Be the Media! Public Access TV Comes to Fresno

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Image of Jerry Lee

Jerry Lee, the new executive director of the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC), says that we are in for some big changes in 2011. Lee is now working on a plan to build the public access Community Media Center (CMC), which will be located on the second floor of the former Fresno Metropolitan Museum in downtown Fresno. The CMC will host Public, Education and Government (PEG) channels that will be provided to viewers over the local cable network. I interviewed Lee on KFCF 88.1 FM in December.

(Full disclosure: I am on the CMAC Board of Directors and have been working to bring PEG to Fresno for 10 years.)

The complete interview is available on the Community Alliance Web site at www.fresnoalliance.com. The following interview has been edited for space.

Mike Rhodes: Jerry, explain what PEG access channels are.

Jerry Lee: They are a golden opportunity for everybody. These three channels will be available on Comcast in Fresno and Clovis and on AT&T U-Verse cable. There will be three separate channels—one for public access and this, for me, is the one that really generates a lot of excitement. Individuals and nonprofits will all have an opportunity to learn how to use audio/video equipment, check out the equipment, use the studio we are constructing and create television programming about themselves, their interests or their loves. We are way behind most of America in this; Gilroy, Santa Cruz, Ventura and San Jose have been doing this for 20 or 30 years.

Rhodes: I remember 20 or 30 years ago there was some public access programing on Continental cable. Then the cable company changed hands and in that transition when they went from one company to another, somehow the public access channel got lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that people started on reviving it. Why would Comcast cable or any other cable network provide money for these PEG channels?

Lee: A number of years ago, there was a DIVCA bill (Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006) which passed and allowed municipalities who provide access for cable companies within their municipality to request a small percentage of that company’s gross income to be utilized for PEG access. As you know, because you have been on the [CMAC] board for a long time, we went through a process of speaking with the powers that be in Fresno and Clovis and educating them, helping them to learn the importance—and they did that readily—allowing us to have this funding from Comcast and AT&T; they are the new kid on the block as far as cable is concerned. The cities then request this small percentage from the cable companies and they comply. Without getting boring, because it is more convoluted than that, the money does find its way to a nonprofit who has been recognized as the entity to build out and actively work this process.

Rhodes: A couple of years ago the cities of Clovis and Fresno established a Joint Powers Authority (JPA), and that group recognized CMAC as the entity that will oversee PEG access in Fresno. So, where are we in this process?

Lee: We are in really good shape. We have worked closely with the City of Fresno to lease the second floor of the former Metropolitan Museum. As you know, that building has been vacant for over a year now. The second floor will work out well for us. This is a win-win. You know, the city really needed an anchor tenant in that building. We needed a great central location to build a beautiful studio for PEG channels. This will be our home base. The lease is done, we have hired a contractor and we are in the process now of finalizing our equipment lists.

Rhodes: This will be a state-of-the-art studio, where people can come in, film and digitally edit their video?

Lee: Absolutely, and not only that—we are going to make available what is known in the industry as a fly pack. A fly pack is a suitcase that has a camera and the recording media in there. They can check this out, they can take it out and shoot their video, they bring the camera back in and we will check out a laptop to them with editing software. They can edit it at the facility or they can take it home and do it there. They will bring us a DVD, finished and ready to go. We will pop it in and put it on the appropriate channel.

Rhodes: If a person is a member of CMAC, can they just bring in a video that they produced? What kind of restrictions will there be?

Lee: Yes, if they are a member, absolutely they can bring in a video. There aren’t really any restrictions per se, except the content needs to meet federal requirements.

Rhodes: Right, so anything that is legal you will accept. You won’t be a gatekeeper that is looking at something and saying “Oh, I don’t agree with the politics of this, so we are going to keep it out”? But if there is some illegal activity, if someone is illustrating how to create an atomic bomb, that would be an example of something you wouldn’t allow?

Lee: We really are not going to pre-screen the content that comes into us and I will tell you what we will do though. Everyone that brings us something will be a member so will already have some personal contact with them and know who they are. Each person who submits something will fill out a sheet that gives us their contact information and will tell us in a paragraph the content and we will look at that, because something might be not suitable for children’s viewing and still be legal. We might put that on at a later hour. The federal government has said that from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. is a safe harbor for children. After that, you can stretch the boundaries of the content a little bit further. If we find out, after it airs, that the information that person provided us is not right then they are done. They will have no further ability to access the channels.

Rhodes: I remember talking to some City Council members about this, and some of them were concerned that you might have content that would be coming from some objectionable group like the American Nazi Party or the KKK. How do you prevent that or do you prevent it?

