Your neighbor is on TV: Portland Community Media brings community to the airwaves.
Magazine feature about Portland Community Media. A version of this was originally published in PDX Magazine in 2006.
Your neighbor is on TV
Portland Community Media brings community to the airwaves.
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire, but it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” Legendary news anchor Edward R. Murrow’s words about television in 1958 are especially relevant in this current age of media consolidation where television programming certainly entertains, but doesn’t necessarily represent our communities or allow them access to their airwaves.
Portland Community Media (PCM), like public access channels across the country, has become one of the last true places where local communities have access to the television airwaves initially intended as a public medium and service. Like community radio stations, these bastions and advocates for free speech give voices to the otherwise marginalized and voiceless and provide the training and knowledge necessary to learn film and video production. PCM is the Portland areas largest cable access organization, programming three public access channels on Comcast cable channels 11, 22, and 23 and one government programming channel, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – over 8000 hours of programming per channel, per year. Most of the programming embodies all the hallmarks of community access television: an eclectic blend of low budget productions with plenty of interesting televised moments. They continue to innovate with updated technology, media access activism, and community outreach – but not without challenges like funding cuts at local and national levels and lack of a large enough volunteer base.
“We are one of the last remaining free speech forums around, says PCM Programming/Tape Traffic Specialist Matt O’Dell. “Our doors are open to anyone who wants to learn how they too can use the airwaves to broadcast their messages. Portland Community Media and other local access center around the nation are the only feasible television mediums available to the public anymore.” O’Dell says community volunteers are crucial to station: “We need our volunteers in order to survive. Our budgets get cut every year, which makes it harder to produce our own shows, so it’s up to the volunteer user base to take on those productions and continue making programs that impact the community. If we lose this valuable resource, many organizations, local governments, and individuals will no longer be seen or heard because the local media won’t do it for free, but we will.”
To get a show into PCM rotation, volunteer community members have to attend a free 90-minute orientation where they learn about cable access, review the rules and procedures and learn how to get programs on the air. Once they have attended the orientation they are eligible to sign up for PCM trainings and can become certified on their equipment. Then they produce or submit a program they didn’t produce but are “sponsoring” for airing and O’Dell schedules the programs based on the producer’s request. The programs will get anywhere from two to five air dates and times based on where the program was produced – locally produced programs get more air dates.
The volunteer producers and sponsors submit a relatively evenly divided mix of arts and entertainment, education, public affairs, municipal and religious programs, and PCM sponsors other programs to fill the gaps and as a service to the community.
New shows are often added to the rotation. One promising new community program is a new two-hour biweekly series from the Independent Black Producers Organization called IPBO Presents, which airs live every other Saturday at 6 pm on channel 22 and repeats during the week on the other channels. “We wanted to get a message out for those voices that are not usually heard, and gain feedback on things happening in the community,” says IBPO producer Von Bailey. “The hope is that our programs act as a voice for local communities, and give an opportunity for events in the community to get some recognition.” Bailey says the growing IBPO group also wants to “teach young minorities and low income students multimedia.” Their programs will cover financial issues like home buying, teen issues, and a Generation X focused show hosted by local hip-hop MC Mic Crenshaw. Bailey thinks that PCM “is very instrumental in getting information out to the community,” and hopes that funding struggles are resolved and community shows like those from the IBPO can continue to be produced.
While the community issue programs like IBPO Presents are a crucial part of the programming mix, there are many arts and entertainment shows that just want to have fun. Dawn Higgins-Jasman hosts and produces Galactic Groove After Dark, a live late night talk and variety show with live bands that “can be a little risqué, but we try not to cross the line.” Jasman says the show was originally “supposed to be a dance party, but it was hard to get dancers in who wanted to shake their butts on live TV,” so it eventually evolved into its current format. The story of Galactic Groove is a good example of how community programs come to life. Jasman was inspired by another late night show on PCM that went off the air in the late 90’s and in an effort fill the void she decided to become a producer herself and launched her first live show in 2001 after a PCM training experience that she says had both easy and challenging aspects. Jasman, who also helps out with other shows, like the popular Outside the Box show on Thursday nights, thinks that “PCM is doing an awesome job in providing a service to the community. Cable access is the final frontier of free speech as we know it.”
One way PCM enables community members like the IBPO to get their voices on air is by offering inexpensive hands on training in both field and studio production, and they have recently revamped their education program. When they had standard technique training courses on topics like camera use, editing and lighting, there was excellent attendance, but not a corresponding amount of programs produced. In part due to a lack in community-based programs, PCM changed from a technique to a project based educational approach. Under the old technique based model, PCM taught traditional classes where students would learn lighting, camera operation, digital editing and other necessities, with no real commitment to actually produce a program. Under the project based model, the learning process is a means to and end – after learning the skills, volunteers put them to use and, ideally, each training session nets a unique program that PCM can air. “We found that we have been lacking in community based programs (so) we re-vamped our media education curriculum to be more project-based instead of technique based (which) gives us the opportunity to reach out to community organizations. This also educates our viewers and volunteers on community organizations that they might not otherwise know about.” The training at PCM have long been a popular way for aspiring producers and directors to get started. O’Dell says “it’s pretty common for people to get their start here because of cost alone. Our facilities and equipment are available for use for free. The only thing we charge for is our classes and workshops. Users have to supply their own tapes, but they get to use top of the line equipment for nothing. I’ve also noticed that a lot of commercial TV shows get their ideas from public access shows.” The project-based approach has also been taken to classrooms with the Oregon Learning Lab for Information Education (OLLIE) program. The program, co-run by Multnomah Community Television, takes the project-based approach to classrooms, bringing digital video production to under-served students to produce video projects on topics they study and that affect their lives.
There are significant challenges ahead for PCM and other community access outlets. Two bills in the U.S. House and Senate, including one sponsored by Oregon’s Senator Gordon Smith would give telephone companies national cable television franchises without any local government oversight or adequate provisions for cable access funding. Now is an excellent time to get involved in community media and move from consumer and spectator of television to an actual creator and take an opportunity to illuminate, teach and even inspire through this powerful medium.