Wednesday, March 16, 2011

David Gantt's empty statement of support

March 25, 2004

RE: Public Access TV (URTV)

Thanks for your letter about Public Access TV (URTV). I appreciate your balanced and open consideration of URTV. I am going to support URTV in every way I can. I think the public deserves an opportunity to produce TV time that furthers their beliefs, goals, ideas, music, crafts, etc. I believe that local artists, musicians, clergy, and educators will end up dominating the programming. WNC already has a strong crafts community. The opportunity to share ideas, techniques, and network on the channel can only enhance and strengthen this important segment of our economy. However, the channel cannot used for purely commercial means.
NC law specifically defines obscenity in the attached document. Anyone who violates this law will be committing a felony and will likely be prosecuted. In the other six North Carolina cities with public access, none have experienced obscenity problems in their programming.

I do not anticipate any problems here. Opponents of public access have engaged in a scare campaign that has no validity in fact or experience in our state.

Communities with public access are enriched with differing ideas and local information. I think Asheville will be a better place to live with this type of open and honest communication.

David Gantt, Commissioner

Sunday, March 13, 2011

URTV Gears Up


URTV, Asheville’s public access television channel soon to debut on Charter Channel 20, is opening its doors to the public soon. You have a few opportunities to check it out in the near future.

URTV Mission Statement: “The mission of URTV is to empower every resident of our community by providing equal opportunities to create and present television programming in keeping with First Amendment principles of free speech.”

This station has been years in the making. Conservatives all over the county have opposed it for years, fearing that the lesbian witches and the vegan anarchists would poison the minds of Buncombe County’s youth. Well, it appears that there’s room for every point of view at the station now, and they’re planning a big open house for August 1st. Before then you have three opportunities to find out more:

Nonprofit INFO-Exchange at URTV Studio
June 20th at 6 pm

Learn how your nonprofit can reach 60,000 viewers by putting your message on URTV, Channel 20. This will be a sneak peak at the studio as we prepare for our August 1st Grand Opening.

We will provide a tour of the facility and give an overview of how to become a member. Information and forms for submitting programming and signing up for camera certification will also be available.

Open to nonprofit organizations only.

Seating is limited. Please email with your RSVP.

URTV Annual Board Meeting

The Annual Membership Meeting of URTV will take place at 5PM on June 22, 2006. All members are invited and urged to attend and vote for the new Board position allocated to a membership representative. The 3 candidates are Linda Wells, Louise O’Conner and Peter Brezney. Each has written a paragraph about why they want to be on the board which was sent out to the membership on June 10th. Each member will have one vote. Please attend, meet the present Board members and VOTE! Click here for directions.

INFO-Exchange at URTV Studio
June 27th at 6 pm

Learn more about URTV, Channel 20 at our first public event June 27th at 6 pm. This will be a sneak peak at the studio as we prepare for our August 1st Grand Opening.

We will provide a tour of the facility and give an overview of how to become a member. Information and forms for submitting programming and signing up for camera certification will also be available.

Friday, March 11, 2011

After years of wrangling

Years of wrangling over the creation of public-access television in Buncombe County culminated in a unanimous vote of support from the Board of Commissioners at their Jan. 18 meeting. The board approved both a 10-page management contract with URTV Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and a funding-distribution plan that will substantially underwrite operations at the station for the next 10 years.

In the public-comment period preceding the board's formal meeting, URTV opponent Fred English reiterated his concerns about content on any public station, reading what he identified as a news story in which a white supremacist had used public-access television to incite a murder. English also worried that future funding shortfalls might find the URTV board demanding more money from the county.

But three speakers representing at least a dozen people in the audience spoke in favor of the public-access plan and the county's collateral efforts in government and educational television.

Sandy Mush resident Kurt Mann, the owner of Asheville's Ironwood Media and a longtime advocate of URTV as an incubator for the local film-and video-industry, urged the commissioners to provide substantial backing at the outset. "We need enough funding for URTV to get a good manager, in order to avoid some of the problems that others have warned about." He suggested that adequate funds would permit the hiring of a veteran broadcaster rather than a recent college graduate without much experience.