Lee: I guess you really don’t. Interestingly enough, I have been meeting with lots of executive directors around the western United States and they say that problem doesn’t really exist. I think one of the people in Ventura said that one time in the 12 or 13 years that they have been in existence that they had a decision to make. But even then, with the First Amendment, you have a right to free speech. But we have the right to place it in a time slot [that] makes viewing it for young children an unlikely situation.

Rhodes: I think that it is not necessarily a bad thing to put a spotlight on a group like the KKK. Because other people can produce their own programing about them. It is an opportunity for people in this community to start producing videos and getting them on the cable network. The more information that is out there the better. One of the things I want to stress here is that once this channel opens up to the community we are going to want people and groups that are active in the Fresno area to get their material to CMAC and get it on the public access channel. One of the fears is that you are going to build it and people won’t come. I don’t think that will happen, but that is a fear I have heard people articulate. They think what will happen is that you will have all of these churches who do religious services every Sunday and they will be submitting their material and the PEG channel will be buried in that. I think there is a place for religious groups that want to produce video and have it on cable, but there are a lot of groups in the community that will also want to use this resource; it will be like a giant soapbox that they never had before.

Lee: Television has always been an extremely expensive proposition, especially for nonprofits and individuals. We all know that CMAC is a nonprofit. I worked at PBS for many years, and that was a nonprofit. This is an outlet that, for a very few dollars, will allow a nonprofit to tell their story and get that information out. We haven’t even mentioned that we are going to stream everything on the Internet. We are going to have video on demand. If you miss a program that you want to see, you will go to our CMAC Web site, you will be able to click on that program and watch it right there at your own convenience. These are opportunities that nonprofits and individuals have never been afforded.

Rhodes: When you mentioned how expensive television can be, it reminded me of how I first started thinking about this. [Former Fresno political activist] Vince Lavery had a show on local television called The Right Stuff from the Left. It cost something like $300 per show and he raised some money, but it became unsustainable. So I started looking at other communities and realized they had public access, and I started asking why we don’t have that in Fresno. I found out that the cable company’s contract was coming up and then we started this ball rolling. There has been an enormous amount of interest in this from community groups, the cities of Fresno and Clovis, and we are now on the verge of the public access channel being a reality.

Lee: In the back of your mind you are thinking—if you build it will they come—but, everyone we have talked to said that is not going to be your problem. It is going to be just the opposite. You are going to be inundated. Educators are so excited about this. Can you imagine a high school chorus coming into that beautiful facility and taping a concert? In a few years, we hope to have a mobile facility operated by trained high school and college students that can go out to schools, tape a spelling bee, tape a water polo match, tape a concert—students learning on new state-of-the-art equipment. They will be getting a leg up no matter what they decide—whether they want to go on to college, whether they want to go right into the work force. Having these abilities and skills, learning the teamwork it takes to pull something like this off gives me goose bumps. This is without a doubt the most exciting thing in my life.

Rhodes: What do you see as being the biggest challenge? Is it the ramping up to accommodate the rush of interested people to put programming on the air? Is it the building of the facility? What do you see as being the biggest challenge?

Lee: It’s all of it. We obviously have to get the facility up. While that is being done, we need to order equipment; we want to get the fly packs, the camera, lighting, and we need to train people. Because we are not going to turn an expensive high-definition camera over to somebody unless we know that they know how to utilize it and how to protect it. There will be a certification process. When they show us that they are capable of using this camera and this equipment properly, we certify them and then from then on they can check it out and use it. That has to happen while we are putting this studio up. We need to organize the training, we have to get the word out, because when that studio is ready to go and we are connected to Comcast and AT&T U-Verse and able to supply content to our cable channels we have to have a ready supply of programming. We need to get the word out so people are starting to think about what they would like to produce. Some people have their own cameras. Today, you can walk into a store and buy a high-definition palm-sized camera for $200–$300. People can create that content now and have it ready for the moment we are ready to put it on our channels.

Rhodes: If people are interested in getting their message out, which could be anything from Central California Legal Services producing a show about tenant rights to somebody who wants a cooking show—the possibilities are endless—they could produce this right now and it will be ready for when the public access channel goes on the air. Alternatively, they could get training and use the equipment you will have available at the studio. Give me a time line. When do you think all of this is going to happen?

Lee: I’m very hopeful, but you know about time lines, how they are very fluid, because there are a number of things that have to happen before we even start major construction. We have to pull permits, our architect will hire contractors and a lot of things need to fall into place. We need to pick our equipment and get it ordered. I would say that we can start some training by March. That is my goal. We would like to start training people on the fly kits that can be checked out in March or April.

