Think having a community access television station could never happen in your library? No doubt establishing one on your own is a big undertaking, but at least two access TV vets say it is possible to start small. And it is absolutely worth the trouble.
Michael White has run Community Access Television Services (CATS) out of the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana for nearly 30 years. He believes that, in terms of cementing your library as a community center—and even a center for democracy—the payoff can be huge.
“The impression might be, ‘Oh, we can’t take this on. That’s too much work, and it’s so non-traditional library.’ I think that’s a huge mistake a lot of libraries make. You can have a relatively simple television station and you have a tremendous opportunity to reach out—whether that’s with public service announcements or children’s programming or events taking place in the library,” White said.
Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD) in Colorado Springs, Colorado uses its educational access television facilities to help patrons learn valuable skills. According to Community Engagement and Outreach Officer Dee Vazquez Sabol, “Library patrons can come in and they can take classes or online tutorials. Then they get certification in the different skills that they’ve developed—camera operation, studio light, studio sound, audio production, directing, producing.”
Part of the Southern Colorado Educational Television Consortium, PPLD now operates a new audio/video production facility where patrons have access to multiple editing bays and even theater lighting and sound. “That’s what we see as the future. Not just libraries being able to promote themselves, but, really, to be involved in the development of skills for the public,” Sabol said.
Really Humble Beginnings
But what if your library isn’t particularly well-connected? And what if you have a tiny staff and an even tinier budget? Access television may still be within reach.
White recalled, CATS had very humble beginnings. “When I started working at the station in 1985, it had home VCRs and home monitors and wiring that just shouldn’t have worked. And most of what you were seeing, if you were watching that channel, was snow, because things would break or people would forget they had a program on.”
But all that “snow” is definitely a thing of the past. These days CATS provides five channels, including The Library Channel, The Public Channel, The Bloomington City Government Channel, The Monroe County Government Channel, and SCOLA International News.
“You can start small and, if the public supports it and the library board supports it and the funding agencies support it, you can be off for a grand ride in something you never would’ve expected that the library would be involved with,” White added.
So what about funding? The federal government defined public, educational, and government (PEG) access television in the early 1970s to guarantee the public at least some limited use of established television infrastructure. Most of the funding for community access television centers comes from cable television operator franchise fees.
“By federal law, up to five percent of what a cable operator brings in every year reverts back to the city, county, or town for use of public rights of way. So, that can be a considerable amount of money, depending on what your town is like,” White explained.
Funding for CATS comes from the City of Bloomington, Monroe County and the nearby Town of Ellettsville, as well as local video service providers and the Monroe County Public Library. The library provides 7,000 square feet of operating space on its first floor, two part-time employees, and an annual $50,000 capital projects grant. White noted, “Externally, we bring in about $650,000 per year, and, with the library’s support, if you were counting what that square footage might be worth, then probably, on paper, we look like we’re a million-dollar operation.”
For its part, Sabol said, PPLDTV has been funded via grants and partnerships with the Rocky Mountain PBS station and three area colleges: “We’re all working together to have a continuum of equipment and software. . . . We’ve built partnerships to deliver that. It’s not something we could deliver [as a library] alone.”
But, if grants, area partnerships, and franchise fees don’t look promising, you can always get started on a shoestring. “The purchase of a couple of cameras, a couple of mixing boards, microphones, and lighting isn’t a huge expense anymore like it used to be. A modest equipment purchase really can get a library started,” Sabol said.
You can get a good quality video camera for about $5,000, and, rather than broadcasting on TV, Sabol suggests starting out by streaming programming online. “We get so much visibility just through our Web streaming,” she said.
Aside from beginning modestly with Web-only video streaming, take some time to connect with those around you who have some television experience. “Cities, counties, and even some school districts have production facilities. Form those partnerships. Ask if you can go to the community college and have some of the library staff audit classes so that they can develop some skills,” Sabol suggested.
It’s also a good idea to get in touch with your local or regional PBS station to get a sense for the standards that are required for broadcast. “Ask to look at their Red Book which communicates their standards. Is it just digital? Does it need to be high definition? What’s the quality of the camera work? What’s the quality of the sound? We’re teaching everything that we do to PBS standards, because then people can build their skills to that level,” Sabol said.
What to Air?
If you do get your hands on some equipment and a little production know-how, just what type of programming should you air? White believes, hands down, one of the easiest ways libraries can reinvent themselves, broaden their reach, and demonstrate value to their communities is to provide neutral coverage of governmental meetings. “Governmental entities don’t want everything to be seen by the public. There are some awkward things that happen in governmental meetings that they’d just prefer to keep quiet. This, to me, is the most important thing that libraries can offer, in relation to PEG access. Everyone knows [libraries] are neutral. There is no question that the library is neutral.”
Interestingly, attendance at government meetings seems to have fallen off considerably, since CATS began broadcasting them on TV and live-streaming them online. “People trust that everything—every second of these meetings—is going to be on TV,” he said. “People watch these meetings from their smartphones, their tablets—they can watch live from anywhere they want to. Why go sit on some hard chairs when you can be comfortable?”
CATS also produces a program called “Candidates on Demand” for which CATS staff invites all local political candidates running for office to come into the studio to make candidate statements. “We then play these back on our part of our website, and we also run those statements on our governmental channels. So, this puts our library at the very center of democracy in Bloomington and Monroe County,” White said.
First Amendment Considerations
Aside from providing a forum for political candidates, CATS provides a forum for the public, too. It hasn’t always been easy. White recalled, “People used cable access to test the waters—before the Internet really blew up.”
One publicly produced CATS program from the 1990s, J & B on the Rox, frequently pushed the boundaries and developed a cult following in the process. It even caught the attention of Howard Stern, MTV, Wired Magazine, and others.
Operated as a dedicated constitutional forum, CATS requires members of the public wishing to produce and air original programming to sign a liability form, and CATS policy clearly states, “Programs are not rejected because either they or their spokespersons are controversial. CATS does not attempt to verify the accuracy or lack of bias in the programming it carries, nor does CATS attempt to achieve a balance in regards to any issue, faith or ideology. The producer of each program is exercising her/his first amendment right to free speech and is solely responsible for the program’s content.”
White admitted, “The first amendment aspect can be much more troublesome than what books the library decides to put on its shelves, because these are programs that are ending up in people’s homes.”
Still, providing community access programming does raise a library’s visibility and, White concluded, “It’s a way to keep libraries relevant in this time of enormous change.”
“I see more people and more light as, perhaps, the perfect goal for our library or other libraries. Bring in as many people as possible. Make it a center for the community. I think having your own TV facility really helps take that underway.”