Asheville resident Rose McLarney spoke to the same issue. "It is discouraging to think that after all the work that has been done, URTV might be underfunded," she said, which "will make it difficult to hire good administrators."

Sharon Willen, director of business and industrial services at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Media Arts Project, also asked for full funding of the URTV media center.

URTV will immediately receive approximately $380,000 from the county's escrowed PEG funds (fees added to cable TV bills to cover the costs of public, educational and government television channels). In coming years, the project will receive between $95,000 and $108,000 per year.

Getting it wrong
This first formal session of 2005 followed the board's annual retreat, a day-and-a-half confab that included the commissioners, county administrators and staffers, school-board administrators, representatives of A-B Tech and the Sheriff's Department, and members of the local media.

During that conference, board members conducted a lengthy discussion of the URTV proposal, particularly concerning the distribution of funds. In the formal session, it was discovered that the numbers under discussion at the retreat had been low by a factor of three, and the apportionment of cable TV fees had been inaccurately described -- a slip-up for which County Manager Wanda Greene took responsibility. This resulted in a five-minute recess of the Jan. 18 meeting, so the corrected information could be distributed to commissioners. Although the numbers changed, the underlying consensus about URTV did not, and the funding was passed unanimously. (See "Full Retreat" elsewhere in this issue.)

Buncombe County Commission Commissioners take next step to public-access TV

by Steve Shanafelt in Vol. 10 / Iss. 41 on 05/19/2004

"I understand that we live in a diverse community today. But why do we need to allow diversity that is foreign to us?"

-- Pastor Jerry Young, Trinity Baptist Church

At 4 p.m., the fear in the room was already so thick you could almost taste it.

But many of those attending the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' May 11 meeting seemed less concerned about the ins and outs of local politics than about a profound moral struggle that's been raging in the community for several months now.

Men and women, many of them wearing their Sunday best, waited patiently for a turn to speak their minds during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Some looked over the speeches they'd prepared, with words like "smut," "pornography," "Satanists" and "homosexuality" underlined or highlighted in yellow.

All told, at least 50 people were in the audience; some wore homemade stickers positioned right above their hearts. The stickers bore the letters "PATV," circled and struck through in red. And many of the people wearing them clearly feared that if the commissioners voted to take the next step in creating a local public-access television station, their children's welfare -- and perhaps their very souls -- would be at risk.

The immediate issue was whether to authorize the county manager to negotiate a management agreement for URTV, the proposed public-access channel. The new station would give almost anyone in the community access to a television studio, video recording equipment, and -- most importantly -- the eyes of local cable-television viewers.

And despite the multiple reassurances offered by station planners that safeguards would be in place to prevent material legally considered obscene from airing, the subject appears to be as controversial today as it was when the issue first began drawing public notice this winter.

One by one, about 19 citizens -- seeming more or less equally divided between opponents and supporters of the project -- approached the lectern. Ironwood Media Group owner Kurt Mann implored the commissioners to consider the economic growth such a station could help foster. Buncombe County, said Mann, lost out on millions of dollars on films like Cold Mountain (which wound up being filmed in Eastern Europe) and on television programs like the proposed Salsaman cooking show he helped to create. Both projects failed, he maintained, because of a lack of confidence in the local media infrastructure.

Other station proponents spoke about how URTV could provide support for community projects and showcase the area's diversity.

To some, however, that very diversity is a cause for concern.

"I understand that we live in a diverse community today," said Pastor Jerry Young of Trinity Baptist Church. "But why do we need to allow diversity that is foreign to us?" And though he acknowledged that the station would bring benefits to the community, Young also raised the specter of children being exposed to obscenity.

Many other speakers seemed to share Young's concerns. Under federal law, everyone in the community must have access to such stations and be free to say whatever they want. Religions other than Christianity could have airtime if someone in the community went to the trouble of producing a show about them. So could any other group.

Other speakers maintained that local government is overstepping its bounds, and that the PEG fee that appears on county residents' cable-TV bills is really a disguised tax. County resident Don Yelton, who's running for a seat on the board of commissioners, asserted that the process of creating the station has not been sufficiently democratic and that both the commissioners and Buncombe County would be financially liable for any obscenity lawsuits the station's content might provoke.

But most of those speaking against the public-access station based their arguments on moral issues.

