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Wednesday, March 21,2012

The New Public Access

City of Lansing follows through on commitment for dedicated Public Media Center

by ALLAN I. ROSS
It’s 6:59 p.m. on a Monday night, and Melik Brown is about to go live on the air. He’s sitting at a long table in a narrow room in front of a desk mic and his laptop. Four small cameras are mounted near the ceiling around the room, security-cam style, focused on him. He’s idly chatting with his co-host, who’s seated across from him and shuffling through a short stack of papers. Then a man behind a computer about 10 feet away holds up his hand to get his attention. Silence falls. Three, two, one — the man points to Brown, whose face lights up as he launches into his best ready-for-prime-time voice.  

“Thank you for tuning in to ‘Time Slot 2X,’” Brown says. “I’m your host Melik. Let’s get started, shall we?” 

And boom: Brown is broadcasting his TV show worldwide on the Internet. Just another day in the life of local public access programming. “Time Slot 2X” is the second iteration of a public access TV program Brown started 13 years ago at the Comcast building on Miller Road in south Lansing. He used that station’s public access studio and cameras back when Comcast made it accessible to the public. 

“My goal when I started this show was to give a voice to things I thought were interesting that wouldn’t necessarily be covered by the mainstream media,” Brown says. “I wanted ‘Time Slot’ to be a live call-in show where we could talk about all kinds of quirky stuff — the weird things people talk about every day that don’t have anything to do with what’s going on in the world.”

It’s sort of like a Lansing-centric predecessor to Know Your Meme. Over the years, guests included a rapper who couldn’t rap (“He just repeated, ‘You ain’t never heard of me,’ over a terrible beat.”) and a local man who was trying to set a world record for having the biggest flame shooting from the top of his tractor. But “Time Slot” featured bona fide talent as well, such as nationally touring comedians and emerging local singer/songwriters. Over the course of a decade, he watched his show evolve into an hour-long, three-camera talk show with a loyal weekly fan base. In December 2008, however, Brown received word that he could no longer use that studio or its equipment to create his show. 

“The program manager told me that if I wanted to continue, I would have to send prerecorded episodes to the Comcast station in Southfield,” Brown says. “But that took away everything this show was about — the timeliness of it, the live interaction. There just wasn’t the same thing anymore.” 

And just like that, public access in Lansing was gone. That was under a nearly 40-year-old model, however, in which resources, including a physical location, were provided by a cable provider — a profit-driven business with no real stake in community programming. In the wake of that failure, a team of local video production specialists led by the Lansing Mayor’s Office have spent nearly two years developing a brand-new model that puts public access squarely under the guidance of local government and has the potential to grow into a regional information hub. Oh, and it’s already creating jobs. Welcome to Public Access version 2.0.  


How it works

By the end of 2008, all Lansing and East Lansing TV shows that relied on public access equipment, including “Time Slot,” ceased to exist. But this loss was only collateral damage in a mid-Michigan media shake-up five years ago. 

“Prior to 2007, franchises for any cable provider were negotiated directly with the provider in each municipality,” says Alan McCarrick, information systems manager for the city of East Lansing. McCarrick watched his city lose its public access studio when Comcast shut down its facility on Trowbridge Road in 2007. “In the past, we were able to negotiate certain things, including public access studios. But when Public Act 480 went into effect Jan. 1, 2007, they were no longer required to provide a public access studio. So, of course, they went.” 

One of the things that cable companies were required to do by the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1970s was collect a fee for public, education and government (PEG) programming — designed to recoup the cost of cable companies using the public right of way — to be used to create original local content. This was the birth of public access. McCarrick says that PA 480 (which he says AT&T “essentially wrote”) freed cable franchises from paying PEG fees in East Lansing. If East Lansing residents wanted to air a show after that, they had to make it using their own camera and editing equipment, then either mail DVDs of their show to Southfield or to Haslett-Okemos-Meridian (HOM) TV, the Meridian Township-based government cable station. HOM-TV oversees Capital Area Media (CAM) TV, which plays local content, but like HOM-TV has no physical studio or any equipment to use. 

