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By Cassandra Dana, University of Colorado Boulder MEDLab
When the Longmont Observer responded to a request-for-proposals for control over the city’s public access channels, the team wasn’t sure they’d win. The contract had been held by another organization for over 30 years, and most assumed it was unlikely to change hands. But the Observer presented an unusual idea, one that sparked imaginations by proposing to reconfigure notions of media ownership.
If you walk into one of Longmont Public Media’s community organizing meetings, you’ll find 20 to 30 enthusiastic individuals happy to greet you and excited to work. Longmont Public Media is the Observer’s new public access branch. The energy of this eclectic group is palpable. Many in Longmont are excited to be pioneering their own model for public access television.
The notion of public access television was devised in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the era of the first televised war, NBC, CBS and ABC controlled broadcast coverage of the cultural, political and social conflict. They depicted the gruesome fighting overseas and the civil unrest here in the United States. The effects were extraordinary. Screen media began to have a major influence on public policy and mass upheaval. TV began to be seen as a uniquely powerful force, one that was dictated by commercial broadcast networks. Recognizing the power of the medium, counterculture movements and media scholars began to advocate for what was referred to as “Guerrilla Television.” Michael Shamberg pioneered the term in 1971, stating, “Guerrilla Television is grassroots television. It works with the people, not from above them.”
Recognizing the importance of community driven media, the FCC developed regulations authorizing state and local governments to require cable television networks to set aside channels for public access. Cable companies entered franchise agreements with municipalities in which access to infrastructure——telephone poles, sidewalks, etc.——was granted in exchange for 5 percent of companies’ gross revenue. This franchise fee was paid to the city, which often reinvested this money into public access. Initially many local municipalities adopted this model, granting community members access to production and distribution methods. However, as pressure for public access decreased and many municipalities began experiencing increased financial burdens, funding for public access became less feasible. Some communities shut down public access channels entirely, while others limited them to local legislative proceedings. Public access shifted from a place where community members could develop skills and exhibit ideas to a droning of traffic court and city council hearings.
To complicate the matter further, in August 2019 the FCC approved an amendment to their 1970s regulation. The change in legislation allows cable companies to deduct “in-kind provisions” from their franchise fees. This means cable companies can now assert that the market value of public access networks is deductible from the revenue they pay to the municipalities. In 2017 Longmont allocated 25 percent of the franchise fees collected from Comcast (or $187,924) to public access television. According to the Colorado Sun, that is enough funding to cover one full-time employee and two part-time employees. The diminishment of franchise fees will seriously impact the ability of cities and states to maintain public access television. The president of Rocky Mountain PBS told the Colorado Sun, “Going from having franchise fees to not having them, typically what happens in that case is the public access goes away.” It’s clear that new models must be developed in order to maintain public access.
Longmont Public Media has taken on the challenge of innovating public access. Its founders have suggested that public access television can truly function as it was intended, as a resource created for and by the masses. They have proposed a cooperative model of media ownership in which members pay a small fee and in exchange can produce and exhibit their work. The studio that houses Longmont Public Access will be transformed into a media makerspace, serving as a venue for community members to create, collaborate, share infrastructure and distribute work. Each member of the co-op contributes to ideas around governance, programming, events and space utilization. As Michael Shamberg explained when he was proposing public access, “The inherent potential of information technology can restore democracy in America if people become skilled with information tools.”
This is not Longmont’s first foray into municipal ownership of community media. In 2014 Longmont launched NextLight, a municipally owned broadband enterprise. NextLight has dethroned Google Fiber as the fastest fiber-optic network, and it is now a national model for publicly owned internet access. Five years later, Longmont is building on this precedent through the creation of Longmont Public Media.
When Longmont Public Media asked MEDLab to get involved——to help formulate this model of cooperative public access——I knew it was an opportunity not to be missed. Thursday nights have become one of my favorite parts of the week, when I slide past the local middle school choir and the couples quietly nestled sipping lattes to the back room of the local coffee shop, where we work to revolutionize media ownership.
About MEDlab (Media Enterprise Design Lab): What does it take to build thriving media organizations, accountable to the communities they serve? At a time of global platform monopolies and local newspapers struggling to survive, the future of media will depend on the kinds of business models we design today.
The Media Enterprise Design Lab is a think tank for community ownership and governance in media organizations. It creates space for researchers and practitioners to challenge the conventional norms and explore possibilities offered by neglected histories and possible futures. Drawing on diverse fields such as cultural studies, law, management, media archaeology, organizational communication, and sociology, MEDLab holds space and time for better kinds of business.
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