Conservative activist David Swanson predicted that PATV would become a haven for so-called "snuff shows" and "pornography."

Swanson concluded his discourse by saying, "I understand that Mr. Mark Goldstein, who might be the general manager of our local URTV, publishes an openly communist newsletter."

"That's me, and that's not true," Goldstein announced from the crowd. The two men argued briefly until Chairman Nathan Ramsey intervened to re-establish order.

"I hadn't planned to speak, but it isn't every day that I'm called a communist in public," said Goldstein after his name had been added to the list of speakers to give him a chance to respond to the charge. "In reference to the earlier statement, I'm not a nasty red. I am the director of an organization called the Fund for Investigative Reporting that promotes free speech -- which must have been confused by [Swanson] with communism. I think that the gentleman made the point for us, because without public comment, I wouldn't have been able to defend [myself against] that remark."

The public hearing lasted about an hour; then the commissioners weighed in briefly. After a few minutes discussion, during which Ramsey voiced opposition to the proposal because of insufficient county-government representation on the board that would make decisions about program content, the commissioners voted 4-1 to authorize the county manager to negotiate an agreement for managing URTV, with only Ramsey dissenting.

After that, all the folks who'd come to speak their minds on others' right to speak theirs on TV quickly left the room, enabling the commissioners to get on with the remainder of the day's business.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We are TV

by Nelda Holder in Vol. 35 / Iss. 10 on 04/07/2004
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.]

Public-access channel spawns continuing furor

Buncombe County Commission
Public-access channel spawns continuing furor
by Tracy Rose in Vol. 10 / Iss. 29 on 02/25/2004

"I'm optimistic ... that the people who are going to get access to [URTV] are not all going to be crazy pornographers bent on misshaping society."

-- Asheville resident Billy Roberts

The simmering controversy over a proposed public-access TV channel erupted once again last week as opponents and supporters squared off at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' Feb. 17 meeting.

Sporting handmade paper buttons depicting a red slash through the letters "PATV," opponents voiced fears that the proposed channel would turn out to be a showcase for pornography.

But station proponents also marshaled their forces, insisting that the worries about porn are overblown -- and that public-access TV could boost local economic-development efforts while giving budding multimedia entrepreneurs much-needed experience and exposure.

Meanwhile, representatives of URTV (the nonprofit under consideration to manage the new channel) have told Xpress that a number of safeguards have been drafted to deter obscene content -- and to ensure that any non-obscene content aimed at an adult audience is shown only when young viewers are least likely to see it (see "Sex and the County," Feb. 11 Xpress).

The Feb. 17 meeting marked the second time this month that the issue has dominated the board's public-comment session.

Station opponents also turned out in force back on Feb. 3, when the commissioners decided to postpone a vote on whether to launch negotiations with URTV to manage and operate the station. That vote has now been put off until April 6 to give County Attorney Joe Connolly time to research how the Raleigh public-access station handles potentially offensive programming without running afoul of First Amendment protections.

Back in September, the commissioners unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Asheville allowing a single nonprofit organization to run a joint public-access channel. Advocates have been working since 1999 to establish such a station, which would be partly funded by revenues from the separate cable-franchise agreements that Charter Communications has with both the city and county.

The hot-button issue of public-access TV content provided a lively counterpoint to an otherwise solemn session that focused on the plant closings announced during the past year, which eliminated more than 1,000 Buncombe County jobs, according to the Employment Security Commission -- and the efforts traditional economic-development officials are making to try to generate new jobs.

Fear of vibrancy?
In contrast to the Feb. 3 meeting -- when only one person spoke in favor of public-access TV -- there seemed to be as many supporters as detractors crowding the meeting room during the board's most recent session.

Without exception, those supporters framed the issue in relation to the Media Arts Project, a new nonprofit seeking to establish a local media-arts center where novice digital-media professionals could get real-world experience. Public-access TV, proponents say, is one key way to display their work -- which could range from animation to videos.

Greg Lucas, executive director of the nonprofit Media Arts Project, urged the commissioners to support both public-access TV and the media-arts center as a way to help foster skills workers can use "in the 21st century" rather than continuing to rely on manufacturing.

