Impatiently Waiting for Public Access

It’s Tuesday night. According to our own entertainment calendars there isn’t much at all going on on a Tuesday night in Vallejo, except of course at Listen & Be Heard Poetry Caf? where there is some fresh comedy happening at the World Comedy Jam. But I’m home with the kids tonight, and I’m sitting here in my living room experiencing de ja vu. I’ve turned on the television to Channel 27 to see what else might be going on in Vallejo. Wasn’t I writing this back on July 12? Oh yeah, I was. “As I write this letter I am sitting in my living room with the television turned to Channel 27, Vallejo?s channel for public access programming. Mostly I see community bulletin board announcements. In the last twenty minutes…”

At that time, when I spoke to several boardmembers, they assured me that the ousting of Clayton Leander as Executive Director of [tag]Vallejo Community Access Television[/tag], in favor of a model that replaced his position with a part time administrative person and a part time technical director, would be only a small setback. A couple of the boardmembers said that they expected both positions to be filled by the end of the following week. I suspected that that might be a little quick, and sure enough, as of August 22, the technical director position has not been filled.

Newly appointed Clare Roberts has been the Administrative Director since the middle of July. She is a Vallejo native, having returned here after a 10 year stint in the army. She says she excels in developing protocols and procedures and goes by the “mack truck theory” that if she got hit by a mack truck, things should still run smoothly at the office. I asked her when she expected there would be an election for new members to the board. She couldn’t tell me, but said that the board was “slated to be seated by September 30” when the results of the election would have to be announced.

Boardmember of [tag]VCAT [/tag]and Public Information Officer for the City of Vallejo, Mark Mazzaferro, told me that he was encouraged by the fact that there were several qualified local applicants to the job of techincal director. He said “that way you know you’re going to get somebody who cares,” and predicted that the position would be filled by September 15.

Clayton Leander, who now “makes himself available” to boardmembers and members alike to answer questions pointed me to the job description for technical director.

After picturing in my mind how operations would work on a day to day basis, I commented to Clayton that it seemed to me that they would still need a program director in this mix. Who is going to decide who gets to do regularly scheduled live shows, what community events will be covered, and how to coordinate with other organizations in order to gain access to the community? According to the job description, among other duties “The Technical Director will report to the Board of Directors, with specialized direction from the Chair of the Technical Committee.” This person would also “be in charge of Programming of initial ongoing programming to air, as guided by the VCAT Programming Committee. Conducting Video Equpipment and Video Production Training classes, as approved by HR Committee and/or Executive Committee.” The technical director would also participate “in (but not coordination of) VCAT Orientations. Supervision of select public events coverage, as approved by HR Committee and/or Executive Committee. Dubbing and preparation (title, credits, etc.) of select materials for playback to air, as coordinated by Programming Committee. Recommendations for and training of select volunteers for internal station activities”. There is indeed nothing here that says the Technical Director has the authority to make any decisions on his own.

Clayton elaborated on that observation by e-mail: “Yes, normally a Board sets policy, and staff would handle the day to day management-level functions, such as the Programming department or Production. Where budget permits there is often a Programming Director working under an ED or General Manager. Usually this is someone experienced in PEG channel Programming who would understand how to do broad-based outreach and encourage the production of new local programming, while insuring an equitable ‘First Come-First Served’ approach. This also requires understanding delicate procedures for handling content submitted for the channel in respect to the First Amendment. Hopefully whoever is managing this will also serve to exemplify for the community a respect for the diverse and free expression in the marketplace of ideas.

However, the job desciption as currently written shows the Board & committee’s ultimate decision to exercise management authority over Programming, as well as which community productions staff would cover. I could not recommend that organizations like VCAT go that route, but hopefully this will be corrected.

While any PEG entity could and should certainly promote and cultivate quality programming the channel time, they’d still need to be careful in a public access environment to not allow beaurcracy, technical barriers or procedures to deny anyone fair access to Public Access channel time. Otherwise they’re leaving the Board open for exposure, and could also put a city into a compromising position.”

I asked Beverly McGain, an original boardmember going back eight years now, whether she was concerned about the possibility of censorship by lack of authority. She responded that “programming will be based on a first come first serve basis, except for shows that should be aired later, because of the adult nature of them. Producers are responsible for the tapes they air. VCAT is not responsible. The board is here just to set policy. If you don’t like what you see you can walk to your television and turn it off.” She continued by telling me that editing equipment needs to be purchased and is still in the budget. The actual costs have been more than planned, but a lot of equipment has been ordered. “We want to edit as soon as we have the basics. We don’t want to wait. Now we’re waiting on purchasing of lighting.” I told her that some members I spoke to have said that updated bulletin board announcements are not being aired. She responded that “I would like to talk to them. That shouldn’t happen.”

