This is the transcript for episode 347 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with comedian and YouTuber Ron Placone about telecom policy, net neutrality, and Ron's efforts to bring municipal broadband to Pasadena, California. Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below.
Ron Placone: The idea of community is a very uplifting one because that's where you can really, I think, make some positive change. You know, change doesn't happen from the top to the bottom; it happens from the bottom up.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 347 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Christopher interviews comedian and municipal broadband advocate Ron Placone. Ron is a busy guy and in addition to his own career making people laugh from the stage, his YouTube channel, and a streaming show, Get Your News On With Ron, he's a regular on the Jimmy Dore Show. This time though, we've got Ron. He's here to talk about his experiences with municipal networks, network neutrality, and related policies. He and Christopher discuss why network neutrality is important to him and to other people whose lives revolve around a free and open Internet. Ron describes how he's using his platform to help spread the word about both network neutrality and municipal broadband, both in his hometown and he hopes to a wider audience. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel and listen to his show, Get Your News On With Ron, on iTunes or other streaming services. You can also check out ronplacone.com for more information on how to follow and connect with Ron. Now here's Christopher with comedian and broadband advocate Ron Placone.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, talking with Ron Placone, the comedian and YouTube personality that does Get Your News On With Ron. Welcome to the show, Ron.
Ron Placone: Thanks for having me. I've been a listener for a while now, so good to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, well I've heard from a few people lately that that I should be hamming up the intro, so I feel like this is a part of the show that people are starting to look forward to — at least some people are. Everyone who hates it should let me know too. So let me just start by asking you a little bit about your background. You're a comedian and a YouTube personality. What is that like?
Ron Placone: Well, it's a lot of fun. You know, I love doing both things. I was a road comic for many years and then when I moved here to Los Angeles, I started getting involved with this show called the Jimmy Dore Show. And I'm, I'm still, you know, at the Jimmy Dore Show, and I do a lot of stuff with the young Turks, and then I do my own show, Get Your News On With Ron. Simultaneously, issues of net neutrality and stuff like that has always been a very important cause to me. It's something that I've always been interested in and it's something I'm always learning about, since about 2004 when all those movements kinda got started. And of course, when we finally got it on the books in 2015, that was a good thing, and then of course Trump's FCC has repealed it. I know your listeners are already fluent in a lot of this stuff, but I've always seen muni broadband, which, you know, in the past few years I've gotten more turned on to as many people have, as sort of the permanent fix. Let's take the Internet out of the hands of these corporate entities and into the hands of cities and communities. As an online content creator, I see a lot of the importance in this for many reasons, but you know, a reason that really hits home with me a lot is just the idea of a vibrant and flourishing independent media, especially as of recent with the AT&T and Time Warner merger being okayed by the courts, which I'm sure you've already talked about. But you know, with that happening — I mean, look, AT&T owns CNN. Comcast owns MSNBC. So now you have these two big cable behemoths that control your access to the Internet, don't need to follow net neutrality anymore, and they own two big media outlets. This is not a healthy scenario for independent online-based media. Because our media structure in the United States is so horrible — you don't need to agree or disagree; that's that's my opinion — but because it's so horrible, this is a pretty big issue. And I think a lot of people — it's one of those things, sometimes people are passive and then all of a sudden we lose the medium, and people think it's so hard to believe that we're going to face this situation where videos don't load on the Internet or it costs 30 bucks extra a month to access your Twitter or you know the Internet looks like Cable Television 2.0. we can't fathom that happening. Well guess what? In 1996 they couldn't fathom what happened to radio happening.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Sure.
Ron Placone: They had no idea anything like that would happen, and then because of the Telecommunications Act in '96, they showed up one day and no one had a job anymore. So it can happen and once you lose the medium, you don't get it back.
Christopher Mitchell: And to be clear, what you're talking about with the radio is we had a lot of locally run stations and then they all got bought and turned into robot DJs over a period of 10 years or so. But there was this moment in which we saw a lot of the impact of that consolidation happening all at once.
Ron Placone: And it had to do with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Of course, technology did play a role too. I'm not going to make it out like that had nothing to do with it, but the big gutting of radio was largely due to that piece of policy because nobody paid attention to it.
