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With No Money and Few Friends in High Places, Baltimore's Public-Access Cable Station Faces Cancellation

Sam Holden
"We were interested in public access as a vehicle for bringing the community together," says Jonathan Shorr, an early BCAC board member. "We wanted . . . to give people a chance to express themselves and their concerns."
Sam Holden
BCAC raised less than $25,000 last year from nongovernment sources. To bring its studio up to date and "run this station appropriately," executive director Arthur Bugg says, would cost close to $800,000 a year.

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 12/5/2001

On a sunny autumn day, signs of life abound outside Coppin State College's Grace Hill Jacobs Building. Golden leaves dance salsa in treetops, crows crackle, and cell phones ring the "Toreador Song." In the lobby, throngs of chattering students scurry to media and communications classes.

But in the basement, there's hardly any sound or movement. Quiet corridors with gleaming waxed floors lead to the empty offices of the Baltimore Cable Access Corp. (BCAC), channel 5 in the city's cable lineup. Above a vacant studio hang dozens of dangling "pigtails"--cords to which lights would be attached, if there were anything being shot. With only one working video camera, a control room full of tape decks and headsets gone kaput, and a rickety plywood stage, dramatic lighting would be wasted here.

"We can't edit or shoot any show right now," studio supervisor Dennis Roberts says during a tour of BCAC's facilities. For now, Roberts spends most of his part-time job keeping watch on a closet-sized room near his office, where a rack of loaded videotape decks is linked to a computer that signals when programs should go on "play." The monitor screen, glowing neon green, displays a date of 11/03/23. The machine, BCAC's lifeline to the viewing public, is an IBM 286 that hums along, oblivious to Y2K.

After eight years as Baltimore's public-access cable station, the only TV outlet in town that trains citizens to produce their own programs (and airs them for a measly $2.50 per airing, BCAC has degenerated into a sorry mess. For all the obvious need, though, executive director Arthur Bugg says a face-lift is out of the question. The Baltimore Cable Access Corp. is, for all intents and purposes, broke.

Since going on the air in 1993, BCAC has been running primarily on a one-time, $1.1 million award from the city to provide public-access programming, a staple of cable systems nationwide. That well ran dry last year, and after months of operating "in the red," Bugg says, BCAC is in danger of petering out completely. A Nov. 5 statement distributed to the station's 250 or so dues-paying members, local media, and community organizations asserts that BCAC needs "$100,000 before December 31, 2001, in order to prevent having to shut down its operation."

If there is any fund-raising urgency within BCAC, it hasn't extended much beyond that statement, at least not publicly--no City Hall protests, no mass mailings, no media campaign. Comcast Corp., the Phila-delphia-based communications giant that took over the city's cable operation in July, does not provide any money for BCAC (as it does for public-access stations in many other markets, under franchise agreements in those jurisdictions) and is under no obligation to do so under its deal with the city, which expires in three years.

BCAC board members, dues-payers, and officials express a mixture of anger, desperation, and disappointment about the state of the station--some blaming underfunding by the city and its cable operators, others deriding BCAC itself for failing to seek alternative money sources. "The BCAC, as an organization, has not been effective," says one dues-paying member who asked not to be named. "The whole thing needs to be scrapped and started again."

However the station got into this predicament, members assert that, as Baltimore's only outlet for truly independent television, it is worth saving. "We have always been the bastards, the illegitimate stepchildren of mainstream media," says Harry Evans, a six-year BCAC member and producer of That Show With Those Black Guys, a Columbia-based program that airs on about 60 public-access stations nationally. "It's true that the BCAC needs to be more proactive to carry [public access] forward, but if it disappears, especially in this highly educated community, it will be a shame."

If the principle of public access isn't enough on its own to rile folks and open wallets, the reality of public access in Baltimore isn't likely to help. For most of the city's 113,000 cable subscribers, channel 5 is hardly must-see TV--unless one is inexorably drawn to lengthy Baptist sermons, nightclub fashion shows, and neighborhood golden-oldies dance parties. Add to that enticing content decidedly low-budget production values--blurry images, garbled audio--and you get programming that, to borrow a phrase from acclaimed media critic Patricia Aufderheide, "only a grandmother would watch . . . if her granddaughter was on."