Cable service in Lansing, however, still does have a 2 percent PEG fee, in addition to a 5 percent franchise fee, and this pool of money paved the way for a bold new venture by the city to resurrect public access. The result is the Lansing Public Media Center, located at 2500 S. Washington Ave. in Lansing, where Brown’s “Time Slot 2X” and several other shows are produced each week. (Lansing’s public access programming is broadcast on cable channel 16.) The media center is a multi-purpose production and broadcast studio that has served as the home for Lansing’s public and governmental access stations since it opened in December 2010, under the guidance of the city’s Office of Community Media and its director, Dominic Cochran. 

“Mayor Bernero really sees the value in the media side of things,” Cochran says. “The directive came from him to treat everything we’re doing here like a jobs pipeline. That’s one of the nice things of having a media-savvy mayor. He respects what we do, and puts a lot of trust in us to do a good job.” 

The Washington Avenue location, a former Michigan National Guard armory, is only a temporary home until renovations at the Information Technology Empowerment Center, a nonprofit based at the old Holmes Street School, is complete this fall. The media center is also home to the fledgling Capital City Film Festival and provides space for city police functions and community events. 

Cochran says that the media center adopted a two-pronged approach to public access. In addition to the traditional system where the media center purchases equipment that “lives” there but can be checked out by city residents, the media center has also created a grant-based model. This allows $25,000 worth of equipment to be stored off-site by organizations — $10,000 for individuals — that can demonstrate a certain level of proficiency with video, have the capability and facilities to accommodate that kind of work and can commit to producing one hour of original public access material every month. 

To start a program, the individual or organization sends the Office of Community Media a proposal mapping out their programming and listing their desired equipment. Once approved, the city then has the PEG money, which has been set aside to purchase the equipment that the grant winner has unrestricted access to for a two-year period. As long as they produce an hour of public access video each month, Cochran says, after two years they will own that equipment.

Karen Stefl is one of the co-founders of Keep Learning, a 501(c)(3) partnership of public and private organizations focused on connecting people to educational resources. Keep Learning earned one of the $25,000 grants to produce a show called “LRN 101,” which has content that ranges from virtual field trips aimed at elementary school viewers to spotlights on internships targeting college students. 

“We saw a need for content that would be educationally enriching, even if it was something as simple as taking a walk on the Riverwalk,” Stefl says. “School field trips are being eliminated and art funding is being cut. We were struggling to get these stories out there better.” 

All eight episodes of “LRN 101” can be found on Lansing Public Media’s Vimeo page (http://vimeo.com/lansingmedia), and Stefl says that local PBS affiliate WKAR has agreed to pick up the show as well. 


Professional budget for 

professional equipment

But that grant is just the catalyst. Such Video, Inc. in Old Town, where Stefl is a partner, is contributing $100,000 in funds for the show’s additional costs of infrastructure, creative support, and a full-time staff person. PEG money cannot be used for operational funds, leaving an inability to pay skilled manpower to manage the program. Such Video solved this problem by adding to their own payroll. 

“Paid help for the public broadcast is almost non-existent — that’s why we need really enthusiastic people involved,” says Cochran, who oversees a part-time staff of four at the media center, who all work on paid contracts with the city of Lansing. “If this kind of thing was around when I was first getting started, I’d be all over it. We need to find those people who are hungry and motivated, and I know they’re out there. 

“Anything arts-related is always the first to be cut when you’re talking about laying off police officers and firefighters — that’s just the reality of politics. The nice thing about these dollars is that they have to be spent on this effort. They can’t be used as a political football.” 

Revenue for the media center fluctuates according to cable companies’ revenue, which Cochran says is “probably not going that well due to digital convergence. … It’s probably on a downward trend.” 

Randy Hannan, Bernero’s chief of staff who was instrumental in ushering in the media center, estimates income from the PEG fees at about $500,000 per year, the vast majority of which comes from Comcast. 

“This is dedicated money,” Hannan says. “And to the extent of people who think we ought to be spending that money on other things: we’re not allowed to. These are restricted dollars that can’t be used for anything except for the PEG network under state and federal law.”  

Hannan says that revenue since it began managing the PEG dollars in 2007 is about $2.4 million. Since then, about $1.4 million has been spent on two cycles of grant programs totaling $450,000; $400,000 on the build-out of the Holmes School; and about $500,000 on upgrades to City TV equipment. 

In the public access studios that were being operated by the cable companies, Cochran says show producers were learning on the lower end of the industry with antiquated tools and techniques. He says that the state-of-the-art equipment at the media center — including cameras, microphones, editing equipment, and a workshop area — will help new and returning producers of public access content viable for the Information Age.  