Christopher Mitchell: No, that's true. Now, I have to say, first of all, you should be much nicer to AT&T. They now own HBO, so you know, you want to get your own act on there.
Ron Placone: Good point. I face this conundrum every day.
Christopher Mitchell: Most of the people that I know, even talking about net neutrality, wouldn't necessarily know to draw the radio issues back to the '96 telecom act. Were you a technical person? Are you someone who just — I mean, what is your background that you know about the '96 act, you know, something a lot of people just have no idea what year that would have passed.
Ron Placone: I'm a big media policy guy. I mean, when I was in college there was actually a media reform group, and I was in it. I was really involved with community radio, and I actually got into stand up because I wanted to be on the radio. Like I was like, I want to do talk radio, and then I read some article that said stand up comedy is a good way to get into that, which is still to this day true. And so, I started doing standup, and then I got bit by that bug and became a touring comedian for years and years. Now I guess it has come full circle cause the Jimmy Dore Show is syndicated via radio, so I guess technically it did come full circle. So yeah, and I went to graduate school for communication and I studied media policy. Like, that was my area of focus. So I read a lot of Dr Bob McChesney. I read a lot of Chomsky. I read a lot of, you know, Saul Alinsky and stuff like that. So the media reform movement has always been part of my life too. I mean, I used to go to those conferences. I was just sort of, you know, I had in my own little YouTube channel that was not very big at all. I wasn't, you know, doing anything on a bigger platform at that point, but I was still showing up there and I was learning. So I think that what happened with net neutrality or what is still happening with net neutrality — we're still fighting — that was kind of the telecommunications act of our generation. You know, this time, fortunately we were paying attention and we're fighting back. They didn't fight back until it was too little, too late because, you know, I think everybody — we had the school president that played the saxophone, everyone's sort of sleeping, and he just kind of pushed through this horrible act.
Christopher Mitchell: Some of my listeners — and I would say that I would have to give this deeper thought — I think would say that the act actually in many ways was quite good. It was the lack of enforcement and the way the courts then later interpreted aspects of it that really, when it comes to broadband, allowed, the idea of having one network that had multiple, shared ISPs on it. That was kind of envisioned by the act. And then later was ruled back both by Clinton and by the George W. Bush administration.
Ron Placone: Are you referring to the telecom act?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, the '96 act. I mean, the idea was that the telephone wires would be shared and would have multiple ISPs, and they'd have to lease out their infrastructure. You know, so I would say that parts of the '96 act were bad, parts of it I think were conceived well but then implemented poorly and the courts took it apart unfortunately.
Ron Placone: Well, yeah, a lot of the verbiage in it sounds great. I mean, if you actually read the thing, you're like, oh, this is alright. But then you kind of read between the lines and you see what it really does and now we see the effects of it, you know. And whether it was completely intentional or not — I tend to think it was —
Christopher Mitchell: But that's led you to your solution, I think, right? So I mean, you're here identifying very real problems and you're looking to local solutions, I think in part — and this is maybe reading into you my analysis, which is that we can't trust the federal government to get it right anyway, so let's figure out how to do it locally.
Ron Placone: Well I think — and a lot of that kind of stems from, you know, I produce a lot of political comedy content, so I pay a lot of attention to the news. My show is called Get Your News On With Ron, where people literally send me news and we talk about it together. I let the viewers decide what we talk about. So I do spend a lot of time, you know, diving into electoral politics and trying to make it funny. And sometimes that can be incredibly discouraging just in general because it's not a very happy landscape, Chris, as I'm sure you're aware. So, the idea of community is a very uplifting one because that's where you can really, I think, make some positive change. You know, change doesn't happen from the top to the bottom. It happens from the bottom up. And I always tell listeners, I'm like, now is the time to kind of pick a lane and get started, you know, cause that's what we gotta do.
Christopher Mitchell: So what are you doing?
Ron Placone: So my lane's municipal broadband. You know, I decided this is an issue I've been passionate about for years and years. I am not a tech person at all, but I do know a thing or two about the policies behind it. I have been studying the cases, not to the extent that that you have, but I learned a lot from you guys and then I try to share it. I started a playlist on my YouTube channel just dedicated to municipal broadband and net neutrality. Our interview's in there when you did my show. And that's helped people start kind of informal task forces in their community. I get emails on the regular of people saying, "Hey Ron, I got my local DSA chapter on board with municipal broadband. It's one of our missions now," "Hey Ron, my mayor is really into municipal broadband and I made my mayor watch your entire playlist."