But if public access today seems, to local audiences at least, like fluff fit mainly for channel-surfing chuckles, historically it has been a valuable tool to provide exactly what the name implies: unfettered public access to the media and the ability to promote social goals thereby.

Mark Lloyd, executive director of the Washington-based Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy, traces the roots of public-access television to the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s. "It was hard for traditional civil-rights organizations and community groups to get their stories out," he says. Grass-roots groups had little leverage when it came to affecting what was and wasn't shown on TV.

In 1964, the Rev. Everett Parker, a United Church of Christ minister, Yale Divinity School lecturer, and media activist, took a group of students to Jackson, Miss., to monitor local TV stations' coverage of race issues. They discovered a virtual blackout of news about civil rights. The stations blocked transmission of network shows about the movement and interviews with leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. African-American ministers seeking to advertise their concerns could not buy time, while members of the racist White Citizens Council were given free airtime for editorials.

Parker and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People challenged the stations' broadcast licenses but were rebuffed by the Federal Communications Commission. Parker sued the agency in federal court and won. The 1966 opinion by future Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger noted that the Jackson stations were not adequately serving the full community, which was 45 percent black, and established the right of local groups to petition the FCC to revoke broadcast licenses.

With the advent of cable television several years later, media activists harbored hopes for an even greater expansion of public input on the airwaves. "The original hope was that [with] public access there would be a broader audience and greater communication between community groups and cities," Lloyd says.

At its best, proponents believed, public access would provide a forum for underserved communities and underexposed viewpoints--a sort of ultimate public television, free from all commercial constraints and available to anyone with even a bare minimum of money and expertise. Anyone who wanted to could literally put on a show. As cable spread to Baltimore in the early 1980s, a number of academics and grass-roots organizations began exploring ways to put that philosophy into practice here. Their discussions led to the incorporation of BCAC in 1981.

"We were interested in public access as a vehicle for bringing the community together," says Jonathan Shorr, director of communication programs at the University of Baltimore and an early BCAC board member. "We wanted to be responsive to different constituencies in the community, to give people a chance to express themselves and their concerns."

This was in line with the developing standards in deals between local governments and cable companies, which usually include clauses requiring "PEG" channels--independent stations that air public-access, educational, and government-related programs. A PEG clause in the city's 1984 cable franchise agreement, a 20-year deal with now-defunct United Cable, paved the way for channel 5, as well as for channel 21, the City Hall-run outlet for mayoral briefings, City Council meetings, and other government programming.

BCAC "acted as an adviser" to the city during the United negotiations, Shorr says, but it had no official role, and public-access funding was not part of the pact. Eight years would pass before it reached city televisions--partly because United took more than four years to finish wiring the city, partly because BCAC had trouble settling its two main organizational issues: how to pay for its operations and where to locate them.

As much as BCAC tried to position itself as a valuable arm of Baltimore's new cable service, city officials were reluctant to enshrine the station as a regular item on the municipal budget. "When it comes to the city's general fund, and you have to argue between buying video cameras and fixing potholes," Shorr says, "you know the potholes will win." And first dibs on any funding set aside for cable services went to the Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications (MOCC), formed in October 1984 to run channel 21.

Eventually concluding that they were not going to get permanent funding, BCAC officials reached a deal with the city in 1992 that paid the station $1.1 million in funds collected from United Cable, apportioned in annual increments. Under the deal, which expired last December, the city promised no future grants and assumed "no responsibility or legal obligation to pay from its general funds or other sources" to help finance public access.

In the meantime, BCAC was finding it equally difficult to find a suitable studio location. After almost a year, Coppin State emerged as the main contender, but the notion of locating at a historically black college on the rough-and-tumble west side divided the board. "There was a political fight to get it here," says Amini Courts, an associate professor of speech and theater at Coppin and a BCAC board member. Another board member recalls that the decision "had us polarized around racial lines." (The group that founded BCAC was multiracial, but today the 17-member board is entirely African-American.)