According to member Maria Guevara, who attended a tech committe meeting on August 5, Bob Boster, board member and head of the tech committe spoke of setting up a class with Vallejo resident David Snell, to teach members the proper procedure for video playback, but he didn’t follow through, or attend the next two meetings. I told Beverly about the perception, among some members that there is “a lot of communication going on, but not a lot of action.” Beverly responded that “he (Bob Boster) has a new job, but this is a problem that needs to be solved. He’s on the road a lot more. We need more people with technical skills. My skills are not in the techinical realm. If it hampers people’s access then it has to change. I don’t see that we’re hampering access. I see the board looking forward to the day that we’re less involved. We need to generate funds, but programming, and the classes, that isn’t a problem that has come up yet. I think the tech committee is making progress. They developed a check out procedure for equipment, developed a protocol. I think that’s about finished. The other part was to do inventory. Every piece of equipment had to be number stamped and recorded. When checked out it has to be in good condition. We need someone who knows what they’re doing to check it back in. I think a lot of that will be done by the Technical Director. It’s not fair to make members wait until then. Ideally some of these issues can be worked out.” I asked her when she expects that producers’ tapes will begin to be aired. “I think that’s a question to ask Bob” she said. She went on to say that “I’ve been doing this for eight years. I can’t imagine anyone being more excited than me to see VCAT on the air. It was wonderful to hear that the building is finished. No one could be happier than me. I would have to be crazier than I am to delay things.”

Beverly McGain certainly seemed earnest in her frustration and desire to make the station fully functional. Unfortunately, the problem with speaking with Bob is that he is indeed a busy man, and while no man can be blamed for providing for his family and pursuing his career, it does seem that it could be a problem for the station if decision makers are not accessible. I tried to reach Bob myself, for comment, and was informed that he is very busy and might not get back to me for a few days. Thus far he has not returned my call, but stay tuned for future updates. Boardmembers can not be expected to be available at all times, but it does seem to point toward the issue that Leander raised about the function of boardmembers versus staff members. Another issue I can foresee on the horizon is how decisions will be made about producers who apply to air a regularly scheduled show. How will the time slots be divided between pre-produced tapes, live shows, and programming that would be created and aired on a regularly scheduled basis? It can take a little juggling and experience to insure that decisions are made in a fair and equitable way, and representative of the diversity of the community that is Vallejo. These are tough day to day decisions generally made by a program director and can be more complicated than a simple first come, first serve policy.

For those who have been following the struggle to gain [tag]public access to cable television[/tag] for the last eight years, the goal must seem tantalizingly and frustratingly close, with no satisfaction yet. Ms. McGain has urged patience, even as she deals with her own frustration with delays, but pointed to the completion of the studio (albeit still missing lighting and editing equipment) as a milestone to feel good about. Meanwhile, the frustration of members who paid their dues back in June is also understandable. “It’s natural to think there would be access, when paying for an advanced membership” said Ms. Guevara. “I paid, but it doesn’t seem to exist. They keep saying ‘it takes time’.”

The educational piece of the PEG (Public, Education, Government) puzzle is moving forward, with the production class that has started at Jesse Bethel High School, where the studio is located. The government channel has been running smoothly for years. The public is still experiencing de ja vu. More again in a few weeks. In the meantime, please send me an e-mail with your thoughts or information on the subject.

One Reply to “Impatiently Waiting for Public Access”

  1. More Threats to Local Control & Community Channels: Oppose AB 2987 & HR 5252

    It has beeen said that “Telecommunications is the new ‘Water Rights’ of the 21st Century”. I write today to ask those concerned or involved with shaping the future of community access television channels and retaining local control of telecommunications to oppose AB 2987, so-named the “Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006”. There is also similar legislation being considered in the US Congress, currently known as HR 5252 or its previous incarnation as COPE Act, or the Barton Bill. (named for Joe Barton R-TX, whose two top campaign contributors were AT&T and Comcast.)