Christopher Mitchell: That's great.
Ron Placone: Well, it's kind of ironic because some of my listeners have had more success than I've had.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure.
Ron Placone: And I'm like, man, soon you're going to be teaching me.
Christopher Mitchell: Right, well it must be frustrating because Pasadena already has fiber. And I mean in the southern California area, you've got a few places that are going full municipal Fiber-to-the-Home, but you've got a bunch of them that are at least doing something in terms of connecting businesses. But you know, if I remember correctly, Pasadena is only doing dark fiber, right?
Ron Placone: So what's going on with Pasadena: I showed up at a city hall — and this is all documented on my playlist — I showed up to a city hall, spoke on behalf of the cause for municipal broadband. I brought a nice chunk of people with me and they all did too. So it got put on a city agenda, so we were like, that's great. They did this study that I think their intentions were good, but it was not a very thorough study. And they used one case study, the case study of Beverly Hills, which is, you know, one of the wealthiest towns in the country and what Beverly Hills is doing is straight up Fiber-to-the-Home for residents because they can afford it. They're Beverly Hills. So that's what they're doing. So they were like, "This is what Beverly Hills is doing. This is how much it's costing them. Here is that multiplied by the mileage of Pasadena. We can't afford this. I guess we're just going to count on the corporations." So they gave us this presentation. The word net neutrality wasn't even in it, so I went up and responded. There was like a response period for citizens. I responded, which that is also on my playlist, where I said, "Hey guys, I appreciate you doing this and taking the time to put this together, but you looked at literally one case study and you didn't look at any others. I find it hard to believe that Chattanooga, Tennessee, has some gold token Pasadena can't have, or Sandy Oregon or Monticello, Minnesota or, you know, Longmont, Colorado or Fort Collins, Colorado. I find it hard to believe all those places can do something. Or Charlemont, Massachusetts. They're a town of 7,000. Or Oberlin, Ohio. Do I need to go on?" I was like, "I don't think all these places have some gold token that Pasadena can't have. I find it hard to believe."
Christopher Mitchell: That is literally one of my most frustrating pet peeves is that idea of we either have to do nothing or we have to find the most expensive possible way of doing something, and those are the alternatives.
Ron Placone: And you guys are providing a resource for people. You guys provide that service to figure out the best method, and I'm working really hard to get you guys out here. I really want that to happen. I know, like, the hesitation isn't on your guys's end. It's on my city's end, and that's what I'm fighting for. So, I recently sent the city, a letter, just a nice letter, and I urged them to join Next Century.
Christopher Mitchell: Next Century Cities.
Ron Placone: Yes. I urged them to join that organization, and one thing I could use as leverage is I was just like, hey you guys mentioned all of our towns. Because they were like, "Hey, Burbank's not going to try to do municipal broadband, so we're not either." I said, "Hey, guess what? Burbank's a member of Next Century Cities. Beverly Hills is a member. Santa Monica is a member. Los Angeles proper is a member." So I said, "Hey guys, it costs nothing to join. We have nothing to lose, everything to gain. We just need basically the signature of a city official." By the way, this is something I feel is necessary to point out, when we started showing up to city hall, all of a sudden they made city hall an hour earlier. If someone wants to say it's a coincidence, they can. I'm going to say it's because we kept showing up, but . . .
Christopher Mitchell: So is that more difficult for you then? Is that what you're saying?
Ron Placone: Yeah, because it's at 5:00 p.m. now. It used to be at, like, 6:30, and then all of a sudden they were like, it's 5:00 now. And it's like, gee, what happened? And it wasn't just us. I mean, there's been some issues of police brutality in Pasadena. I don't know if you've seen it in the news, so a lot of people were protesting and stuff like that, which probably more of the reason, but so they made city hall and hour earlier. So it'ss part of the reason why I haven't been going much. Now it's really hard to get there.
Christopher Mitchell: How did you have a group of people at your back when you started going to city hall? Because I think this is one of the first questions we get from folks is, I feel like I'm alone in my community — what can I do?
Ron Placone: We announced it on the Jimmy Dore Show.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so that's nice if you have that available.
