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Columbia Access Television: Is the show over?

The public access station is at a crossroads
Friday, January 4, 2008 | 4:00 p.m. CST; updated 6:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Amy Mack, far left, waits for production to begin for “Counterpoint,” a talk show hosted by Third Ward City Councilman Karl Skala in November. Guests for the show were DeAnna Walkenbach, Dan Goldstien and Ben Londeree.

COLUMBIA — A canopy of studio lights from years gone by — still bearing the stenciled letters of the KTVI television station in St. Louis — hangs from the rafters of Studio A at the Stephens College Helis Communication Center.

This was supposed to be the home of Columbia Access Television, or CAT, which had hoped to outfit the basement studio with equipment able to withstand a constant stream of Stephens students and public access producers eager to get their work on TV for all to see.

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But the studio is far from the hub of activity CAT volunteers dreamed about.

In fact, the door is usually locked. CAT instead has set up shop in the much smaller Studio B.

For three years, CAT treasurer Stephen Hudnell has cobbled together meager budgets unable to fund big-ticket studio equipment or even a single full-time employee. Operating a public access channel on $30,000 a year was a challenge, but CAT was getting by in what Hudnell called “budgeted crisis mode.”

“We’d settled into a routine, but at the same time, we (were) not growing.”

Beth Pike, a CAT volunteer and a member of the city’s Cable Task Force, said it wasn’t easy.

“The only way we did it was because we had volunteers that have been running the station, keeping the doors open,” Pike said. “No one wants to do that continuously.”

Last spring, CAT found itself in a situation beyond its budgeting control after Gov. Matt Blunt signed a new cable law that caused the city’s negotiations for a new franchise agreement with Mediacom to crumble. That agreement was supposed to have included assurances that Mediacom would provide adequate funding for CAT.

When the talks fell through, CAT took a hit. An anticipated $10,000 check from Mediacom never arrived. And with less than $600 in the bank, CAT had to go to the City Council for help. Then, in late September, days before CAT received the first half of $15,000 in bridge funding the council promised, something happened that never had happened before: CAT bounced a $100 check.

“We were literally, for the first time in all these years, completely out of money,” Hudnell said. “This is nowhere near what we expected.”

What carried CAT through three years of chronic underfunding was a federally recognized standard that’s been successfully realized in coastal and Midwestern communities alike. In today’s media world, advocates say, it’s important for everyone — the public, the schools and the government — to have access to the airwaves.

“It’s people. It’s their lives in Columbia, what they experience, what they care about, and a way to communicate that to their community,” Hudnell said. “That’s as important to me as roads and sewers and everything else.”

But now CAT has reached a tipping point: either it receives stable, adequate funding, or it goes off the air. Permanently.

CAT volunteers hope that money will come in the form of a five-year contract through which the city would funnel much of its new franchise fee revenue to the station. That contract could be up for a vote by the council as soon as Jan. 22.

“If we don’t get proper funding, we’re not going to continue the effort,” Pike said. “It’s just going to die.”

THE VALUE OF PUBLIC ACCESS

Brendan Craughwell of Columbia has learned how valuable the public access experience can be.

When he moved from California in 2006 for a short-term job at MU, he knew little about video production. But hearing about CAT at a meeting of the Columbia Media Resource Alliance piqued his interest. Here was a place where he could take classes, borrow equipment and even produce his own show.

But CAT gave Craughwell more than a creative outlet.

“It helped me get a job,” said Craughwell, who works as a research specialist for the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, where he helps produce video for the school’s wheat breeding program. “To be able to say I have that experience in video production, it really helped me.”

The experience of operating cameras in CAT’s makeshift studio also helped Craughwell land a summer job at KOMU, assisting with “Pepper & Friends” and the noon news.

“Even though they use bigger cameras and the controls are different, the rhythm is the same,” Craughwell said. “I had that down from working at CAT.”

Craughwell said being able to log time behind the camera on studio shoots helped him crystallize his own idea for a show. Craughwell started “Scientific Station” in June and is working on his fourth episode. Each episode tackles science questions such as “When you lose weight, where does it go?” or “Are pumpkins a fruit or vegetable?”