As it turned out, setting up shop at Coppin State was one of BCAC's smartest, most economical moves. The station received rent-free space on campus in exchange for a pledge to offer internships and use of the facilities to Coppin communications students. The college even agreed to pay for a part-time BCAC employee, accepting in exchange a seat on the station's board of directors.

Still, the early struggles didn't augur well for the fledgling station. In hindsight, some within BCAC acknowledge, the waiting and wrangling over money and space may have led to some shortsighted decisions, particularly accepting a sunset on city funding.

"Back then, cable was new," says Bishop Carroll Johnson of West Baltimore's Maximum Life Christian Church, a veteran station board member. "And there wasn't a lot of history in terms of how to set pubic access up long term. There was probably a lot of misguided optimism, and people were just [caught up] in being allowed to operate and put some programming on the air."

In 1993, ensconced in its Coppin State digs and flush with the first installment of $260,000 from the city, BCAC promptly bought tens of thousand of dollars worth of equipment. It began signing up members who, for $50 a year plus additional workshop fees, learned how to produce their own programs. The station even started up an annual video-awards show, the "Cameos."

"We used to be swamped in here," recalls Roberts, the studio's supervisor. "You would see people coming and going all night." The new station was a magnet for neighborhood associations; grass-roots activists; churches with large, politically active congregations; and nonprofit groups working on issues ranging from the arts to environmental science.

The enthusiasm and activity were short-lived. Once the initial buzz died down, the membership stream slowed to a trickle. And BCAC was left in the dust by the fast pace of technology, which put sophisticated video equipment in the hands of the public. Many station members, especially larger churches and nonprofits, bought their own gear and began producing their shows off-site. BCAC's own equipment increasingly sat unused.

Despite the warning signs, BCAC officials did little to change the way they did business. Instead of launching a campaign to boost membership, or raising money to replace outdated equipment, the station coasted along on its annual, mostly city-funded $150,000 budget. Bugg and other board members say their attention was largely consumed by a wage-discrimination lawsuit filed by former BCAC executive director Karen Simmons-Beathea, who was fired in 1996.

"Every day the phone was ringing and it was something else relating to that lawsuit," says Bugg, a former Maryland Public Television and WBAL-TV staffer who volunteered at BCAC for three years before he was hired to replace Simmons-Beathea in 1997. "It took up almost all of our time--and it's still affecting us negatively." The case was settled in April 2000 with Simmons-Beathea receiving a $45,000 settlement that was covered by the station's insurance.

Bugg was hired at an annual salary of $40,000, 20 percent more than Simmons-Beathea made. While some BCAC insiders say her discrimination charge may have had merit, she is widely criticized within the organization for poor administrative skills and living beyond the station's restricted means. "She liked to have meetings catered when there were things that needed to be fixed," recalls one station official. (Simmons-Beathea could not be reached for comment.)

While BCAC officials were spending much of their time grappling with a disgruntled ex-employee, the station's deal with the city was winding down and money was running out. In December 2000, the city sent word that the $1.1 million was gone; the station was on its own. By then, most of BCAC's equipment was either broken or too archaic to be used in producing shows, much less attracting new members for training workshops. Many existing members continue to produce their own shows, keeping the station's lineup full, but new voices are virtually nonexistent.

Bugg slashed his own salary in half (part-timer Roberts also took a major cut), and he says board members dip into their own funds to pay station bills. Outside revenue is anemic--less than $25,000 last year from fund-raisers, private donations, memberships, and workshops. That amounts to about a fifth of BCAC's annual expenses, even on its shoestring budget. To bring BCAC's studio up to date and "run this station appropriately," Bugg says, would cost close to $800,000 a year.

Call it gritty determination or grasping at straws, but midway through last year BCAC officials finally starting crying for help. In August 2000 Bugg went to Tucson, Ariz., for a conference sponsored by the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for public TV stations. "It really opened my eyes to how things are done in other markets," where public-access stations "get much, much more support," Bugg says.

"It's insane about the situation in Baltimore with the BCAC," says Bunnie Riedel, ACM's executive director. "You can't even run a television channel for what they've been getting, [much less] buy new equipment."

