill Russell said staff’s recommendations were “spot-on” and all the members of the committee supported the course of action. Council member Cecil Bothwell noted that “the old model is fading,” and whatever replaces URTV needed to focus on training for electronic video media as well as traditional broadcast.