Most Tuesday nights you’ll find Craughwell volunteering behind a camera, something that’s also helped him assemble a picture of Columbia as a community.

“I’m someone that needs people to tell me about what’s going on,” Craughwell said. “Watching these shows, they really are all about Columbia.”

But for all he’s learned at CAT, Craughwell knows the experience could be even better. Right now, CAT can afford to keep the doors open for only about 20 hours a week, which makes it difficult for someone with a day job to get editing time.

“Once you have the video, you really need the time,” Craughwell said.

CAT could stay open longer and ultimately become a community media center if it had full-time staff and funding, CAT president Christine Gardener said.

“You can’t apply for grants until you have that,” Gardener said.

CAT director Beth Federici said CAT needs at least enough money for an executive director, a volunteer/training coordinator, a production coordinator and an administrative assistant.

“We cannot continue to consist of three part-time people that make up one full-time position,” Federici said. “It’s more about the level of staffing we need than a specific dollar amount.”

And without the help of Stephens College, which provides the studio for free, CAT never would have aired.

Stephens estimates its support for CAT, including space, utilities and building maintenance, amounts to about $16,000 per year, or about $48,000 thus far, said Amy Gipson, vice president of marketing and public relations.

In return, Stephens gets a unique relationship with an access station, said Kerri Yost, director of the digital film department and Stephens’ CAT liaison.

“That was always why this was a good relationship,” Yost said. “We want to be more involved in the community, and we’d love to have our students working on community programs to add a real world aspect to what they’re doing.”

But as Stephens continues to grow, having adequate instructional space is becoming more of an issue, Yost said. CAT’s unstable situation has prevented Stephens from any real collaboration.

“What we haven’t done is integrate our activities, because until CAT has some promise of their long-term home, we didn’t want to go down that road,” Yost said.

If CAT can secure its financial future, though, it makes sense to combine resources.

“Our academic needs are during the day; theirs are nights and weekends,” Yost said.

Updating Studio A, an expensive task, has always been part of Stephens’ plans, Yost said. Working together, CAT and Stephens could create a space that better meets both needs. Plus, as Columbia’s reputation as a film community grows, CAT could serve residents that Stephens can’t.

“We get calls from people in the community that want to take our film classes,” Yost said. “We don’t have a lot of classes that meet the times and needs of working professionals, but CAT does meet those needs.”

Hudnell and CAT secretary Jeff Bassinson, professional videographers who stepped up to teach camera classes and oversee studio shoots in the interim, try to meet those needs now. Hudnell is a freelancer, having worked for the likes of “America’s Most Wanted,” “Entertainment Tonight” and the city's Columbia Channel. Bassinson learned the craft at Jefferson City’s public access channel; he now freelances and produces videos for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

That available expertise is something the community can’t find anywhere else, Craughwell said.

“If CAT would disappear tomorrow, you’d still have Jeff and Steve and Beth (Federici) here in Columbia, but you wouldn’t be able to access them like we can now,” Craughwell said. “You can come down and ask whoever is working film questions. People go to film school for that.

“You really need a place where you can walk in and say, ‘Let me get my hands dirty.’”

STRUGGLING FOR SUPPORT

CAT volunteers knew when they went on the air in October 2004 that they would be underfunded for a year or so. But they had faith that their budget eventually would grow well beyond $30,000 a year.

But as the city worked to get CAT additional money through a new franchise agreement with Mediacom, the regulatory environment changed, said Sue Buske, a nationally renowned cable consultant whom the city hired in 2004 to help prepare for franchise talks.

“We were a couple months away from a pretty nice agreement, and then the rug got pulled out from under us,” Buske said. “We were probably less than 45 days — one or two meetings — from having all the work done and having the franchise negotiated. It was really unfortunate.”

The Missouri Video Services Providers Act of 2007, which took effect in August, undermined local governments’ control over cable providers in favor of a statewide franchise process, and it allowed Mediacom to abandon talks with Columbia.

It’s part of a slow nationwide trend, Buske said, as telephone and cable companies, seeking competitive advantage, change the way states deal with video providers. About a dozen states, including Illinois and Kansas, already have statewide franchise laws.