While some within and without BCAC criticize the station for not being more financially proactive, Riedel says most public-access administrators "don't go bumming around, doing private fund-raising. The truth is they get a percentage of the proceeds from their cable franchise fees because [that money] doesn't just belong to the city, it belongs to the people."

In many markets, funding for public-access channels is written into franchise agreements and covered by fees that local governments collect from cable providers. (The fee is typically about 5 percent of the cable company's revenues in that market.; another 1 to 2 percent is often allotted directly to public access.) According to an ACM report on public-access funding, BCAC's counterpart in Arlington, Va., Arlington Community Television, gets two-thirds of its annual $562,000 budget from franchise fees. And the Public Access Corp. of the District of Columbia (DCTV), Washington's $750,000-a-year public-access operation, is almost fully funded by such fees. Comcast is the cable provider in both Arlington and Washington, and its deals there require it to subsidize the public-access channels. The agreement the company inherited when it purchased Baltimore's cable operation earlier this year includes no such provision.

If BCAC were to receive 1 percent of Comcast's local revenues, as DCTV does in Washington, it would get about $540,000 a year (based on an average $40 monthly bill for Baltimore's 113,000 subscribers)--nearly quadruple what it got most years from the city under the old deal. That might sound like pie in the sky, but other public-access providers say it's possible. In Washington, DCTV leaders successfully pursued public and political support and boosted their bottom line.

"We've had a very long struggle to reach the point where the community could convince [city] leaders of the impact of public access," DCTV deputy director Mark Sarver says. "Now, there's a lot of political support." Sarver says one D.C. City Council member was elected in 1998 on the strength of a platform that included helping the itinerant public-access station buy a permanent headquarters. The D.C. Council allocated $750,000 for new digs, and Sarver says the station has purchased and is renovating a 10,000-square-foot historic building and will move in soon, ending 13 years of shuttling between offices in the basement of an apartment building and a YMCA.)

DCTV did have a built-in advantage over BCAC--guaranteed funding from the franchise agreement. Even so, by the mid-'90s, a decade or so after the station's inception, it was floundering. "There have been a variety of problems in the District," says Lloyd, whose Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy issued a report in September on the state of public access in the Washington area. Millions in promised investments by cable providers never materialized. Washington's cable operation changed hands several times, and contractual stipulations about system upgrades and hiring practices were systematically ignored--symptomatic, Lloyd says, of the pervasive notion that cable providers are simply conducting private business, not working under contract for a community. "It's up to community groups to negotiate very strongly in order to get a fair deal," he says.

DCTV leaders had to learn how to tap the community for support and do a better job lobbying government and cable officials for more money. Last year, volunteers logged more than 100,000 hours working for the station. And as Comcast prepared to take over D.C. cable service a year ago, Sarver says, the city held a "community-needs assessment," whereby city and Comcast officials held public meetings in which citizens told them what they wanted from public access.

Today, a glance at the station's monthly roster--unlike BCAC, DCTV has a preset schedule--reveals shows on major political and cultural issues, such as the nature of Islam and the debate over reparations for descendants of slaves. Not all the programming is so high-minded, but it's more the rule than the exception--the result, Sarver says, of participation by a broad base of citizens with varied interests.

Baltimore's diverse population makes it a strong candidate for similarly diverse programming, he says. After years of stagnation, however, BCAC has its work cut out for it, Sarver says.

"It's difficult when you are in a situation where somebody doesn't give you any money and then says you failed," he says. "That's a hard thing to come out of."

What makes it even harder is that timing is not on BCAC's side. Even as it cut a deal with the city predicated on the station's ability "to raise money and build a solid foundation for success," ex-board member Shorr says, BCAC officials held out hope that "when the franchise was renegotiated the economy would be in good enough shape that the city would be willing to allocate a portion of the franchise fee." But the BCAC deal ran out as the long-rolling economic boom went bust, putting the pinch on both philanthropic and public dollars. Add in the cost of post-Sept. 11 security measures, and the tiny cable operation slips even further down the city's budget agenda.

