We are TV

Perspective is such a curious beast.

Certain recent objections to the advent of public-access television in this community appear to have been the result of someone scouring the Internet in search of “objectionable” programming in any of the 2,000 communities that host public-access stations nationwide.

If you’re willing to look that hard for objectionable material, perhaps you deserve to find some. But to use such errant sampling to claim that this is the kind of programming we can expect on local public-access TV is pure distortion.

I speak from experience. For more than four years, I was the executive director of a public-access station in Middlebury, Vt. My work involved management, volunteer training and video sharing throughout the state.

I am therefore well aware of the ways public-access stations actually build — not destroy — community. Allow me to give a few examples illustrating what the vast majority of public-access programming is really like.

First, our station provided family-oriented activities. We trained parents and children, who then worked in teams on local video projects. One favorite was the Festival on the Green. Each July, we taped hours of fabulous musical entertainment during the town’s annual outdoor festival. Then, when everyone was shut inside during the winter months, we ran those shows, remembering our summer picnics as we watched the children grow from year to year — right there on our tapes.

Second, our station was a meeting place for residents of every stripe — politically, philosophically, economically and ethnically. Cooperating in training sessions together, videoing each other during practice interviews, they became friends. And in the process, they strengthened the bonds of community in wondrous ways. I loved the generous spirit that developed among our volunteers, who were always ready to help new trainees or to act as backup when a show was short-staffed.

Third, by allowing individuals to speak their unique truth from the heart, with no censors peering over their shoulders and telling them to do things differently, we began to amass a treasure trove of community history.

I fondly recall one senior volunteer who regularly borrowed our cameras to document the neighbors and the farms in her mountain community. As in Buncombe County, the traditional farms were being lost, and she wanted to preserve her remembrances on tape.

Another senior volunteer taped hours of public events for us — speeches and gatherings that, collectively, provided a chronology of the topics of discussion in our town.

Our high-school students produced a weekly comedy show that was the highlight of our schedule. Their humor could easily have led any of them to writing jobs on Saturday Night Live. (Indeed, I for one found their show funnier!) Several of the folks who worked on this project went on to study video and filmmaking in college; another particularly talented high-school girl used our studio for countless hours, meticulously crafting a stunning portfolio piece that became her passport to design school. It was an animated public-service announcement about recycling, which we used repeatedly ourselves.

By invitation, we took the cameras directly into elementary-school classes for a hands-on media-literacy lesson, helping the youngsters do interview shows with one another and with guests from the community. These, too, proved to be very popular programs with students, as well as with their parents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

An Abnaki couple who’d taken our training used to borrow our cameras over long weekends to document Native American powwows around New England. These pieces of regional history enhanced both public-access programming and our station’s archives.

A veteran hunter who’d trained with us took his camera into the field, producing beautiful feature-length nature films. When they were scheduled to run, we would call the local hospital, so their patients could have a chance to “get outside” for a bit. Another particularly artistic outdoorsman borrowed our equipment to tape hours and hours of — oddly enough — running water. After editing down these beautiful shots of liquid and light, he created several unusual shows that also enriched our local treasure trove.

Parents routinely brought in their own videos of ballgames or dance recitals, and once again our audience numbers soared as the grandparents and cousins tuned in.

And, of course, we had politics. Interview shows aired weekly, and during election season, we ran inclusive debates and also offered every candidate 30 minutes of studio time (we provided a volunteer crew).

We also had health shows — a delightful series on tai chi for seniors, plus an aerobics show aimed at a general audience. Guest experts shared medical expertise. (One psychologist, whose specialty was music therapy, taped a weekly show featuring vintage music paired with visuals of vintage model cars.)

Local accountants offered tax tips and investment counseling.

We had astrology shows, book reviews, a wacky show about the elements of gravity (personified), personal commentaries, live call-in shows, videos made by local college students, special shows on governmental issues (zoning proposals, etc.), and even programming for animals (compliments of a serious dog lover).

We also enjoyed a lot of laughs and a grand feeling of camaraderie. And not once did anyone in that community ever agitate to shut down public-access television (which began there in the early 1980s). To the contrary, the local cable company had to expand its territory to accommodate the many outlying residents requesting service so they could get our station.

So here’s to the advent of public-access television in Asheville and Buncombe County. This is a wonderful opportunity to turn the spotlight on our own community while providing ourselves with wholesome entertainment and historical documentation that will never happen otherwise.

Go to it, URTV! And if you’re reading this, get your name on that volunteer-training list!

[Freelance writer Nelda Holder is based in Asheville. The former executive director of Middlebury Community Television in Middlebury, Vt., she also teaches adult basic skills in Madison County.]


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