Before the shift, franchising was the only way for cities to leverage support for public, educational and government access channels. The city allowed cable companies to use public rights of way to provide their service in return for quarterly franchise fee payments and support for cable access.

“The state of Missouri has removed the authority of local government to represent their citizens in these matters,” Buske said. “They take the authority away from the local level and put it at the state level.”

Even before the new law, the city and CAT were getting resistance from Mediacom. It was in 2001 that residents first approached the City Council to enforce its agreement with Mediacom and demand channel space and funding for public access, but no channel surfaced.

Then in 2003, Mediacom and Charter Communications, the city’s smaller cable provider, proposed a deal negotiated with KMIZ. Under that pact, the new public access channel would have operated at KMIZ — at a cost of $80 per hour for studio time, $35 per hour for editing time and $30 per hour for airtime. KMIZ would have provided the help of a staff member to be paid $30,000 per year. But the deal drew concern from members of the Columbia Media Resource Alliance as not being what public access is all about.

The alliance, part of which became CAT, and Stephens College proposed another option: Stephens would donate studio and office space to a non-profit operator that would be funded by the cable companies. CAT bit, and in spring 2004 agreed to accept a start-up payment of $92,000, then yearly payments of $30,000, from Mediacom and Charter. The council asked CAT to operate underfunded early on to determine whether the need existed. Federici said that pilot project proved successful.

“That was the best we could do,” Federici said. “The old franchise was so loose, so vague, that it never (recorded) numbers. We had to live with a bad old franchise that specified that they had to do something but without saying how much.”

Written in the 1970s, Columbia’s old franchise agreement was unique in providing for cable access, Buske said. Columbia had a public access station in the 1980s, but it fell by the wayside as different cable providers came and went. City Attorney Fred Boeckmann said the agreement was vague, stipulating only that the cable provider had to provide a studio and help the public operate it.

“It wasn’t a question of enforceability,” Boeckmann said. “It was a question of it didn’t spell out a dollar amount.”

When CAT went on the air three years ago, Columbia was charging cable companies 3 percent of their gross revenue within city limits. The Cable Task Force in 2004 recommended raising the franchise fee to provide support for CAT, but it was September before the council finally voted to raise the fee to 5 percent of gross revenue, the federal maximum. It’s part of that new revenue that will be on the table when the council discusses a potential contract with CAT.

Buske has helped negotiate some of the most access-friendly franchise agreements in the nation. But discrepancies found during a federally required audit of Mediacom in Columbia, which is part of the franchise renewal process, were unusual.

Court documents show Mediacom failed to pay $93,105 in franchise fees between Jan. 1, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2004. The debt is even higher now, because city code allows it to charge 10 percent interest per year.

“Most of the time they find something,” Buske said of the audits. “It’s not that uncommon. What was unusual was the amount (of franchise fee) underpayment and the degree of noncompliance in the public and educational access channels.”

After negotiations collapsed, the only way to recoup that money — and another $1.25 million in public access support that the city believes Mediacom owes — was through a lawsuit. That suit is scheduled for a federal trial in 2009.

Boeckmann said the city and Mediacom tried to come to an agreement on the underpayment, but to no avail. “They agreed they had underpaid, but there was no agreement on how much.”

The city in May even received a check out of the blue from Mediacom for almost $50,000. But nobody figured out why until after the lawsuit was filed. Even if the city wins the suit, it could be years before any of that money makes it to CAT. Meanwhile, CAT is hunkering down for its final push, Pike said.

“None of us thought it was going to take this long, but the video franchise law really put up an incredible roadblock,” Pike said. “You have to just find a way to get around it and continue on.”

REASON FOR HOPE

After three years of frustration, CAT might get the money to hire full-time staff, to renovate Stephens’ Studio A and, finally, to grow. But that’s only if the City Council takes action.

On the table as soon as Jan. 22 is a contract under which the city would pay $200,000 a year to cover CAT’s operating expenses through fiscal 2013. CAT would receive $150,000 for the rest of fiscal 2008. Starting in fiscal 2009, CAT also would submit a yearly budget for capital improvements, with the goal of fully renovating Studio A within three years.

“We’re more optimistic now than we have been in a long time,” Pike said. “I think it’s going to work out.”

