“Are you Margaret?” two or three people ask me eagerly as I walk through the door. “No, she’s not Margaret,” responds Brian Scott, CityVisions Channel 53’s public access coordinator. The large, lofty studio is a flurry of activity this Friday night. Studio lights hanging from the rafters illuminate the stage. Two people are assigned to each of the three cameras, and they nervously practice zooming in and out and rolling the cameras around the concrete floor. They’re preparing for Open Mike Live, a show featuring local talent that airs once a month on San Francisco’s public access station. The people behind the cameras have never done this before. The broadcast is a culmination of a training program they have gone through to become proficient on the studio’s impressive array of equipment.

Four African American men clothed in leopard print and leather walk through the door and onto the stage. They are The Billy Jones Show, a funky soul band featured on tonight’s program. The floor crew grooves to the music as the band plays for a sound check. The countdown has begun. With ten minutes remaining, the elusive Margaret Gunn, Open Mike Live’s bouncy blonde host, finally walks through the door. By day, Gunn sells medical equipment; off hours, she not only fronts this show, but also produces her own program, Coffee with Madge, which airs Sunday mornings at 11:30.


A few members of the diverse trainee crew have specific ideas about shows they want to produce; others are just curious about how a television show is put together. Writer Toto Manzi originally got involved in public access by supplying content for a friend’s show. He then grew interested in using the equipment, so he signed up for the training program. Now Manzi hopes to produce his own show–Fruit Punch, a situation comedy filmed in documentary format. Also operating the cameras tonight are a minister who wants to air his own religious program and a woman who’s planning a cooking show. One station intern remarks that his day job–computer programming–is so controlled he finds it refreshing to work in this chaotic environment.

Photo:©1998 Brian Scott

Dee Dee Russell editing her show Dee Dee TV at CitiVisions.

Last Bastion of Free Speech on TV

In this age of media outlet consolidation in the hands of a few powerful corporations, local access stations are virtually the only opportunity for individuals and communities to have some control over television programming.

Margaret Gunn calls public access stations “the last bastion of free speech.” Anyone who can show proof of city residency is entitled to access their local public station. No previous training is necessary, although most stations require that you complete a training program before you can use their equipment. There are no restrictions on content, other than abiding by FCC regulations and respecting the ban on commercialism at public access stations–meaning, you can’t use your show to make money.

Public access television challenges us to break the mold of mainstream programming. These shows may not look as slick as mainstream programs, but the do-it-yourself aesthetic is part of their appeal. While no one wants to watch bad lighting or camera work, simpler productions often result in an honest and gritty quality that highly polished commercial shows can’t duplicate.

Martha Wallner, executive director of Berkeley Community Media, the nonprofit that runs Berkeley’s Channel 25, sees the channel as a “public space where people meet their neighbors through creative projects.” Often people with similar interests hook up. Members of several different nonprofit organizations–including the League of Women Voters, Food Not Bombs, Critical Mass, and Gray Panthers–got together at Channel 25 to form Video Feedback, a producer’s collective. The members take turns producing shows and serving on the crew.

Collectives like this are a way for community organizations to get the biggest return for the least effort, and to establish relationships with one another. To those ends, Wallner plans to introduce a facilitator training program in the fall aimed at creating a crew composed of one representative from each of ten community organizations. Crew members will take turns producing a show about each participating organization. Facilitator training is a popular method that public access stations all over the country use to do outreach into the community and help particular organizations make use of the resources available.

In San Francisco, Collision Course Video Productions, a volunteer collective of public access producers, has been producing programs for nine years. Two years ago the organization began asking for volunteer equipment operators as well, and now has a pool of 27 people available to serve as crew members. Collision Course has worked with about 150 organizations and produced shows on a variety of issues that the mainstream media usually overlook. The group has done a series on the CIA and crack cocaine connection, the 100th anniversary of U. S. overseas colonialism, and the U. S. / Philippines relationship, for example.

Activists, organizations, and nonprofits could benefit greatly by using alternative media such as public access television to get the word out about the work they do. “Most serious activist groups sell themselves short by not using the media to get support,” says Doug Norberg of Collision Course. He observes that many organizations spend their time courting mainstream media with press releases instead of trying to build a grassroots media structure. And overworked and underfunded nonprofit organizations often neglect media outreach altogether.

They shouldn’t, because with public access TV, sometimes all it takes is one motivated volunteer to create a successful outreach program. Michael Council, a volunteer at the Berkeley SPCA, took it upon himself to create Great Pets, a show that airs the first and third Wednesday of the month at 5:30 pm, featuring adoptable animals from the SPCA shelter. In one case, all six dogs and three cats on the Wednesday show were adopted by Thursday. Council is proud to note that he recently finished the 21st edition of Great Pets.

Photo: ©1998 Brian Scott

CityVisions Channel 53 Control Room

Your Access May Vary

The opportunities presented by public access channels are undeniable, but the potential for community participation is sometimes limited by unfavorable agreements with cable operators and a lack of local government commitment. Funding for public access stations comes from counties or cities, which receive franchise fees from cable operators as compensation for the use of public property. The public access stations receive a portion of these franchise fees, as determined by the agreement between the city and cable operator. The cable operator has the choice of running the public access station itself or paying a nonprofit to run it. Because of these factors, staff, studio space, and equipment quality vary from channel to channel.