"We are trying to foster a community here that will help our work force get out of this cyclical and, unfortunately, spiraling-downward economic-development plan that focuses on manufacturing and bringing in companies from outside the area," Lucas declared. "That is just simply not working anymore."

Asheville resident Billy Roberts said he views opponents of public-access TV as being afraid of the "risk of vibrancy."

"As a voice of support for URTV, I want to make it clear I'm not for exposing pornography to our community's children," proclaimed Roberts. "I'm optimistic and hopeful that there are good people in Asheville who are interested in putting on quality, informative, really creative programming to enrich our community -- and that the people who are going to get access to it are not all going to be crazy pornographers bent on misshaping society."

Roberts went on to suggest that an advisory council could help encourage and support good programming.

Asheville digital-media entrepreneur David McConville, who chairs the Media Arts Project, also stressed the economic-development aspects of both URTV and the media-arts center. He added that he doesn't understand why the tiny chance of potential problems should doom the entire project.

"If we have this chorus of voices and one person sings out of tune, to shut down the whole choir seems a little bit extreme," McConville told the commissioners, adding that the URTV board has tried to address community concerns by promising to adhere to state obscenity laws.

"We really need to come to a compromise on this so that we can understand how we can really use this resource and not just kill it before it's even on the air," added McConville, a UNCA grad. "I think that would be a travesty for this developing sector."

"Real pornographers"
Even though public-access TV resoundingly dominated the public-comment portion of the meeting, viewers of the county's government channel (which televises Board of Commissioners meetings) might never have suspected it. The county no longer televises the public-comment sessions that precede the board's meetings -- a fact that galled a couple of the very folks who spoke out against public-access TV. One of them was Haw Creek resident Fred English, who also took another turn at blasting the whole idea of public-access TV.

"I don't want URTV in my household," he insisted, adding that he thinks most of the channel's proponents haven't been in North Carolina more than 10 years, whereas he was born and raised here.

Then, abruptly shifting gears, English asked the board, "Why isn't this going out on TV?" referring to the ongoing public-comment session. "Why don't you all have the guts to let the people out here in the county see this, what's going on here ... instead of just hiding it out. You got our voices silenced in this room. That's as far as it goes."

The next speaker, Media Arts Project supporter Brian Morrisey, said he agreed with English that their comments ought to be carried on TV -- public-access TV.

But another opponent, Mars Hill resident David Swanson, said he's worried about what his 10-year-old granddaughter (who lives in Buncombe County) might see on public-access TV. Swanson noted that he represented the Foundation for Conservative American Values, a national organization based in Madison County.

Swanson also raised an economic issue, declaring, "If it's voted in, everybody pays for it," though he conceded that people could simply choose to cancel their cable service -- or switch to satellite TV.

Local fears about content have surfaced only recently; among the more vocal critics have been longtime county-government watchdogs Don Yelton and Chad Nesbitt, who have their own cable-TV show. (The Asheville Tribune interviewed the two for an article in its Feb. 12 issue, headlined "The Untold Dangers of Public Access TV.")

Nesbitt, who said he represented a group called Citizens for Decency in Broadcasting, noted that he, too, produces programming -- only he pays for his productions to run on cable TV.

"The taxpayers will be paying for your personal agenda. And if some of the things that you do is so great, then why aren't you going ahead and putting them on television and paying for them like I do?" he queried.

(Only taxpayers who are also cable-TV subscribers will be paying for that programming via surcharges on their cable bills, though this wasn't spelled out at the meeting.)

Nesbitt also told the commissioners about scatological humor he said he'd found on a Web site referenced on the URTV site. "People are able to show anything they want on PATV because of discrimination laws we have under the First Amendment," he said.

Leicester resident Alan Ditmore, meanwhile, calmly observed that "real pornographers are thoroughly commercial" -- hence not likely to be terribly interested in public-access TV.

In an e-mail sent to assorted city and county officials two days later, URTV Interim Board President Beth Lazer wrote: "The URTV board apologizes for referencing objectionable material on its Web site and on the Web site for the Asheville Public Access Channel Commission. Our webmaster inserted material written many years ago that did not originate with URTV and reflected the less-restrictive standards of the national public access association. We were not aware of the specifics of that material until it was called to our attention. Our policies and procedures specifically prohibit material of this sort from being depicted on URTV. In accordance with our policies, once the offensive material was identified, it was immediately removed from distribution."

