The Beginnings of Cable Access in the United States
The 1960s & 1970s: National Movements
The community media movement began in the 1960s and 1970s. The movement was influenced by the Canadian Film Board’s Challenge for Change program where they put media into everyday people’s hands and used it to facilitate social change.
George Stoney and Red Burns later founded NYU’s Alternate Media Center to run community cable tv experiments with a grant from the Markle Foundation. In the early 1970s, other community video centers also began to emerge elsewhere.
The National Endowment for the Arts funded a four-year program to enable video makers to experiment in the creation of local programming for cable systems. This program funded half a stiped for interns located around the country to lead projects that included programming from churches, arts groups, libraries, schools, and youth groups. The focus was on building community then as it is now.
During this time, reports from the field demonstrated that television viewing in isolation could promote passivity and inaction. These and other experiences demonstrated that a tendency to make access centers primarily places where individuals could make their egocentric programs was often counterproductive to a mission of building community and promoting social change.
Outstanding Access Centers in the 70s and early 80s became places where people came together and worked with those from different neighborhoods, different faiths, and different political beliefs. They became active community centers.
The Beginnings of Cable Access in Kalamazoo
The 1980s & 1990s: Local Initiatives
At the request of the Kalamazoo City Commission, research begins in the potential uses of cable television by the community in the Kalamazoo area. Two months of public hearings began in December to determine community interest in obtaining access to local cable television channels and technology.
A 15-year cable franchise agreement is signed between the City of Kalamazoo and Fetzer Cablevision that dedicates four channels on the 35 channel system for community use, plus funding to support those channels. A seven-member Advisory Committee for Community Access Television is appointed by the Kalamazoo City Commission and design work begins on an access center.
A Cable TV Division is established within the office of the Kalamazoo City Manager and a Cable Administrator and Access Facilitator are appointed to work with the Advisory Committee.
Seven hours of programming per week are cablecast on Access Channels 5,6, 7, and 9. With the grand opening of the Community Access Center at 230 East Crosstown Parkway and the start of video production training for the community programming expands to 20 hours per week. Six communities on the Fetzer cable system begin meeting with an intent to establish a multi-governmental entity to administer and fund cable access.
In the first year of operation, over 1,000 people are trained, and seventy hours of programming is produced per week. Over 30 community groups produced programming.
Community Access Center (CAC) becomes a Separate Legal Entity representing the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Township, and Oshtemo Township and a Board of Directors is formed with appointments made by the represented municipalities.
Comstock Township and the City of Parchment join the Access Center consortium. The Community Access Center raises $11,000 in community support through the second telethon and community participation in the media center continues to grow.
The CAC’s community building work through media is recognized with the designation of Best Access Center in the USA by the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers (now the Alliance for Community Media).
Educational access programs expand to offer the first teen television video camp and offer vocational education through the Education for Employment program. With the fifteenth anniversary of the Community Access Center in 1998, the community celebrates with an access programming retrospective shown for 15 successive evenings and includes a producer roundtable on socially relevant programming.
The 2000s: Expansion and Mission Focus
The Community Access center moves from its Crosstown Parkway location to the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo. The Community Access Center assumes management of WKDS Radio 89.9 FM on behalf of Kalamazoo Public Schools. In 2008, the organization changes its name to Public Media Network. Two years later in 2010, the consortium expands with the City of Portage joining in 2010.
Distribution of the cable channels is expanded to WMU Educable and channels on Charter Cable are moved to 187 – 191. Expansion is completed on the Epic Center Rooftop Expansion to increase space for Public Media Network as part of work to keep Public Media Network in the Epic Center.
Anticipating changes in cable viewership and the “cut the cord” movement, Public Media Network begins live streaming the cable channels on the internet.
Public Media Network adopts a new strategic plan focused on increasing the use and creation of participatory media that is reflective of the community, reducing or eliminating barriers for people to engage in and create content, help people be critical consumers and creators of media, and to build organizational resiliency. Overall, the strategic direction looked at the original reasons for public access and refocused on the roots of the movement and how they are relevant today.
The City of Portage decides to withdraw from the consortium and decides to no longer provide public access services to City of Portage residents. Public Media Network launches an app on Roku, Fire TV, and Apple TV with content available in high definition through those apps and on the website.
Increasing community access to the programming online continued to move Public Media Network into a role of being a hub for community communication.
Public Media Network launches a community journalism initiative, Neighborhood Voices Network, and begins to move training programs into a longer-term cohort format to support community-building and increased learning retention.
With a focus on equity in narratives, Public Media Network joined the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network in 2020 to focus on how the organization can be more inclusive and move beyond the traditional “first come, first serve” approach that has defined public access since the 1990s. In deciding to be more intentional with program design and resource allocation, Public Media Network secured more than $750,000 in grant funding over three years to support narrative change work in the Black and BIPOC communities.
Public Media Network celebrates 40 years of people-powered media in Kalamazoo, MI with an on-air telethon featuring appeals, programs, and comments and interviews with supporters and former staff.
Public Media Network launches narrative storytelling projects that help people develop and tell non-fiction stories of impact about their experiences, issues that matter to them, and their community.
Public Media Network expands efforts for community media to fill the increasing gaps in local journalism. Training programs expand in their focus to support the use of non-fiction video by residents to tell stories of impact. Focus increases to foster an equitable local media ecosystem that reflects our communities and their lived experiences.
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