By Betty Yu, Center for Media Justice (an original blog post for NAMAC's policy salon)
My journey to the media justice movement actually started with my involvement in a local Public Access television station over 17 years ago. When I was in high school, I became actively involved with a local Chinatown workers center, Chinese Staff & Workers Association, a 30-year old organization that has been in the frontline of labor organizing. Hundreds of immigrant garment and restaurant workers were fighting against exploitative working conditions, but their courageous voices were being blacked out of the corporate media and even the local Chinese press. The local Chinese dailies relied on labor law-breaking restaurants for large advertisements dollars so they didn’t want to rock the boat. So in the mid-90’s with very little positive press attention, the organization decided to start their own Public Access Television show to provide a platform for workers to create and tell their own stories.
During my senior year in high school, I worked with immigrant workers, both young and old to document the local struggles and campaigns that broadcast to nearly one million homes in NYC. These video programs were made possible by community media grants from Manhattan Neighborhood Network, the public access TV station in NYC. It provided workers with the needed hands on access to media making tools to tell their own stories that would eventually be seen nation-wide. Policymakers and others around the country would see these powerful videos. The organizing eventually led to national victories, workers winning their wages back and federal policy change around labor, health and safety protections.
But sadly, since 2005 Community Access Television, also known as Public Educational and Governmental Access (PEG) has been under attack. Only five years ago, according to the Alliance for Community Media there were nearly 3000 PEG stations in the United Stations that provided free to low-cost access to training facilities for community members to create programs for cable broadcast. Currently, there are over 18 states that have passed statewide franchise legislation that has led to the systematic shut down or reduction of Community Access Television in states like California, The cable and phone companies have poured tens of millions of dollars to lobby and push for these statewide franchise bills. These corporations try to convince us that the Internet has killed Public Access and has made it irrelevant. They argue anyone who needs a distribution outlet can simply go to YouTube or some other video sharing site. But this is not a battle between “old vs. new media”. This is a fight between the 1% of big corporate media dollars and the 99% of us who understand that this is about stripping the people of access to these communication platforms like television, the Internet and also the radio that allow us to share, improve our lives, organize in our communities and “occupy”.
Preserving community media outlets like Community Access TV is an important part of our media justice movement. These centers are unique spaces where community members can come together to build, to connect, to become media literate and create stories on their own terms. Localism is one fundamental principle of PEG, tens of thousands of hours of local content are being produced by stations on a weekly basis. The most marginalized voices in our community, such as immigrants, communities of color, and low-income workers can be heard on these stations across the country. It was Atlanta People TV that documented the local outrage around the case of Troy Davis, a man who was executed despite serious doubts of his guilt. During the first gulf war in the early 90’s, it was groups like Deep Dish TV whose award winning series “Shocking and Awful” series provide an alternative anti-war perspective on PEG stations in the U.S. And finally, there’s no denying that the national occupy movement spread as quickly as it did because of the democratization of the open Internet and use of fast paced social media platforms and livestreaming. But Access centers, like PhillyCAM in Philadelphia and Quote…Unquote in Albuquerque are places where occupiers or decolonizers can come together to have strategic and deeper discussions and reach others who may not have access to the Internet.
For the last several years, media activists and public access advocates having been organizing to pass the Community Access Preservation Act (CAP), introduced by Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin to the House of Representatives in May 2011. The passage of the CAP Act would ensure continued funding for PEG Access Centers in states all across the nation. Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) member, Media Alliance, a media resource and advocacy center for media workers, non-profit organizations, and social justice activists writes, “Public, educational and governmental channels (PEG's) and the staffing, facilities, equipment and training to operate them, are the small price cable monopolies pay to the community for unfettered access to consumers with little competition. These bits of the broadcast spectrum reserved for the needs of the people are priceless. They cannot be allowed to revert back to the private market without a fight.” Currently there are over twenty co-sponsors of the bill in Congress. The ACM is urging community members to contact their Congressional Representatives and get their local city council and state legislature to pass resolutions supporting the CAP Act.
Finally there are some local community media fights worth highlighting. One that needs everyone’s voice right now is supporting MAG-Net member, Quote…Unquote (QUQ), the Community Access TV organization in Albuquerque, a 30 year old center that has served as a hub for community members to engage in TV production, media arts, education and community engagement. In October of 2011, when QUQ was under attack and was at risk of closing their doors. Within weeks local and nation groups came together to support the station by making phone calls, writing letters, signing petitions and spreading the word. A letter signed by MAG-Net members read “Quote…Unquote, is not only recognized as a national leader in the community and youth media fields, but they are also respected as a long standing devoted community organization. When MAG-Net and Albuquerque-based Media Literacy Project organized our Internet Freedom FCC town hall meeting in November 2010, it was Quote…Unquote’s youth media producers that interviewed elected officials, community members who testified and FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.” In March 2012, due to this public outcry and organizing, the Cable Franchise and Hearing Board recommended that Quote…UnQuote’s have it’s contract extend to 2017. This is great news, but the fight is still not over, QUQ is still asking for wide spread support to ensure that they receive their contract and continue to preserve the only station in Albuquerque that is the voice of the community.
Lastly, there is another local fight being waged in New York City. Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), the Community Access TV Station in NYC, had their franchise renewal stalled for nearly 3 years as Time Warner, the cable giant delayed and refused to settle on a contract. Starting in 2008, MNN laid off staff, reduced their operations, and discontinued their grants and community services. But finally in August 2011,Time Warner signed a cable franchisewith MNN and four other NYC Access Stations. Nearly eight months after the franchise was renewed and millions of dollars pouring into their station, community members and organizations are perplexed by the lack of outreach and communication regarding MNN’s plans for the future. The New York Coalition for Community Media, a coalition made up of community groups and former MNNgrantee groups who received funds in the past 15 years to document their social justice issues and broadcast them on the Access channels are now asking for the restoration of the grants program and reemergence of services to youth and community based organizations.
It’s important that these local Community Access fights, break out of their own isolation as being just “PEG or Community Access fights” but rather reframed as communication rights, media justice and social justice battles that can bring other influential key stakeholders to the table. Access centers are also embarking on new media projects and using online distribution platforms to maintain their relevancy in the digital world. The Internet can never replace the value of face-to-face community media building but Access TV Centers are also adapting to our changing media literacy culture. For instance, Grand Rapids Community Media Center has integrated theater, radio, and media literacy into their station. But the future is looking bright for the Community Access TV movement, groups like Center for Media and Democracy St. Paul Neighborhood Network, People’s Channel, Quote…Unquote and PhillyCAM are just a few of the many groups building meaningful relationships with the larger social change, media justice and reform movements.