    Passage of AB 2987 would undo many years of hard work to make local PEG access television available to local communities, including VCAT’s new Channel 27 and the City of Vallejo’s government Channel 28. This piece of legislation being considered by the State Senate in Sacramento this week, if passed unopposed, would effectively eliminate all current provisions for PEG in California. AB 2987 and HR 5252 bills would also eliminate ‘Net Neutrality’, and clear the way for ‘Redlining’ in the deployment telecommunications upgrades, whereas more affluent communities would get the faster telecom lines installed in their neighborhoods (of course, along with the giant & obstructive teleco cabinets). Forget transferring the concept of ‘Universal Access’ to the digital domain: these bills would further deepen the ‘Digital Divide’.

    It should be of no surprise that AB 2987 has been heavily lobbied for by telecom giants at the tune of over $19M, most notably AT&T and Verizon. An earlier version was unfortunately passed by the California state legislature, unanimously no less; and from all indications, without careful review of the impact on local communities and governments. AB 2987 takes away the rights of cities, counties or joint authorities to protect the local Public Right-Of-Way, collect a portion of franchise fees, or assure equitable access that would serve the entire community. Contrary to the oft-spouted pledge by some lawmakers and political organizations ‘dedicated’ for’less government involvement’, the actual result would be that local control of the PROW would fall into the bureaucratic hands of the CPUC.

    AB 2987 would also do away with provisions for local Public, Educational, and Government – or PEG access channels across the state of California. This of course would threaten Vallejo’s new Channel 27, which in spite of a long and continued struggle was finally launched earlier this year, while eliminating the possibility of adding new channels, such as a third or fourth channel dedicated to educational or non-profit programming. For the reasons listed above, AB 2987 is opposed by the League of Cities, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, the League of Women Voters, and other organizations.

    The Alliance for Community Media, an organization for which I’ve long supported and been involved regionally, has been very concerned about the impact on the PEG channels and resources. Recognizing that several states this year have caved-in to similar bills (“If it’s good enough for Texas…), has prompted our colleagues and membership to work hard to educate and engage lawmakers and their staff to add provisions to reduce the impact and preserve some semblance of protections.

    The latest version of AB 2987, was released yesterday, and apparently includes amended language for maintaining some provisions for PEG: http://info.sen.ca.gov/pub/bill/asm/ab_2951-3000/ab_2987_bill_20060828_amended_sen.pdf

    Communities such as Santa Rosa, Monterey, San Francisco, Lompoc/Santa Maria, Humboldt County, Marin County and many others would still suffer a drastic loss of funding and resources, but would be at least be able to maintain some funding and channels, however capped 3% of gross revenues if they already have PEG support. However, communities like Vallejo, Vacaville, or Contra Costa County in their next cable franchises would then never be able to achieve more than 1% of gross. While for Vallejo this could actually be a little better than the paltry $0.24 per cable subscriber to support PEG capital and operations, passage of AB 2987 would basically handicap communites like Vallejo from achieving anywhere the meaningful level of support recieved by other communities.

    Of course, favoring of AB 2987 (and HR 5252) are industry and ‘Astroturf’ groups (mimicking true grassroots organizations) invented by lobbyists and funded by industry. Some have even adopted names or (mis)represented themselves to confuse lawmakers and the public with organizations the ACM.

    The following link to this article provides a bit more background. CMAP is the multi-city non-profit organization I was working for right before coming to start the new channel and operation in Vallejo: http://www.pinnaclenews.com/news/contentview.asp?c=192197 (and yes: I have proudly strived to introduce concepts of CMAP’s great programs and partnerhships to the start-up of VCAT)

    We are urging citizens, municipal leaders, advocates and colleagues to contact your State and Congressional lawmakers to include protections for PEG Channels and support in these bills.

    Please join our action alerts and more info at:

    http://www.acmwest.org – for State of California AB 2987

    http://www.ab2987.com

    http://www.cacities.org/ab2987 – info on AB2987 from League of California Cities

    http://www.media-alliance.org

    http://www.freepress.net

    http://www.alliancecm.org – for info on COPE & HR 5252

    http://www.savethenet.org – for info on Net Neutrality

    At a time that more Media Consolidation means less spectrum for local purposes, it is more important than ever to protect your access channels, Localism, Net Neutrality, and eliminate the ‘Digital Divide’.

    Check out the links above, contact state and federal lawmakers, even those outside of your districts, for they are making decisions affecting all of us.

    Urge them to oppose AB 2987 and HR 5252.

    – Clayton J. Leander
    Public Policy Committee
    & Board Member
    Alliance for Community Media (West Region)

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