And in an earlier interview, Lazer told Xpress that the nonprofit has proposed multiple ways to regulate content -- including abiding by North Carolina's obscenity laws. At the same time, since public-access TV would be considered a public forum -- and the station would abide by the First Amendment -- Lazer conceded that programming that some people might find objectionable will likely end up on the air.

"We've done as much planning as we can do." -- Beth Lazer, Public Access Channel Commission

Final reports are not always "final."

"We've done as much planning as we can do," declared Beth Lazer, chair of the Public Access Channel Commission. The resulting 80-page document, two years in the making, outlines a plan for setting up a public-access channel for Asheville and Buncombe County that she called "final."

In 1998, the city designated $340,000 in start-up moneys, plus $45,000 in annual funding for the project. The Buncombe County commissioners have yet to determine how much operational funding they will approve. (The county's new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications was approved on second reading at the Nov. 5 Board of Commissioners meeting.)

The commission, charged with charting a course for local public-access TV, has formed URTV Inc. and is applying for nonprofit status. Under the plan, the corporation would become the managing board for the public-access channel.

Lazer asked Council both to endorse the report and to negotiate an "interlocal agreement" with the county allowing the program to move forward.

But some Council members raised concerns about the structure of the URTV board, which would be charged with overseeing the channel. The report describes an 11-member board, only two of whom would be appointed by local government (one each by the city and the county). The other nine members would be chosen by the board itself or elected by the URTV membership. The purpose, Lazer explained, is to distance city and county officials from any liability.

"Public channels get sued quite a bit," asserted City Manager Jim Westbrook. "And they always go for the big pockets" (such as the city).

Public-access channels are vulnerable to such lawsuits because the medium is often used to air controversial opinions and tends to censor content far less than commercial stations do. The only no-noes are commercial programming and whatever the board deems "obscene."

Lazer added that, in other communities that have public-access TV, churches are often among primary users.

And distancing government from the editorial decision-making process ensures that the board "will be more concerned with community standards than political ones," Lazer explained.

Council member Brian Peterson worried that such a setup would give the URTV board too much unfettered power. "It seems like a self-perpetuating group that is not accountable," he observed. Peterson said he would like to number of board members appointed by the city and county increased to two each. "It looks a little better balanced," he said.

Lazer responded that she didn't see a problem with increasing the size of the board to 13 members.

And Dunn, while noting that he doesn't want to give the appearance that Council is controlling the board through its appointments, said he would like to see some kind of checks and balances, as well as "so much from the left, so much from the right," in order to make sure things are fair.

Lazer reiterated that the idea is to shift the liability for programming to "the lowest possible level: the people that are making it."

Council may desire to gain more control over the URTV board, even while shielding itself from possible lawsuits, but Mayor Charles Worley reminded Council that the nonprofit has procedures in place for modifying its bylaws. The board, he said, could change details such as the rules for appointing board members later on.

David McConville of the Asheville-based Black Box Studios (a local multimedia business) pointed out that the public-access station could provide training for people seeking careers in the field while making this area more attractive to multimedia companies. McConville is closely involved with the Media Arts Project, which organizes local hands-on training in the industry.

McConville has met with representatives of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, local universities and production studios such as Blue Ridge Pictures in an effort to create a comprehensive support system for the future growth of media in Western North Carolina. Public access, he said, is a key link to increasing the industry potential.

"Multimedia has a big future here," McConville told Council. Public access, he said, could "act as an incubator for this industry and provide real-world experience for lots of folks." Lazer went so far as to envision URTV and the Media Arts Project sharing the same facility.

Endorsement of the plan will be up for vote at the Nov. 12 formal session.

Pay TV? Cable contract could fund multimedia center, advocates say

Pay TV?
Cable contract could fund multimedia center, advocates say
by Tracy Rose in Vol. 8 / Iss. 51 on 07/31/2002

Writ large, public-access TV can go far beyond the Wayne's World scenario of two guys and a video camera.

