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Creating the electronic public square


Television in the making: Station staffers Josh Bloodworth (left) and Rick Osborne sweat the small stuff during a live broadcast.

CarvinEison and LaToya Campbell chat during a moment of downtime on the set.

"Okay, people, let's focus. How much time do we have left?"

CarvinEison's voice fills the studio's tiny control room.

"One minute," comes the reply.

Exactly one minute later Eison's speaking again, but this time he's quietly addressing the camera --- and viewers in an unknown number of Rochester homes --- from his seat on the set:

"Greetings and welcome to this edition of Rochester TV live."

Then, almost as an aside, he adds: "Producing a television show is a complicated thing."

The SUNY Brockport students running this talk-show from the control room at Rochester Community Television's studio would probably agree with that.

Eison has been the station's general manager for the past two years and the professor for this class in television production. As he hosts a roundtable discussion, his students are busily working the cameras, adjusting sound, and orchestrating the whole effort.

"Pull out [camera] two... down," instructs LaToya Campbell, who's assumed the mantle of producer for this half-hour segment.

"Gimme a single shot of whoever starts talking."

Just five weeks ago, Campbell and her fellow students had no experience in television. Today, as something of a final exam, she's directing a crew of her peers.

For Eison, what Campbell and her classmates are doing represents the future of non-commercial media in America, a slice of the coming electronic public square. They're using the community television station.

Here's how community television works: Giant cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast get to use public infrastructure and rights-of-way to run the cables through which they pipe programming (and increasingly, broadband internet and digital communication services) into homes and businesses. But in the course of doing so, they make substantial profits. In return for the use of public property, they have to give something back to the public.

That "something" comes in the form of funding for a community television station and space for a channel in the cable packages. In Rochester, that's cable Channel 15, which is available to between 65,000 and 85,000 households in the city. (That's only the number of households that can watch the station if they want to. Its viewership is too low to be measured by ratings and auditing firms.)

Historically, says Eison, about 90 percent of the programming on the station has been produced by religious groups, to the point that when he describes Channel 15, people tell him they thought it was a religious station.

"There's nothing wrong with that," he says, but then adds: "What has been missing from community television is all the rest of the community."

Eison ticks off a list of examples, including arts councils, neighborhood associations, civil-rights groups, political parties, and youth groups.

"My vision of the station is one that shows all those things," he says.

Sheila Driscoll is one of the people whose job it is to implement that vision. As a part-time special-projects manager, her job is to "get new organizations involved with the station," she says.

"I'm just trying to get the word out that we're here and that we exist," she says.

And that may be the station's biggest challenge. Both she and Eison often repeat the phrase "under the radar" to describe the station and its work.

"The biggest impediment is that people don't know about it," Eison says.

If that's the case, the second biggest impediment may be convincing people to try using it once they know about it.

"People are positive about it in theory, but they don't know how to use it," Driscoll says. "It takes a little bit of effort to use a community television station if you're not familiar with it."

And then there's that rogue streak of perfectionism in us all.

"People are afraid that they're not going to rise to the standards of the movies, so why try," she says. Part of Driscoll's job, she says, is to remind them that the importance of the message they have to share trumps concerns about production values.

For someone like Eison, who last year made the documentary July '64 about Rochester's civil-rights-era race riots, that issue is a bit more complicated. On the one hand, he says, the rough warts-and-all appearance of community television is the stamp of authenticity.

"It shouldn't look too polished or slick or commercial," he says. "It's regular people using this medium to express themselves."

But on the other hand, the professional in him balks at throwing production values out the window. After all, if it looks too bad, no one will take it seriously.

"All of these things affect perception and help get your message across," he says. "It's powerful."

That dilemma --- creating access for regular folks to a medium that requires substantial technical skills --- is at the heart of Eison's push to get the community more involved in the station. With FCC rulings in recent years allowing for concentration of media ownership in a market, this kind of community access to the tools of mass communication is more important and relevant than ever, he contends.

"The first thing about commercial broadcasting is that it's paid speech. Well, paid speech isn't free speech," he says. "There still has to be a place for that [free speech]."

To prove his point, he whips out a tiny video player he keeps with him and plays a public-service announcement created by city teens. The 30-second spot opens with a couple kissing, then parting ways. It cuts to a group of girlfriends gossiping. In the course of their discussion, they discover that a friend's boyfriend is sleeping around. The message? Unsafe sex isn't worth it.

This is no Super Bowl mini-film. But surprisingly, it also doesn't come off as amateur, either. And it has a gritty authenticity to it; if you look close enough, you'll probably even recognize the street from landmarks in the background.

This type of message isn't likely to run on one of Rochester's commercial stations, Eison says. Even if the production values were up to par, there's still the high cost of paying for air time. And some messages simply don't fit in with the commercial bent of these stations. The result?

"Important messages are eliminated from the marketplace of ideas," Eison says.

Still, the problems of attracting and keeping diverse programming remain. Beyond the lack of awareness and initial reluctance, for many there's also the simple difficulty of regularly carving out the time to create shows.

"That's why we're trying to get organizations into it," says Driscoll. Organizations, once they're trained in the technology, can spread the workload among their volunteers. That makes for more regular, predictably recurring programming.

The station is also doing other things to bridge the tech gap. One is offering informal classes similar to the one the Brockport students took for credit. That's quickly become a popular option.

"There is a waiting list a mile long to take those classes," says Eison.

Another is offering quality video-editing equipment, which the station hopes to have in place by the first of September. That will allow people using the station to explore a far wider range of formats, especially shooting footage out in the community and later splicing it together, just as a typical newscast would.

If all goes as they hope, one of the first groups Eison and Driscoll hope to involve in the station is the city's youth.

"The thing that I'm most interested in is helping young people shape and mold messages," says Eison.

Citing recent violence and dropout rates, Driscoll says both the need and the hunger are there.

"I think there's tremendous concern in the community that we are neglecting young people," she says. "One way to start addressing that is to give them a voice."

To some extent, that's already taking place. Through the city's rec program, teens are producing "Youth Voice One Vision," a series of eight 20-30 minute shows on different themes --- politics, public health, and so forth --- says Driscoll.

"How often do you see a show by 15 teens about how to improve high schools? I don't think standardized testing would be mentioned on that show," she says. "Teens have a lot to say."

With her help, she hopes, they'll soon have one more opportunity to say it.