It’s ironic but true. Television — the very same gadget that so often becomes a substitute for meaningful human contact — is enriching lives all over America by enabling ordinary people to speak out and be heard. No, I’m not talking about Jerry Springer or Oprah. I’m referring to public-access television, an often-misunderstood medium that’s now coming to Asheville — as soon as the public rallies behind the idea enough to attract the needed funding.
Public access is often confused with public television stations, those nonprofit channels that air British programming, educational shows, cultural events and the like. But public access is fundamentally different: It’s television made by and for the people who live within a single community. It’s an opportunity for you or your favorite cause to be on prime-time TV, opposite Friends or Moesha or Survivor.
Think you can do better? Here’s your chance to prove it! Because when Asheville launches its channel — as Greensboro, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and many other cities already have — anyone in town will be able to produce, direct and star in a TV show. No TV skills? No problem; there will be classes to teach you and your friends how to do it. No money to pay for it? That’s OK, it’s free — except, perhaps, for an annual membership fee that will be roughly equivalent to a dinner for two at a fancy restaurant.
I serve on the Public Access Channel Commission, an all-volunteer, city-appointed body that meets monthly, working to make Asheville’s public-access station happen. The biggest hurdle now is a lack of money. Most public-access stations get their operating funds from the franchise fees that cities collect from their cable companies. Charter Communications pays the city of Asheville more than $500,000 annually, according to a city official’s estimate, but none of that money goes toward public access. City Council has informally indicated that another $340,000 from an agreement with the cable company will be used to buy equipment for the station, but before a public access channel is launched, sources of operating funds must be identified. One City Council member told a member of the Public Access Channel Commission, “Show me a room full of people who want this, and we [City Council] will make it [public access] happen.”
During the coming months, the people of Asheville can stand up for public access by contacting a City Council member or the commission. It’s also an especially good time to contact the Buncombe County Commissioners. This fall, the county is finalizing its franchise agreement with Charter Communications and deciding how much to allot for public access — if any. If the county explores public-access options now — including the possibility of a city/county effort — a station can be provided to all of Buncombe County. The Public Access Channel Commission is putting plans for a station in place, but the more citizens demonstrate their support, the sooner local residents will experience public-access, as I did last month in Tucson, Ariz., when I represented Asheville at the Alliance for Community Media’s annual national conference. The four-day event, attended by many of the nation’s public-access faithful, featured screenings of television shows you will never see on other network or cable channels. A few fit the popular Wayne’s World public-access stereotype, but most of the videos dramatically illustrated how a public-access channel could positively transform the lives of people here in Asheville.
One show created by children features kindergarten correspondents giving tips on cool places where kids can take their parents. Another, produced for and almost entirely by developmentally disabled adults, shares stories about how it feels to be treated awkwardly in public and gives dating advice for people with disabilities. On a video called Lean on Me, activists from the South Bronx talk about how neighbors are supporting redevelopment efforts. Community-based segments such as Spotlight on Germantown and Jazz from the Artists’ Quarter feature important issues and individuals that would be lucky to get eight seconds’ worth of coverage from the major networks. There are shows about pets (or even hosted by them), talk shows put on by older adults, and puppet shows for children who don’t speak English. Pre-taped programs showcase local flora and fauna, or religious services. Neighbors offer cooking tips, demonstrate quilting techniques, or simply share themselves with the world, as the host of Dee Dee TV! does.
On public access, you can make a show about anything you want, and no one can legally censor it unless it breaks federal laws. That’s an idea that delights some people and scares the heck out of others. It’s the reason why the city sent me to Tucson, and it’s also why the Alliance for Community Media exists. And while a well-run public-access channel is very unlikely to lose a lawsuit prompted by a TV program with questionable content, people do occasionally sue. That threat — as well as others from private interests who will profit from the failure of public access (which has no commercials) — tends to keep such stations in survival mode.
A public-access station offers the community tremendous benefits; it gives every resident a powerful soapbox. Anyone can stand and be heard regardless of social status, race, religion or sexual orientation. With power comes responsibility, of course — which I’m certain the people in Asheville can handle.
“As it is said that youth is wasted on the young,” declared one speaker at the Tucson conference, “freedom of the press is wasted on the media.” Between public-access workshops and gawking at cacti, my Arizona experience taught me the desert’s hard truth: When resources are scarce, opportunities cannot be wasted. Public access is an opportunity to make sure that freedom of speech isn’t wasted on Asheville.
Mark Goldstein is the owner of Communication Mark, which provides fundraising and marketing services to nonprofits. He is secretary of the Public Access Channel Commission.
[To stay informed about the Public Access Channel Commission’s efforts, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be added to the commission’s electronic mailing list, or write to: City of Asheville, Public Access Channel Commission, PO Box 7148, Asheville, NC 28802.]