That's the pitch Asheville digital-media consultant David McConville of Black Box Studio made to the Buncombe County Economic Development Commission last week.

"If we do this right, this could be huge," McConville told the group on July 25.

He and other members of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce's Information Technology Council believe a savvy proposal for local public-access TV could help fund a fully equipped studio that could double as a multimedia arts-and-education center.

Such a center, they maintain, could represent a practical economic-development strategy for helping Asheville and Buncombe County become a multimedia hot spot -- one of the Chamber's stated goals. By offering hands-on training to talented young graduates of local schools, who often have to leave the mountains to find work in video, DVD production, computer animation and other multimedia fields, the center would also help local businesses that need a trained work force, says McConville.

The idea isn't brand-new, but the concept is now better developed and has gathered more support than it had back in February, when McConville and a group of like-minded people urged the Buncombe County commissioners to seek more money for public-access TV under the local cable-TV contract, now up for renewal. The IT Council members backing the proposal include representatives of Ironwood Media Group, a local multimedia production-and-design company, and Blue Ridge Motion Pictures.

The recent pitch comes just days before an Aug. 6 meeting at which the county commissioners are scheduled to consider whether to approve a new 12-year franchise agreement with Charter Communications -- or temporarily extend the current contract.

A contract extension could allow time for a privately-hired independent consultant to take a look at the contract and see how a multimedia arts-and-education center could fit in -- an idea McConville is proposing to Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene.

One of the issues on the table is how much Charter is willing to pony up to create a public-access channel (including production facilities) and provide operating support. The money would be shared with the educational and government channels already in operation (the three are collectively called PEG).

A July 2 draft of the contract -- which the two sides have not yet agreed upon -- proposes that Charter pay the county a one-time PEG grant of $340,000 in the first year, which could help cover the project's start-up costs. The draft also calls for Charter to pay the county an ongoing PEG support fee starting at 30 cents per customer per month (which comes to $122,400 annually with the current number of subscribers). As nonrepetitive programming increases, the PEG support fee would increase to as much as 50 cents per customer, according to the contract.

The latest draft is scaled back considerably from what the county was proposing last December. At that time, the county wanted Charter to provide $750,000 for equipment and operating costs for all three PEG channels -- to be divided between Asheville and Buncombe County -- within the first six months. Beginning in the second year, the county was seeking annual payments of $500,000 to be divided among the three channels.

The shift has several advocates worried that the county's negotiator, John Howell (much of whose professional experience has been in working for the telecommunications industry) hasn't pressed hard enough for adequate PEG support.

For his part, Howell says his experience puts him in a unique position to represent cities and counties, adding that he'll continue to represent Buncombe County's interests in the negotiations.

Under the latest draft, Charter would reserve the right to pass along both these costs by increasing cable rates to its 34,000 subscribers in the unincorporated parts of the county by at least 55 cents a month.

"That's one of the proposals on the table," says Janet Cloyde, Charter's director of operations for Western North Carolina. "We're not finished negotiating, so I'm not sure where we'll end up."

The practice of passing on the cost of PEG programming to cable customers is perfectly legal, though advocates find it infuriating (see sidebar).

The argument for the multimedia center has also been boosted by a book published April 30, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life by Professor Dan Florida of Carnegie Mellon University. He argues that cities that can retain or attract the so-called "creative class" -- everyone from artists to writers to high-tech professionals -- will prosper. Such a center -- ideally, located in Asheville's vibrant downtown -- could be a cornerstone for keeping and attracting exactly those sorts of people, McConville insists.

And having more local multimedia entrepreneurs could only help Charter's business, McConville notes, since many of them would probably use Charter's high-speed Internet access.

On another front, it appears that proponents of the multimedia arts-and-education center may have common ground with the Asheville Public Access Commission, which is working to set up a nonprofit organization that would run a public-access station with money from the city and county.

"The commission is doing everything in its power to have a public-access station, so if we can work together with folks at the Chamber of Commerce and David's group, we're more than happy to do that," said Public Access Commission secretary Mark Goldstein.

In fact, the two groups plan to meet soon to discuss how they can collaborate, Goldstein said, adding: "We feel very strongly that if we're all trying to push in different directions, our chances of having a successful outcome for all of this is a lot worse."

