Salina, Kan., sets standard for access television

Sunday, January 6, 2008 | 6:57 p.m. CST; updated 6:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Community Access Television of Salina, Kan. — 300 miles west of Columbia — isn’t the biggest or the busiest public-access center in the country, but it’s proving public access can be successful and valuable.

Scooter Frakes and Tom Colby, welders from a town about 30 minutes from Salina, came to the access center with big dreams. They wanted to produce a 13-episode season of “Hartland Traditions,” a Kansas-centric look at hunting, and eventually take it to the national level.

Producers of other hunting shows get all excited when they talk about hunting opportunities in Kansas, Frakes said, but none are based there. Plus, he and Colby were looking for a way to raise awareness of youth hunting events.

“When we were trying to figure out where we’d find the space to do this, we stumbled upon (public) access,” Colby said. “Without the knowledge they have here, we’d be so far behind.”

Before they found public access, Frakes and Colby were relying on home video cameras. Now they can borrow professional-grade cameras, and they’ve even taken the mobile production truck out to a few events, including a Big Brothers/Big Sisters trip to a local shooting range.

“To be able to capture it on video and show the organization and who’s there and kids enjoying themselves, that’s pretty powerful,” Colby said.

“And for parents, to show what organizations are doing, instead of them just saying, ‘Oh god, there’s guns. We’re not going.’”

More staff, programming

In the 9½ years that David Hawksworth has manned the helm in Salina, he’s seen full-time staff grow from four employees to seven. That has allowed the station to offer more staff-produced programming for the government and education channels and to better support and develop volunteers’ skills.

Salina’s model is one the folks who run Columbia Access Television, which has struggled with shoestring budgets over its first three years, would like to move toward. They’re hoping the City Council will see the need and vote as early as Jan. 22 to boost and solidify CAT’s funding through a five-year contract.

“In an age where funding is less certain, you have to provide something that’s of service to the community,” Hawksworth said. “If there are important things going on and volunteers aren’t covering it, we as an access center have a responsibility to produce that.”

“We’re here to provide that mechanism for those people that have a voice in the community. The more we can help people to find that voice and develop that voice, the better off everyone is,” Hawksworth said. “We were able because we had enough support from the city.”

That includes having a volunteer and training coordinator to offer one-on-one classes and team up producers with editors, directors and camera operators.

On a recent evening, Frakes and Colby were busy working on their first episode intro with Gavin Hanson, a sophomore at Sacred Heart High School. Hanson taught himself the editing software, Final Cut Pro, after taking the basic class, and he came in to lend a hand.

Bringing people together

“I enjoy working with the software, so it works for me.” Hanson said. “I don’t have a lot of imagination in terms of coming up with my own show, so working with others’ stuff works out.”

It’s that kind of volunteer support that differentiates a community media center from your average public-access channel, said Sue Buske, a nationally renowned cable access consultant who worked with the city of Columbia during its franchise negotiations with Mediacom. Buske also played an instrumental role in getting Salina’s initial access funding.

“What the media center is is volunteer management,” Buske said. “It brings people together that have skill sets that are going to help each other out. It’s all about community collaboration.”

The monthly news magazine show “Eye on Salina” is one way the access center encourages collaboration, Hawksworth said. For new volunteers, it’s a way to get hands-on experience right away without having to produce a full 30-minute show. Volunteers produce short three- to five-minute segments about what’s going on in Salina that are then tied together in a live studio shoot.

Within six months, many “Eye on Salina” alumni produce their own programs, Hawksworth said. On a weekly basis, Tuesday Night Television offers an open invitation — and free food — to the community to show what access is all about.

Buske likened a community media center to a library for the digital age.

“A library provides books, a place to read the books, a community gathering place,” Buske said. “What a community media center does is a lot like that, except it’s all electronic media, not print media.”

Award-winning work

John Chalmers, a Salina access volunteer since its early days, was looking for a way to stay active in retirement. Since becoming involved in public-access television, he’s won a national award for a program on restoration of a local theater.

His annual production of the Christmas Cantata at his church is a local favorite. Chalmers said the first year he used the mobile production truck, “the organist says, ‘John, you went from home movies to professional.’”

“I haven’t had any professional education in relation to what access television is,” Chalmers said. “It’s a very rewarding part of what my retirement has been.”

In Salina, a recent performance survey showed 20 percent of households watched cable access at least five times a month. Salina resident Ada Wood said she probably watches one of the three channels a couple of times a month.

On a recent night, a program with Vickee Spicer, marketing director at Salina’s Rolling Hills Zoo, caught her eye.

“It has local people and local information,” Wood said. “They have programs in depth that they don’t do anywhere else.”

Valuing public access

After a statewide video franchise law rolled through Kansas and the community media center lost almost 40 percent of its budget, the city anted up, giving access five years to find new funding. Each year, the city will reduce funding 5 percent until it gets back to the original formula.

Salina City Manager Jason Gage said the city values public access.

“If you can understand the full potential benefit that access can provide, it’s a fairly easy decision to provide funds,” Gage said. “There’s a lot more to communicating with the public than just televising your meeting. A lot of the public doesn’t care about meetings. TV is one of the best ways to communicate with the public regarding services, accomplishments, anything.”

Having a feel for what people are looking for is important in building support, Hawksworth said. That has included an after-school video production program for middle-schoolers and Web-streaming government meetings since most people out in Saline County don’t have cable.

For the latter, the access center got $20,000 from county government to improve the video quality.

Pushing the envelope

Kansas Wesleyan University received a two-year grant to produce an interview series with local artists for educational access. And Hawksworth hopes to push the envelope of access, maybe even find a way to collaborate with the local chamber of commerce to produce a video for prospective businesses about all Salina has to offer.

“The more you can do those kinds of things, the more you can build good relations with the community and show them that what you’re doing is a value, to get over the stereotype that it’s nothing more than amateurist productions,” Hawskworth said.

“When people start realizing that you’re doing something that’s really valuable in the community, you get a lot more support that way.”

That’s where Columbia Access Television struggles. After going without a public-access channel for almost 20 years, Columbia residents just don’t know what they’ve been missing, CAT director Beth Federici said.

“You don’t always know how much you appreciate it until it’s out on the market,” Federici said.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the investment, Gage said.

“It’s an easier decision when you’re used to a high-quality service,” he said. “It’s a harder decision to elevate and grow a service than just to maintain it like we did. The key is to think down the road to what you want to be.”

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