A new channel for public expression

Columbia Access Television, Columbia’s public access channel, went on the air Oct. 11. Since then, its first generation of television producers have created shows with topics ranging from exercise to religion.
Sunday, August 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Pat Fowler and Jay Hasheider are trying to get people to lead healthier lives. Carlton Flowers wants to entertain and enlighten. John Hopkins and his siblings want to spread the word of God. And Kim Sherman, Olivia Wyatt and Giavanna Accurso are in it for the kids.

They are members of the first generation of television producers for the public-access channel Columbia Access Television. And although they are all taking advantage of a medium that has been missing from Columbia for more than two decades to bring their ideas to life, the results are radically different.

Shows with a purpose

As the producers of “Running Columbia,” Fowler and Hasheider have taken upon themselves the task of chronicling the accomplishments of competitive runners in Columbia. This isn’t always the most pleasant of tasks.

For instance, it meant braving the heat on an unusually warm summer evening to cover the Columbia Track Club Youth Program as it held a meet at Hickman High School’s track. As the children prepared for a 200-meter run, a shot-put throw or a long jump, Fowler and Hasheider were preparing as well, setting up cameras and finding participants to interview.

“This month we’re focusing on kids’ events,” said Hasheider, who planned to use the footage in their fourth episode. He explained that it would most likely be several weeks before the footage would be put on the air.

“It’s not anywhere near instantaneous, because we have day jobs,” he said.

“Running Columbia” came together, Hasheider said, because he thinks the sport gets too little recognition in other media.

But the show also has a higher purpose: “There is a trend in this country towards the early onset of health problems because of obesity,” Fowler said.

She said she believes running could offset this problem and, for this reason, wanted to make a show that made running seem fun and accessible.

“We want to take the mystery out of running,” she said.

But Fowler acknowledges that producing a show hasn’t been as easy as they thought it would. For one, she’s had to learn how to use a video camera and how to edit video. And as a long-time PC user, she’s had to learn to deal with the Macs that are used for editing in the Columbia Access Television studio, in the basement of Helis Communications Center at Stephens College.

She wryly lamented how they lost some of their best material due to technical errors.

“You always look for common themes that run through your shows,” said Fowler. “In our first episode, a kid finished a race, then immediately threw up off camera. Then, in the second episode, another kid runs through the finish line and throws up, again off camera.”

Alas, they were unable to continue their motif of racing-induced disgorge because during the editing of the second episode, computer crashes wiped out their fully edited program — twice.

“By the third time, we didn’t have time to look for the kid,” she said.

Hasheider admits their show is a work in progress.

“We’re total novices,” he said. “But we’re learning.”

Columbia Access TV’s origins

Even a year ago, Hasheider and Fowler wouldn’t have had the opportunity to create their show. Until October, in fact, there wasn’t a channel for them to air it on.

In 2001, Beth Federici, who had worked with public access channels in Portland, Ore., New York and Houston, came to Columbia to work on the city government’s television station, the Columbia Channel.

Federici said she believes that in a time when media consolidation leads to fewer and fewer voices on the air and restricted access to them, public access television is an important tool for those who would otherwise be unable to express their thoughts or concerns.

So she was surprised to find that there was no public access television station in Columbia. While the Columbia Channel provides broadcasts of city meetings and coverage of city activities, it is not a platform for public expression.

Federici began working with a public advocacy group called the Columbia Media Resource Alliance to bring public access back to Columbia. Although the franchise agreement between the city of Columbia and its two cable providers, Mediacom and Charter, calls for those companies to provide for a public access channel, Columbia hadn’t had one since the early 1980s.

In 2002, after intense lobbying by the alliance, a task force that had been appointed by Mayor Darwin Hindman called for the two cable companies to provide money for such a station. Mediacom and Charter proposed that a studio be built in the KMIZ building. But under that plan, those who used the station would have been charged for studio time, editing time and air time. The alliance wanted free access.

Finally, in the spring of 2004, Mediacom provided $130,000 in funding for a studio to be built at Stephens. On Oct. 11, Columbia Access Television, with Federici as its director, went on the air.

The station provides everything that filmmakers need to make their shows, from cameras to computers to studio space. Volunteers teach monthly classes on basic camera use and computer editing. All that is required of those who want to use the channel is a $35 membership fee, paid annually.