Goldstein, however, also wants to make sure that the public-access station would be a comfortable place for any member of the public who wanted to participate, as well as for folks trying to get career-based technical training.

During last week's EDC meeting, Greene asked McConville exactly how much money would be needed to put together a multimedia arts-and-education center. McConville hedged on the answer, though a sample studio budget included in his presentation listed about $500,000 in equipment costs, plus $250,000 in annual salaries for staffers. That doesn't include the cost of building the facility and other expenses, however.

And divided among the three PEG channels, the $340,000 initial payment plus the roughly $120,000 in annual support in the July 2 contract draft is only enough to buy "a camera in a closet," McConville told the EDC.

But rather than directly propose a specific amount, McConville planned to propose to Greene that an independent consultant (hired through the IT Council with private money) take a look at the contract and offer an opinion on how much it would take to launch and maintain such a center.

After talking with Greene and County commissioner/EDC Chairman David Young after the EDC meeting, McConville seemed hopeful.

"I do believe that we've come up with a classic win/win situation, and everyone could walk away benefiting from that," said McConville.

[Dirk Konig, a media arts center director from Grand Rapids, Mich., will give a free public talk at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2, at Laurel Forum at UNCA's Karpen Hall. His topic: Building Community Through Media: An Introduction to Media Arts Centers. For info on the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, see For more info on the proposed WNC media arts center, check out]

Passing the Buck

Passing the buck
Public access TV advocates blast 'pass-along' practice
by Tracy Rose in Vol. 8 / Iss. 51 on 07/31/2002 Share

Under pressure from advocates of public-access TV, Buncombe County has been pushing Charter Communications to shoulder the cost of setting up a station and helping to support channels for public-access, educational and government (PEG) programming.

But the idea of Charter's passing on those costs to customers has some PEG advocates crying foul.

"That just basically means that it would be an unrepresented tax, if you look at it that way," says Monty Fuchs, technology director for the Buncombe County Schools. "They're not paying for having a franchise in Buncombe. They're just passing that cost on to the local subscribers, and I don't think that's right. I don't think that's right at all."

Local governments sell cable companies the exclusive right to use the public right of way to distribute their services -- for which the cable companies already charge healthy fees.

Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, sees the pass-along practice -- and the listing of those costs on customers' cable bills -- as a "fiction" that Charter can use as a negotiating tactic to talk down the "rent" they're charged for using the public's media "right of way." In fact, he says, the cable-TV rates in communities with little or no support for PEG access are identical to those in communities with good support.

"If we gave them the public right of way for free, the rates would still be just as high," Bowen maintains. "It's a difficult concept for people to grasp, and that's why it's such a clever tactic on the part of the cable company. And it puts elected officials in a bind, because it looks like it's putting an additional tax on subscribers -- and of course, the cable company has a scapegoat for its excessive rate increases."

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the cable industry, subscriber rates have risen by more than 40 percent, according to The Center for Digital Democracy (, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to ensure that the digital-media systems serve the public interest. According to the Center's Web site, the FCC's annual report on cable rates cites a 7.5 percent increase between July 2000 and July 2001 alone -- more than double the 3.4 percent inflation rate.

Of course, it's completely legal for cable companies to pass on those costs to subscribers, notes Executive Director Jeff Chester of The Center for Digital Democracy.

"They do have a right to pass it on, but I think it is -- how shall I describe it -- it's a disreputable practice," he observes.

Back in the '70s, many cable companies offered to provide public access on their own dime, using this promise to win lucrative franchise deals, asserts Chester.

"Once they won the contracts, they began to treat PEG access as an unwanted child and withdrew their funding and support," he says.

Buncombe County negotiator John Howell, however, notes that since Charter Communications is a relatively new company, it wouldn't have been part of any franchise agreements created in the '70s. And Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene also sees things differently. Federal rules allow the costs to be passed on, she notes, and itemizing those costs on bills allows customers to understand what they're paying for.

"If I was Charter, I'm not sure it's something I wouldn't do," suggests Greene.

The long struggle to get a public access station in Asheville

Don’t kill your television
Stand up for public access
by Mark Goldstein in Vol. 8 / Iss. 7 on 09/27/2000

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 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.]