Public access in Fayetteville: 30 years strong with no end in sight - and just why it works so well | Street Jazz

Monday, August 2, 2010

Public access in Fayetteville: 30 years strong with no end in sight - and just why it works so well

Posted By on Mon, Aug 2, 2010 at 10:07 AM

It's always sort of amazing that public access has survived - nay, even thrived in Fayetteville for three decades, given the occasional controversy - not to mention the Great Access War in the early 1990s - and bad rap it sometimes get in the press.

Why has access worked so well. Beginning in 1980, with Fayetteville Open Channel, moving along to Access 4 Fayetteville (which later morphed into Community Access Television), this is the the one channel which has truly served as the region's only true arts, religious, current events, music and what-have-you channel. And now that C.A.T. is on that magical creation known as the Internet - where you are no doubt reading these words right now - C.A.T. can be seen around the world. Indeed, some shows regularly report that they hear from viewers far from the borders of Arkansas.

I recently gave a talk at Springdale's Shiloh Museum - "Public Access: The Quilt of Community Diversity" - in which I spoke about public access, and the diversity that is evident every day on C.A.T. This is what happens when a public access station has programming that is created by the citizens of a region.

Your friends.

Your co-workers.

Your family members.

And maybe you, yourself, have provided programming for public access in the past.

The lovely thing is that it isn't an imposed, quota sort of diversity, but the diversity of a community coming together and making their own individual programs.

Over the years there have been the occasional calls to close up shop, or to create something that the Chamber of Commerce might like to feature prominently it its brochures, like a sort of "Arts Channel." These suggestions rarely come from anyone who watches C.A.T. on a regular basis, or has much respect for the people it has served for so long.

There is the rare heavy—handed attempt to interfere with C.A.T. from those higher up in the food chain. Public access has been fortunate, though, in that the community has been a solid supporter of public access for so long. Each and every time funding has been threatened, or the autonomy of the organization has been put in doubt, people in the community rise up like a tidal wave and inundate City Hall (and aldermen) with emails, phone calls, faxes - and then show up at public meetings.

Why?

For one thing, those who have managed public access in this community have always taken care to keep close ties to the community. This isn't always the case with access stations across the country. Some have gone the "arts" route - essentially taking the "public" out of public access - and severely restricting what can or can not be shown on their channels, even though they are often successfully sued in court over this.

About ten years ago I was at a conference in which one access operator proudly told of a "contract" that they made producers sign - no swearing allowed, and no political candidates at any time on any shows. Other than those already in power, it would hard to see who would benefit from that last one. Certainly not the community.

And that's where the road to Access Hell always begins - by letting others determine who or what should and should not be on the channel.

I think that one of the key elements of any community supporting public access is upper management - and this includes the board of directors chosen by members of the public. They, like the programming on the channel, must represent the true diversity of any community.

In fact, that was one of the key elements of the Great Access War in 1991/1992; folks in Fayetteville became afraid that a city administration they didn't trust was going to have hiring/firing power over employees, and interfere with content.

We were wrong on that particular occasion. But if the if the city was surprised by the show of passion on the issue, they shouldn't have been. It was only the beginning.

We take freedom of speech very seriously in this community. Any time anyone even mentions the city running public access, acid reflux flows like a Tsunami across the city. We like our freedom of speech TV handled by our fellow citizens, thank you very much.

"A ha!" Comes the cry. "We've seen all of the infighting between board members and members of the organization. We've seen it on TV!"

Yeah, well, welcome to the world of non-profits, where such infighting is not-at-all such a rare occurrence. Other non-profits have a peculiar advantage here:

For the most part, no one brings a camera to their board meetings and puts them on TV. It's just really hard to miss the occasional dust-up a public access board meeting.

Newspapers and TV news reporters are generally too lazy to cover infighting on other non-profits. You generally only hear about it when the organization has collapsed. Then folks go, "Why didn't you let us know what was going on?"

Public access always finds a way to survive, despite heat of emotion. This is because everyone is committed to the organization and what it means to the community.

This is also due, in no small part, to the fact that those who defend public access are passionate and eloquent in its defense, while those who would mangle or distort it . . . well, what do you think?

Everyone who has ever used public access in Fayetteville can attest to the hard-working staffs who have come and gone over the years, training literally thousands of people in video workshops.

Sometimes there is the rare attempt from those at the City Hall level to interfere with public access, or interfere with content. Fayetteville is blessed at the moment to have a mayor, Lioneld Jordan, who has often spoken publicly of his support for C.A.T.,

It's always the next mayor, and the next city administration that you have to watch out for. That's why nobody ever rests in this community when it comes to defending public access. We're always thinking about the future.

As always, you can find C.A.T. on the web at:

http://www.catfayetteville.org/

******

It's not really interference with programming, it's just "tweaking" . . .

How many communities have heard that line before, from those who would try to "pretty up" a station's offerings? After a time, public enthusiasm for such stations just sort of vanishes, and viewers are left with bland programming designed to appeal to everyone.

And thus, to no one.

The video graveyards are full of the headstones of stations that didn't fight to keep their autonomy and purity of purpose in the face of "tweaking" from The Reasonable Folk . . .

*****

Quote of the Day

"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." —Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

rsdrake@cox.net

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