The recent headlines announcing the impending demise of URTV come as no surprise. The stories accompanying those headlines, however, claim the station (now an arm of the WNC Community Media Center, which manages public-access television for Asheville and Buncombe County) is failing because it lacks sufficient funding. I beg to differ.
Unfortunately, URTV failed long ago. And money had nothing to do with it.
I was around — and was a vocal advocate of public-access — when the city of Asheville and Buncombe County were negotiating cable contracts with Charter Communications, starting in the late 1990s. I don't remember it as a particularly easy sell, this peculiar animal called public access. Some officials and administrators seemed leery of creating a television channel open to people of any and all persuasions — creating an electronic soapbox, as it was called. How on earth would they maintain control of the message if "the people" were free to say what they thought and have it shot to the entire community via cable? Then there were the members of the public who feared that this "free speech" merely guaranteed that all manner of vile material, including outright pornography, would enter their homes through that insidious black wire.
It's interesting, now, to take a look backward. Today the state of North Carolina, thanks to our legislators, controls cable-franchise contracts and the money they generate. Back then, individual municipalities and county governments went toe-to-toe with the cable company and had the opportunity to argue on behalf of their particular community's wants and needs.
For example, the small public-access station I worked for in Middlebury, Vt., negotiated for live-programming cable in all the major gathering places around town, so that folks who couldn't attend big or important events might still see them in real time. That was important to us as a community.
Asheville and Buncombe County did what I would call merely a fair job of negotiating their respective contracts on behalf of this community. Like too many government representatives, their negotiators seemed to think we were entitled to very little — a position I'm certain was encouraged by the cable provider.
Nonetheless, a reasonable stipend was agreed upon for operations, along with an up-front payment to cover capital costs. That money could have carried the fledgling URTV far, but something went awry.
It isn't easy to determine whom and what to blame. The controversies over executive directors, board members, bylaws and operational transparency that have plagued the station have done nothing to endear it to the greater community. But for me, the bigger problem is that the station itself — or its incorporated, nonprofit management — has done far too little to win that support.
For a public-access channel to be successful, it needs to be truly owned by its community. Residents must look to the station as an important source of information and entertainment; when watching the local public-access channel, the community needs to see and identify with itself — and then respond by supporting the undertaking.
Support means, first and foremost, believing in the ideal that public access was intended to facilitate: First Amendment television, a place where everyone has an equal opportunity to express their creativity or their viewpoint. I have never had a sense that the larger community here feels any ownership in URTV, nor that it feels the station's programming reflects the community we share.
Frequently, support also means becoming personally involved with the station and its programming: doing your own show. Or taking the training and then helping your church, your nonprofit, your gardening club produce a video to share with your neighbors. It has saddened me to see how little cognizance of both the opportunity and the availability has been developed here in the wake of URTV's creation.
Of course, support can also mean financial backing for the community's station — which seems to be what URTV is asking for at this point, but not necessarily what's deserved.
A spirited, inclusive public-access station can operate on very little money. The annual expenditures URTV is reporting (about $250,000 now, with a future target of $300,000 or more) hints at something grander than such a facility necessarily needs to be. Plush is nice; gritty can sometimes get a better job done.
My personal example: MCTV existed in the attic of the local library, where we created a functioning studio in an auxiliary meeting space and then scheduled around each other's needs. (That's called cooperation.) We set up editing decks in an unused space about as big as a walk-in closet. And we maintained a bank of moderately priced video cameras and editing equipment that some 200 producers (in a town of 7,000, not 79,000) kept busy on a first-come, first-served basis. We spent around $30,000 a year; our rent was zero.
People and officials in that town respected the station and its value to the greater community. They identified with the local beekeeper's documentary; with the video of elderly farmers and their beautiful mountain farms; the archives of the annual music festival on the town green; the late-night comedy show produced by a brilliant high-school team; the latest local dance recital (I can still see those cavorting bunnies in my head); the serious political discussions; the series of tribal powwows around the Northeast. In short, these folks considered MCTV "their" station.
That's precisely the kind of participation and ownership that URTV never seems to have tapped, or generated, here. Which is why, if the station goes away, I really doubt that many people — other than a few veteran producers — will care. And that is the real loss: the failure to create true community television.
Asheville resident Nelda Holder is a former URTV board member and the former executive director of MCTV in Middlebury, Vt.