Rhodes: It looks as if we are now on the fast track to getting to a public access channel in Fresno. What is the best way for people to get in touch with you or CMAC?

Lee: You can go to our Web site at http://www.cmacfresno.org/ or you can e-mail me at jelee@sbcglobal.net.

The above version was edited to fit into the print edition of the Community Alliance newspaper.  Following is the complete (unedited) version:

Mike Rhodes: Jerry, explain what Public, Education, and Government (PEG) access channels are.

Jerry Lee: They are a golden opportunity for everybody.  These three channels will be available on Comcast in Fresno and Clovis and on AT&T U-verse cable.  There will be three separate channels – one for public access and this, for me, is the one that really generates a lot of excitement.  Individuals and non-profits will all have an opportunity to learn how to use audio-video equipment, check out the equipment, use the studio we are constructing, and create television programing about themselves, their interests, or their loves.  We are way behind most of America in this – Gilroy, Santa Cruz, Ventura, San Jose, have been doing this for twenty or thirty years.

Rhodes: Right, most big cities have a public access channel.  People who come from outside of Fresno are usually familiar with them and a lot of people ask me – why don’t we have one here?  So, why don’t we have on here already?

Lee: There is a long process, like you said you have been working at this for ten years. As you look at the process you have to go through and the people you have to align yourself with and partner with to make this thing happen, it is a fairly daunting task and some communities have welcomed it more at an earlier age than our communities have, but the important thing is that our communities of Fresno and Clovis are really behind this process 100%. The fact that we haven’t had it, we can’t do anything about.  The fact that we will have it very soon, to me is the important thing.

Rhodes: I remember 20 or 30 years ago there was some public access programing on Continental cable.  Then the cable company changed hands and in that transition when they went from one company to another, somehow the public access channel got lost in the shuffle.  It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that people started on reviving it.  Why would Comcast cable or any other cable network provide money for this PEG channels?

Lee: A number of years ago there was a DIVCA bill (Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006) which passed and allowed municipalities who provide access for cable companies within their municipality to request a small percentage of that company’s gross income to be utilized for PEG access.  As you know, because you have been on the (CMAC) board for a long time, we went through a process of speaking with the powers that be in Fresno and Clovis and educating them, helping them to learn the importance – and they did that readily – allowing us to have this funding from Comcast and AT&T – they are the new kid on the block as far as cable is concerned.  The cities then request this small percentage from the cable companies and they comply.  Without getting boring, because it is more convoluted than that, the money does find its way to a nonprofit who has been recognized as the entity to build out and actively work this process.

Rhodes: That is what happened a couple of years ago when both Clovis and Fresno established a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) and that group recognized CMAC as the entity that will oversee PEG access in Fresno.  So, where are we in this process?

Lee: We are in really good shape. We have worked closely with the City of Fresno to lease the second floor of the former Metropolitan Museum.  As you know, that building has been vacant for over a year now.  The second floor will work out well for us.  This is a win-win.  You know, the city really needed an anchor tenant in that building.  We needed a great central location to build a beautiful studio for PEG channels. This will be our home base.  The lease is done, we have hired a contractor, and we are in the process now of finalizing our equipment lists.  One of the interesting things – mind boggling things – when I was talking to my wife about this, a lot of the time when an executive director is named they are named to an existing company.  We are starting from scratch.  When you start thinking of all of the steps necessary to build an organization, to build a business, it can be really overwhelming.  But, the challenge is just so exciting.  We are almost there.  I think and hope that we will have that studio built out by June of 2011.

Rhodes: This will be a state of the art studio?  Where people can come in and use the studio, they can film and digitally edit their video?

Lee: Absolutely, and not only that – we are going to make available, what is known in the industry as a fly pack.  A fly pack is a suitcase that has a camera and the recording media in there.  They can check this out, they can take it out and shoot their video, they bring the camera back in, and we will check out a laptop to them with editing software.  They can edit it at the facility or they can take it home and do it there.  They will bring us a DVD, finished and ready to go.  We will pop it in and put it on the appropriate channel.

Rhodes: This will be available to anyone who is a member of CMAC?

Lee: Anybody who is a member, that is right.

Rhodes: And, use of the facility is free?

Lee: We hope to keep it very reasonable.

Rhodes: What do you mean by reasonable?

Lee: We haven’t established that yet, but it will be within the reach of anybody.  There may even be small sliding scale.  We would hope that we wouldn’t have to charge anything, but as we go around the state and around the Western United States and talk to other PEG access facilities they say you almost have to charge a little bit.