“I know the professional tools that people use on real world shoots,” Cochran says. “So even though most people who are going to be coming here are doing it as a hobby, why not teach them on the professional tools? Then they can put those skills they’re learning on a résumé. Who knows? They might get a job out of it. To me that makes a lot of sense.” 

In addition to broadcasting on channel 16, Cochran encourages people to upload their work to Ustream or Vimeo, which allows you to watch it in HD on your home TV if you have a Roku box or an Apple TV. 

“It’s really the best way to watch this type of programming,” he says. “People no longer have to promote a certain time slot—you can say, ‘Go to my channel on Vimeo and you can watch any of my shows anytime you want.’ That’s powerful.”

“The Lansing Public Media Center creates enormous opportunities for our citizens and community organizations to use digital media to tell positive stories about our community,” Hannan says. “It’s taken strides to create an educational pipeline, giving career opportunities to young people, who can learn a craft in digital production — whether it’s television, radio or Internet — and learn the kind of skills that will spill over to a variety of career paths.

“The interest level has really been encouraging, and we haven’t really started putting ourselves out there yet.”

Cochran estimates about 80 percent of the time he and his team spend at the media center consists of filling 24 hours of programming on the city channel, which doesn’t leave much time to facilitate original content generation. That’s a lot of slack to pick up. 

“That’s why I’m working 70 hours a week,” he chuckles. Cochran says the long-term goal is to find an additional funding source by actively encouraging producers to find underwriting, as PBS and NPR do. 

“There are a lot of different models of public access, plenty of which charge a reasonable rate to cover the expenses of that involvement,” says Cochran. “You just can’t have overt commercial messaging. That’s not a way of making a profit, but it’s certainly a way of getting paid for the time that they’re spending.”

Talking to City Pulse two years ago, Hannan described the two-phased approach the city was utilizing in this endeavor. Phase one, the grant program, is off and running, with phase two involving engaging surrounding governments in a regional partnership in community media so that everyone is represented in PEG. But Hannan said he was waiting to get neighboring local governments aboard, similar to models in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. 

“Phase two is to engage in the broader community media conversation, but it’s a two-way street.” Hannan said at the time. With Phase one just wrapping up, he says that now it’s just a matter of “getting the house in order first” before other municipalities are approached.  


Taking shape

In the meantime, the podcast studio is ready to go, and coming soon a big open-air studio — think Oprah — will be ready. There’s also one of the biggest green screens in mid-Michigan in the building while the new location at the Holmes School will boast a massive 40-foot green screen with an “infinity wall,” allowing show producers to create virtual sets. Also coming soon: backpack studios, which will have everything an aspiring broadcast journalist could need to produce a show — a camera, laptop with editing software, tripod, lights and a microphone — all organized in a convenient, portable package.  

“In order to be a successful endeavor, this has to be largely a volunteer-run organization,” says Cochran. “That’s another reason we’re trying to get the best possible equipment—to get people excited and inspired, help each other produce their programming and have it be a community movement. That’s the only way it’s going to work.” 

“This is a whole community media enterprise,” says Hannan. “We’re not just creating TV shows — we’re creating opportunities for people in an increasingly digital economy. “

In addition to “Time Slot 2X,” the media center also hosts “Ginger and the Geek,” a podcast on Lansing pop culture; “I’m a Beer Hound,” dedicated to craft beer; and,  debuting this Sunday, “City Pulse Newsmakers,” a “Meet the Press”-style interview show hosted by City Pulse editor and publisher Berl Schwartz. There are also shows dedicated to video games and technology coming soon, but on this recent Monday night, the conversation has mostly circled around Brown’s pet peeves (drivers who won’t turn on red lights) and random online news stories (“Gas is up one cent — why is this is a headline?!”). 

At 7:30 p.m., Brown’s director circles his finger in the wrap-it-up motion, Brown signs off and the show is over. 

“This place is light years ahead of where local public access used to be,” Brown said after the cameras stopped rolling. He starts packing up his laptop and putting the equipment back in place.  “Dominic and his team are very accommodating, they know what they’re doing, and they really seem to want to help. But best of all, they gave me my voice to the community back. I can’t tell you what that means.”

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