City staff, including City Manager Bill Watkins and Public Communications Director Toni Messina, met with CAT representatives Dec. 18 to discuss the contract for a second time since the council gave the go-ahead in November. At that November council work session, city staff suggested that extra revenue from the higher franchise fee, estimated at $300,000 to $400,000 in fiscal 2009, be distributed through a process similar to the one used to dole out Community Development Block Grants. The proposal would have created a new committee charged with overseeing annual applications from any group interested in “public communication,” and the committee would make recommendations to the council.

That didn’t sit well with CAT board members.

“If you don’t have a five-year commitment, you can’t attract personnel of any caliber,” Hudnell said. “We want to set up a good professional operation and have no desire to do this piecemeal stuff. The city needs to commit to this or not.”

Most successful access centers operate on contracts of at least five years, Buske said.

Watkins said the city is leaning toward some application-based funding above and beyond CAT’s proposed five-year contract. That would make money available for the educational access channel and others.

If the council approves the five-year contract, CAT would finally have enough money to meet some of its goals, Pike said.

“That provides for staff, to keep the doors open, to do advertising and get our name out, to do more training,” Pike said. “It will just legitimize the efforts we’ve been working for all these years.”

It’s also a step toward more funding.

“This is not the only money we’ll work with,” Pike said. “It allows us to have an administrative staff who can reach out and get other funds. Once we get bona fide, one thing we can do is write grants to get certain programs or projects funded.”

One of the first items on the agenda, Pike said, is starting a national search for an executive director. Finding someone with experience is paramount, especially with current director Federici planning a move back to New York in May.

Another priority is drawing up a contract with Stephens College for the city-funded overhaul of Studio A, Pike said.

Some of the best community media centers organize the three branches of cable access under common management, but that’s not the goal in Columbia, Buske said. Instead, CAT would manage the media center and make its studio space and volunteer network available to the city, Columbia Public Schools and the public. Each would be run separately, but collaboration would make sense.

“You can take that fairly limited amount of money, you can chop it into bits,” Buske said, “and no one is going to get what they want, and it doesn’t help to build a collaborative spirit.”

Both the school district and the city’s Public Communications Department have expressed interest in the new franchise fee revenue. Lynn Barnett, assistant superintendent for student support services, said it would be a good idea for operators of the three channels to figure out how to make better use of resources.

“Everything is wide open right now,” Barnett said. “We haven’t had the opportunity to sit down and have that conversation with all the players.”

Messina, the city’s public communications director, said her department is interested in a share of the money for the City Channel, which is renting space downtown and for fiscal 2008 has a budget of about $640,000. That includes a one-time supplement for new editing and production equipment.

“Personally, we prefer that staff would be immediately accessible to the City Council,” Messina said. “It’s consistent with the goal to centralize. A remote media center that’s located a distance away from City Hall seems to have a little less benefit for our unit in particular.”

Before anything is decided, the council will have to make its opinion known. Pike said that with Watkins on board, she feels as if the city finally understands what CAT offers.

“For the first time in a long time, this sense of uncertainty has subsided,” Pike said.

CAPTURING COMMUNITY

Anyone who spends time watching CAT, which airs on Mediacom Channel 3, can see that Bassinson isn’t lying when he says CAT is more than a bunch of “tree-hugging hippie Wal-Mart bashers.”

It’s people like Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, who discusses local issues on “Counterpoint.” It’s Realtor Erin Blaise discussing “The Truth About Real Estate” with local experts. It’s organizations such as the Volunteer Network, giving local nonprofits a chance to share their message on “Making a Difference.” It’s the League of Women Voters airing political debates. And it’s coverage of local events such as One Read and December’s community action meeting on the rise in violent crime.

Although it’s hard to know how many people tune in to CAT on any given day, the volunteers know they’re doing something good. But they believe they can do more.

“If we had more money to have things open more, there’s great talent in Columbia,” Craughwell said. “If people don’t think we’re putting out interesting enough productions, that comes down to money.”

Craughwell said CAT is an integral part of the community, an outlet that can capture the spirit of the city and share it over the airways.

“The things that are unique about Columbia — CAT is a part of that.”


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