Rhodes: Give me an example of what some place charges.

Lee: $25 for an hour of studio time.

Rhodes: If a person is a member of CMAC can they just bring in a video that they produced?  What kind of restrictions will there be?

Lee: Yes, if they are a member, absolutely they can bring in a video.  There aren’t really any restrictions per say, accept the content needs to meet federal requirements – we don’t want porn.

Rhodes: Right, so anything that is legal you will accept.  You won’t be a gatekeeper that is looking at something and saying oh, I don’t agree with the politics of this, so we are going to keep it out. But if there is some illegal activity, if someone is illustrating how to create an atomic bomb, that would be an example of something you wouldn’t allow?

Lee: We really are not going to pre-screen the content that comes into us and I tell you what we will do though.  Everyone that brings us something will be a member so will already have some personal contact with them and knowing who they are.  Each person who submits something will fill out a sheet that gives us their contact information and will tell us in a paragraph the content and we will look at that, because something might be not suitable for children’s viewing and still be legal.  We might put that on at a later hour.  The federal government has said that from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m is a safe harbor for children.  After that you can stretch the boundaries of the content a little bit further. If we find out, after it airs, that the information that person provided us is not right then they are done. They will have no further ability to access the channels.

Rhodes: I remember talking to some City Council member about this and some of them were concerned that you might have content that would be coming from some objectionable group like the American Nazi Party or the KKK.  How do you prevent that or do you prevent it?

Lee: I guess you really don’t.  Interestingly enough, I have been meeting with lots of executive directors around the Western United States and they say – you know, that problem doesn’t really exist.  I think one of the people in Ventura said that one time in the 12 or 13 years that they have been in existence that they had a decision to make.  But even then, with the First Amendment, you have a right to free speech.  But, we have the right to place it in a time slot makes viewing it for young children an unlikely situation.

Rhodes: I think that it is not necessarily a bad thing to put a spotlight on a group like the KKK.  Because, other people can produce their own programing about them.  It is an opportunity for people in this community to start producing videos and getting them on the cable network.  The more information that is out there the better. One of the things I want to stress here is that once this channel opens up to the community we are going to want people and groups that are active in the Fresno area to get their material to CMAC and get it on the public access channel. One of the fears is that you are going to build it and people won’t come.  I don’t think that will happen, but that is a fear I have heard people articulate.  They think what will happen is that you will have all of these churches who do religious services every Sunday and they will be submitting their material and the PEG channel will be buried in that. I think there is a place for religious groups that want to produce video and have it on cable, but there are a lot of groups in the community that will also want to use this resources – it will be like a giant soapbox that they never had before.

Lee: Television has always been an extremely expensive proposition, especially for nonprofits and individuals.  We all know that CMAC is a nonprofit.  I worked at PBS for many years and that was a nonprofit.  This is an outlet that, for a very few dollars, will allow a nonprofit to tell their story and get that information out. We haven’t even mentioned that we are going to stream everything on the Internet. We are going to have video on demand.  If you miss a program that you want to see, you will go to our CMAC website, you will be able to click on that program and watch it right there at your own convenience.  These are opportunities that nonprofits and individuals have never been afforded.

Rhodes: When you mentioned how expensive television can be, it reminded me of how I first started thinking about this. Vince Lavery had a show on local television called the Right Stuff from the Left.  It cost something like $300 per show and he raised some money, but it became unsustainable.  So, I started looking at other communities and realized they had public access and I started asking why we don’t have that in Fresno.  I found out that the cable companies contract was coming up and then we started this ball rolling.  There has been an enormous amount of interest in this from community groups, the cities of Fresno and Clovis, and we are now on the verge of the public access channel being a reality.

Lee: In the back of your mind you are thinking – If you build it will they come – but, everyone we have talked to said that is not going to be your problem.  It is going to be just the opposite.  You are going to be inundated.  Educators are so excited about this.  Can you imagine a high school chorus coming into that beautiful facility and taping a concert? In a few years we hope to have a mobile facility operated by trained high school and college students that can go out to schools, tape a spelling bee , tape a water polo match, tape a concert – students learning on new state of the art equipment.  The will be getting a leg up no matter what they decide – whether they want to go on to college, whether they want to go right into the work force.  Having these abilities and skills, learning the teamwork it takes to pull something like this off gives me goose bumps.  This is without a doubt the most exciting thing in my life.

Rhodes: What do you see as being the biggest challenge?  Is it the ramping up to accommodate the rush of interested people to put programming on the air? Is it the building of the facility? What do you see as being the biggest challenge??

