Commentary: Another Take Down of Democracy: Removing ‘Public’ from Public Access Media

A listener commentary from Michele Swenson on the situation at Denver Open Media:

The erosion of U.S. democracy has been marked by increased corporate dominance in every area, including media. Community Public Access Media – remains a rare vestige of democracy – even as its existence is threatened.

The FCC has proposed policy that would effectively close down thousands of community public access stations nationwide, by redefining the formula for distribution of PEG fees (Public, Education & Government) that are assessed to cable companies Comcast and Century Link to support public access media. Portland Open Media in Oregon is organizing – with their elected officials – and other cities – to oppose FCC policy changes. Portland’s City Council has authorized the City Attorney’s Office – to sue or join lawsuits to oppose implementation of FCC policy – in order to preserve community media.

Writes Portland Open Media: “This policy could eliminate the free access that community media centers provide citizens to create their own media and broadcast it over the cable system. One of our most powerful, most democratic local resources could be lost.”

By contrast to Portland’s actions, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock – and Denver Marketing and Media Services – have reiterated the intention to withdraw PEG fees that fund public access equipment at Denver Open Media.

To its 350 members, and many more in the diverse Denver community, Denver Open Media has for over a decade provided a unique opportunity to learn every aspect of field and studio production – while creating programming for three Comcast TV stations.Open media represents a small oasis of democratic participation in the environment of corporate dominance of mainstream media – that often drowns out voices of the people.

Even as the City has promised a “seamless transition” to move all Public Access Media to the Buell Public Media Center at 21st & Arapahoe St., scheduled for completion in 2020, it has produced no transition plan.

On October 26 the City cancelled its Request for Proposals for a Media Access Coordinator – after Open Media Foundation completed a proposal by the October 19 deadline. Nor has the City sought to insure continuity of service by renewing the equipment contract with Open Media Foundation. Instead, the Mayor’s office has reiterated the intent to remove production and training equipment from the site.

Pleas from many different communities to maintain services at the DOM facility, have been met with a kind of doublespeak from the Mayor’s office – vowing to “modernize the public access model” – while denying the imminent disruption of services. Certain to be disrupted will be access to trainings, youth classes, editing facilities, as well as ease of access to two stages – often reserved by community members for serial productions. The city recently announced a pared-down RFQ process to identify a single vendor to provide all services from the city building – to replace four paid staff and numerous unpaid positions at DOM.

The national Alliance for Community Media has noted that – unlike any other city in the U.S. – Denver has provided no operating dollars over the course of its 12-year contract with the nonprofit Open Media Foundation. Even so, ACM president Mike Wassenaar stated, Denver Open Media has generated a “remarkable…level of output and creativity,” resulting in a remarkable “return on investment.”

DOM’s parent organization, Open Media Foundation – has covered its own operating costs for 12 years – including rent, staff, and utilities – while amplifying PEG equipment funding with $1-$2 million dollars in grants, donations and other earned income.

The City’s efforts to remove “public” from Public Access Media – in order to control media and content – seems yet another takedown of democracy. Instead of vying with the FCC to be the first to shut down Public Access Media, Denver should join Portland in defending public access.