The station does have an amen corner at City Hall, but its support is largely limited to shout-outs. On April 3, the City Council adopted a resolution calling on the city to rescue the reeling station with a $400,000 annual grant. But the resolution's sponsor, council member Kwame Abayomi (D-6th District), acknowledged that it "was basically a perfunctory gesture. We can lobby, but the bottom line is determined by the executive branch."

So far, the executive branch isn't offering much hope. In early October, Tony White, spokesperson for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the city was trying to find a "short-term funding source" to get the station back on its feet--but he also reiterated the mayoral position that BCAC was designed to be "basically grant driven and [should] do their own fund-raising" (Mobtown Beat, Oct. 10, www.citypaper.com/2001-10-10/mobs.html).

In a more recent interview, White declined to say whether any progress had been made in securing funds for BCAC. The mayor himself gave station officials little cause for optimism when asked, in an impromptu City Hall interview videotaped by BCAC member Leonard Kerpelman, for a comment on the state of public-access funding. While he didn't directly address BCAC, saying he didn't know the specifics of the station's condition, O'Malley appeared nonplussed with the city's PEG services, saying he isn't "very happy with what comes out" of City Hall's own channel 21 and plans to consider whether "we should even have a Mayor's Office of Cable and Communications." (That unhappiness notwithstanding, MOCC has enjoyed a generous spike in public investment: The city more than doubled the government station's budget this fiscal year, from $347,389 to $751,282.)

Given City Hall's indifference, the city's new cable provider has little incentive to take up BCAC's cause. Since paying $518 million to pick up the city's 113,000 subscribers, Comcast has consistently asserted that it would address the issue of public-access funding--in 2004, when the city's original 20-year cable deal expires. "Not 'no,'" Comcast vice president and general manager Ken Crooks said at an Oct. 3 City Council hearing, when asked about helping BCAC. "Just not now." Comcast officials did meet with Bugg and Coleman over the summer, but company spokesperson LaWanda Edwards says the session was strictly informational. "We just listened to them," Edwards says, "because we have not renegotiated our franchise with the city and there have not been any official talks as to what will happen between us and the BCAC."

"It's sad because Arthur Bugg is a good guy who truly believes in the BCAC," says Kevin Brown, spokesperson for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and a former BCAC dues-paying member. He recalls "sitting up with Arthur until after 1 a.m., looking at videos" for Cameo awards consideration. "He really cares," Brown says. "And if a public-access station can indeed function as a voice of the community, that should be all the better for the cable market."

Coppin State student Leonard Brady and alumnus Timothy Smith say the benefits of a thriving Baltimore Cable Access Corp. go beyond what gets on the tube. For all its shortcomings, channel 5 helped open career doors for them, and they're grateful.

Smith, a 26-year-old floor manager for WBAL (channel 13), interned with BCAC for three years before his graduation from Coppin last spring. Like BCAC officials, he too was frustrated by the poor facilities. "We had our morale killed because of not being able to complete projects [for school] on time because different equipment wasn't working," he says, glancing around the vast, empty studio. Still, he says, "If I hadn't had my internship, I don't know if I would have gotten my foot in the door [at WBAL] because, from here, I already knew the basic processes. I wasn't familiar with digital equipment or all the robotics, but I knew I was qualified as far as knowing how production works."

Brady, 19, started work this fall as an editorial intern at WBFF (channel 45). The Coppin junior describes his background as "the usual story" of being raised by a single parent in a rough West Baltimore neighborhood. Working at BCAC "opened me up and made me want to learn more," he says. "I was fascinated."

Neither Smith nor Brady is familiar with the BCAC back story. The role of the civil-rights movement in opening up the media to minorities? They know it happened, and they're grateful, in an abstract way, like appreciating the power of the ocean without ever visiting a beach. Mention the station's financial woes, the internecine disputes, the missed opportunities and political wrangling, and they shrug their shoulders. They're not concerned with what led BCAC down the slippery slope to insolvency; what matters to them is making sure the station survives as a starting point for anyone with a dream to get on the air.

"We know that we can do a good job and put our stuff on television," Brady says. "So maybe it should be the city or maybe it should be Comcast . . . but somebody needs to help kick this thing off."

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