San Francisco’s public access station suffers from old equipment, lack of wheelchair accessibility, and extreme understaffing. Two full-time and three part-time staff members run Channel 53, using interns to fill in the gaps. Access coordinator Scott and others hope the situation will improve when San Francisco Cable Television Corporation (SFCTVC), a nonprofit that manages San Francisco’s government station, CityWatch Channel 54, takes over management of Channel 53 as well. This is a crucial changeover that will determine the future of public access television in San Francisco. SFCTVC is currently negotiating with the city for a reasonable funding level that will enable it to build a new facility.

“The citizens of San Francisco deserve a well-funded and well-equipped public access center that will be a key component in developing community within the city,” says Zane Blaney, executive director of SFCTVC. “People who care about free speech, building community, and giving a voice to the voiceless need to let the supervisors and mayor know that public access needs to be adequately funded,” he says.

Berkeley’s nonprofit-run Channel 25 is a PEG station, which means it is a public, educational, and government access channel all in one. Channel 25 has developed the Express Studio in addition to its regular studio to simplify the process of getting on-air for organizations that have limited time and resources. As few as two people can run the studio with minimal training, and it’s versatile enough to be used for live broadcasts. Berkeley’s public access station is very different from San Francisco’s, because it is run by a young nonprofit with a community board of directors and services a smaller town.

Oakland doesn’t even have its own public access channel. TCI run Bay Cable Vision Channel 26, which services Oakland, El Cerrito, Piedmont, El Sobrante, and Richmond. Access is further curtailed for Oakland residents by the fact that the channel’s studio is located in El Cerrito. Jack Walsh, manager of KTOP Channel 11, Oakland’s government station, says he tries to accommodate programs by local organizations as long as they have a direct tie to concerns of the Oakland community. The public is not able to use the equipment at Channel 11, but you can submit a tape made elsewhere. Oakland’s independent film and video makers can submit their work to Contemporary Cinema, a show featuring local talent which airs Friday at 8:00 pm and Saturday at 8:30 pm on Channel 11. TCI’s franchise agreement with Oakland will run out in December of 1998, and the city will then be able to negotiate for its own public access station located within the city.

That public access channels are as effective as they are is at least partly a tribute to the people who run them. In most cases the station directors are extremely dedicated and enthusiastic folks who truly believe in the importance of giving the public a voice. Those we spoke with were friendly and accessible and often ran orientation and training programs themselves.

I sneak up to the control booth in the middle of Open Mike Live. Brian Scott is issuing rapid-fire instructions to the camera trainees below through their headphones.

“Camera Number 1, zoom in to the keyboardist.”

“Quick–Camera 2 zoom out to get the entire band. Now slowly fade in.”

As the trainee on the control board lowers the lever, the images of the band blend together and Scott says, “Now that is a beautiful thing.


Five Steps to Public Access Success

* Contact your local public access station.

For contact information, call your local cable operator or go to the Alliance for Community Media’s Website at This site also details current legislation on community media.

* Get training.

You must get training on the studio’s equipment before you can use it to produce your own show or serve as a crew member on someone else’s show. Courses are usually free or available for a small fee.

Several Bay Area organizations also offer training in video skills, including the Bay Area Video Coalition, Artists Television Access, and East Bay Media Center. These organizations can be a great resource, since many public access centers are short on equipment and staff. They may also offer high-end training not available through the public access station.

* Volunteer.

Once you get the initial training, you’ll need to practice your new skills–it often takes a few sessions of operating the equipment before you truly feel comfortable using it. A great way to practice is to volunteer to crew on other people’s shows. Each station usually keeps a volunteer list that you can sign up on.

Television production cannot be done alone, and networking is a big part of the public access experience. Making connections at this stage of the game is very helpful later on when you are looking for people to crew on your show.

* Produce your own show.

Turn in your proposal (most public access stations have a form you can fill out) when you’re ready to produce your own show and secure a time slot. You may get one right away, or you may have to wait two to three months, depending on the demand for access at your local station. But you are ensured a slot–the station has to air anything you give them as long as the show adheres to FCC guidelines.

You can use the station’s equipment to tape your show, or you can submit a tape you created elsewhere–just make sure it’s in the appropriate format. Berkeley’s Channel 25 accepts only SVHS, while San Francisco’s Channel 53 accepts SVHS, VHS or 3/4-inch tape.

If you want to be a producer but don’t have an idea for a show, consider producing a program for an organization you care about.

Keep in mind that producers take full legal responsibility for their shows’ content.

* Build up viewership.

Once you secure a time slot, you can maintain and build your viewership by airing your show consistently and advertising upcoming shows–by posting flyers around the city, for example.

Unfortunately, there is no way to measure how many viewers are tuning in to your show. Martha Wallner, executive director of Berkeley Community Media, recommends accepting live phone calls from viewers to get an idea of who is watching.


Lisa Sousa is the office manager at Media Alliance. She has also been an assistant instructor for film production classes at U. C. Berkeley Extension and has worked with Canyon Cinema Cooperative to help promote experimental film.

Source: Media File, Volume 17 #4, Sep-Oct 1998