Lee: It’s all of it.  We obviously have to get the facility up.  While that is being done, we need to order equipment – we want to get the fly packs, the camera, lighting, and we need to train people.  Because, we are not going to turn an expensive high definition camera over to somebody unless we know that they know how to utilize it, and how to protect it. There will be a certification process.  When they show us that they are capable of using this camera and this equipment properly, we certify them and then from then on they can check it out and use it.  That has to happen while we are putting this studio up. We need to organize the training, we have to get the word out, because when that studio is ready to go and we are connected to Comcast and AT&T U-verse and able to supply content to our cable channels we have to have a ready supply of programming.  We need to get the word out so people are starting to think about what they would like to produce. Some people have their own cameras. Today, you can walk into a store and buy a high definition palm-sized camera for $2-300.  People can create that content now and have it ready for the moment we are ready to put it on our channels.

Rhodes: If people are interested in getting their message out, which could be anything from Central California Legal Services producing a show about tenant rights to somebody who wants a cooking show – the possibilities are endless – they could produce this right now and it will be ready for when the public access channel goes on the air.  Alternatively they could get training and use the equipment you will have available at the studio.  Give me a timeline, when do you think all of this is going to happen?

Lee: I’m very hopeful, but you know about timelines, how they are very fluid, because there are a number of things that have to happen before we even start major construction. We have to pull permits, our architect will hire contractors, and a lot of things need to fall into place.  We need to pick our equipment and get it ordered.  I would that we can start some training by March.  That is my goal. We would like to start training people on the fly kits that can be checked out in March or April.

Rhodes: So that you have a group of people that are ready to go as soon as we are on the air. We have been mostly talking about the public access channel.  Lets talk a little about the Education and Government channel.

Lee: The Government channel already exists.  Channel 96 on Comcast. Right now it is going from City Hall to channel 18 and from there to Comcast by fiber optics.  We will be absorbing that, it will come to us when we are ready to take it. The Government channel right now is pretty much City Council meetings and a few other things. Eventually, City Council members will probably want to have their own weekly or bi-weekly shows.  We live in this world of information and often times we are in a vacuum. This is an opportunity for the fire department to produce content about home safety. . .

Rhodes: I can see programing coming from the Planning Commission and other meetings that happen at City Hall that people can’t attend, but could be broadcast live over the cable network.  It is more open government, it makes government more transparent, it is good for all of us.

Lee: Absolutely, and then you have the education channel and that is exciting in itself.  We have the opportunity for programming that will assist educators in the classroom.  We have the opportunity for programming that highlights the arts, some of the lesser known sports, and other outside activities like the Future Farmers of America.  Clovis East has a big chapter of FFA and they do very exciting things that get national attention, but nobody here knows about it.  There is absolutely no limit to the possibilities.

Rhodes: The government decides what goes on the government channel and groups like the Fresno County office of Education and CSUF will decide what goes on the education channel. What would happen if there was so much response to the public access channel that there was not enough time for all of the programs? Is there a possibility for a second or third public channel?

Lee: There is.  Because Fresno and Clovis are in this together.  Clovis is also entitled to some channels.  Initially, we probably won’t activate the Clovis channels.  We are working very closely with CART school and are hope is that we will be producing Clovis content at that location.

Rhodes: Then there will be more than one studio?  Where is CART?

Lee: Yes, there will be more than one studio.  CART is in Clovis, it is on Clovis avenue south of Shaw. It is a beautiful facility and it is co-operated by Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified.  It has its own board of directors.

Rhodes: Would the public be able to use that studio?

Lee: Eventually.  Because it is in a school there are some restrictions and requirements that we are going to work through very slowly.  After taking 10 years to get where we are, we are used to working through things slowly.  We want to do things right to start with. Eventually yes.  Initially it will be government and education access out of CART.

Rhodes: People will have to have Comcast cable, AT&T U-verse, or use the Internet in order to access the PEG channels.

Lee: Of course, we would like to invite people use Comcast and AT&T because it gives us more money for operations.

Rhodes:
That is where the revenue comes from.  It is the 1% of gross revenue that funds CMAC.  There are a lot of other cable networks around Fresno County.  Is there a possibility that they might join CMAC and this collaborative?

Lee: We will at some point in the not too distant future be going to these other municipalities and to the county and inviting them to be a part of this exciting project.

Rhodes: It looks we are now on the fast track to getting to getting a public access channel in Fresno.  What is the best way for people to get in touch with you or CMAC?

Lee: You can go to our website at http://www.cmacfresno.org/ or you can email me at jelee@sbcglobal.net