Nationally, more than one million people work on shows for public access television each year, producing more than 20,000 hours of local programming each week, according to the Alliance for Community Media, a public access television advocacy group.

Carlton Flowers has had plenty of time to learn the intricacies of a public access show. After all, his show, “The Carlton Zone,” began airing on the Jefferson City public-access channel JCTV more than three years ago. The show is now broadcast on that channel and on Columbia Access Television.

Back when it started, “The Carlton Zone” was a far different animal than it is now.

It began its life as “The Achievement Journal,” and featured Flowers, a civil engineer who frequently gives lectures on topics such as cultural diversity and teamwork, speaking about employee enrichment from inside a studio.

But Flowers said he soon discovered something: the sillier and more random his lectures got, the more people paid attention. This led him to adopt a new strategy. He decided to move his show outside.

“The show is now focused on my family and all of the different fun things we do,” Flowers said. “I show anything that I am doing in my life that is entertaining and different.”

In one episode, for example, Flowers taped his family surfing in Florida in order to show the importance of family vacations.

Flowers has changed the name of the show to the less academic sounding “The Carlton Zone.”

“Even though I do wild, zany things, I try to have a point,” Flowers said. “The show is still about self-improvement.”

And the show is beginning to gain a following, said Flowers.

“It took awhile, but people are starting to recognize me,” he said. “I also have people tell me it’s so nice to see a show that’s family-friendly and still fun to watch.”

A variety of shows

At Word of Life Ministries in Mexico, Mo., putting together a public-access show is a family affair. John Hopkins, the church’s program director, produces a variety show called “Word of Life” with the help of his younger siblings. Timothy Hopkins helps his brother produce the show. Their sister, Hope, edits and a third brother, Jason, works the camera.

“It’s quite entertaining,” Hopkins said. “I’m the oldest, so it’s fun to give orders.”

“Word of Life” is a variety show, a mix of skits, a variety of music including jazz, R&B, pop and rock, and a talk show.

“Part of the idea is to entertain people with music and skits, and then use that to get them to come to the faith through Christ,” Hopkins said.

He said that he has received positive response from viewers and that most of the people who approach him to compliment his show are age 20-45 and non-Christian.

Mr. Rogers meets The Bugaloos

Kim Sherman still remembers how she became involved in producing television for public access. After learning about the new public access channel, Sherman and her friend Olivia Wyatt decided they wanted to do a show. After enlisting the help of their friend Giavanna Accurso, they began preparations for a children’s program.

The result was “Treebop,” a show that Sherman describes as “Mr. Rogers meets The Bugaloos.”

“It’s part variety show and part play,” Sherman said. “We try to incorporate educational elements, as well as local artists and musicians.”

In their first episode, the show featured music by the Columbia band The Kingdom Flying Club. Local artists Alethea Dalton and Sarah Paulsen have also worked on sets for the show.

Sherman said putting together the show was not as easy as the friends had originally hoped. They quickly found out that some of the more elaborate sets they had planned would have to be toned down, and the fact that all three had day jobs complicated matters.

“By the second episode, we had it all worked out,” said Sherman.

Looking back, she is amazed about how much the show has improved.

“Every time I work on it, I feel like we’ve learned so much,’” Sherman said. “It’s given me a great sense of accomplishment.”

Funding problems

Federici said she has been happy with the sheer variety of programs on Columbia Access Television.

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Federici said the station has been underfunded since its inception. While most public access stations in cities the size of Columbia have an annual operating budget of $300,000 to $500,000, Columbia’s station has had to make due with the $130,000 it received on its inception.

This has been problematic for the station, said Federici. It has only three part-time employees, which restricts the number of hours the station can be open. Producers sometimes can’t use equipment when they need it because there isn’t enough to go around. And the channel hasn’t been promoted heavily, simply because those who run it lack the money to do so.

The franchise agreement between Mediacom and Charter and the city of Columbia expires on Jan. 6. Federici said she hopes that when it’s rewritten, the station will receive funding that’s equitable with stations in markets similar to Columbia.

But the impending end of the franchise agreement may pose an even bigger problem. If a new franchise agreement isn’t in place by the time the current one ends, Columbia Access Television could be left without funding for several months.

For this reason the channel is looking for interim funding, either from the cable companies or the city of Columbia.

Federici said the station has enough funds to sustain it until January.

After that, she said, the station will stay open as long as volunteers can sustain it.

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