Ron Placone: Well that is, and I tell people that I want to help any way I can and one of the ways I can is I do have access to some reasonably sizable platforms, not only — and Jimmy's been very supportive of this. He knows it's something I care about a lot. You know, a lot of the net neutrality and municipal broadband content that the show puts out are things I produce, and he's always been supportive of doing those segments. So I do stuff there and then I also do stuff on my own channel, Get Your News On With Ron, which has a lot of information on it. It's not as big, but it has a lot of information on it. And then I also do a collaboration with Mike Figueredo of the Humanist Report, another really good YouTube personality, and he's based up in Portland. The northwest has a lot going on with muni broadband, as you're aware, and so he's kind of, you know, really digging out there. So, we're doing what we can with our platforms to try to amplify this.
Christopher Mitchell: Have you tried doing any in person events? I mean, I know that you're aware of the Broadband and Beers that Fort Collins had done that worked for them and, and we'd like to make that happen nationwide. Just finding the time to try to create that sort of a movement is difficult. But have you tried doing a physical event aside from city council meeting?
Ron Placone: So I have my comedy tour, which is called the Progressive Comedy tour, and I do it with another comedian named Graham Elwood. And it's just a stand up tour. Like, we're both regulars on the Jimmy Dore Show. We both have our own shows — I have Get Your News On With Ron; he has a show called Political Vigilante — and we've been going across the country. And I will say, every single show — and I've always directed people to your website, Chris — every show, there's been at least two or three people that come up to me that said, "Hey, I'm trying to get municipal broadband here."
Christopher Mitchell: Oh that's cool.
Ron Placone: Which is really fricking cool. And so, you know, we've been doing these shows, people have been coming out, and these are people that really want to do something in their community. You know, we're all so busy these days. People are working two and three jobs. It's fricking nuts out there. But still, they're hungry for change and they're hungry to do something. And maybe they heard about Muni broadband from me, and now they're really into it. They're saying, "Yeah, I want to send you stuff," and I'm like, please do. I mean, I think part of the appeal of it is that they're watching me fight for this too in real time, and I've been documenting all of it. You know, like when the city hall happened and they told us, "Oh, we can't afford it. Sorry, here's one case study. Oops," I documented my response. Like, as soon as it was over, I streamed on my channel and I just said, "Gee, I'm glad we got this far, but man, the results were disappointing." Then I showed my response, which, you know, I wanted to show my appreciation that they took the time to do it, but also I feel like this was a little not as thorough as it should have been and I think we need to keep this conversation going. So now I'm trying to get, you know, my city turned onto these resources. So, to make a long answer longer, I think Broadband and Brews is a fantastic idea, and I've been trying to find ways to kind of incorporate the touring I'm doing with different causes. You know, we have different groups show up and table. Veterans for Peace shows up to our shows. PM Press shows up to our shows. The DSA shows up. Movement for a People's Party shows up. If we come out to your area, I would love it if you guys showed up. And we're going to be coming to Minneapolis at some point because it's one of my favorite cities in the world. I just can't come during certain times of the year, Chris, as I'm very fragile. I do not handle snow.
Christopher Mitchell: I have to tell you, my wife and I just saw Demitri Martin last week here, and he made it a part of his act. I think most of the comedians I've probably seen in the winter have some kind of riff about it that they'll do, so you know, it can be helpful.
Ron Placone: Well you guys know how to handle it. I mean, I'll say that. You know, I used to drive around 45 weeks a year, so I certainly have had my share of winter in my lifetime. But I was never worried whenever I was up in the Minnesota area because I knew they knew how to take care of it. I knew those roads were always going to be clear. Now if you get out into the rural Dakotas, which had been there, then it gets a little bit no man's land-y, but . . .
Christopher Mitchell: Well let me bring you back and ask you about — because you're very politically savvy. I mean the groups that you've named, you're involved with Democratic Socialists who have taken an idea that used to be verboten and in turned it into something that a whole movement is operating behind. When it comes to municipal broadband or more largely net neutrality, I feel like there are people and elected officials who are taking this as something that they should be championing, but I'm also seeing from a lot of elected officials a sense that people don't vote on this. You know, people will talk about it, it might motivate them to do some things, but we've not seen an impact at the ballot box. What do you think about that?
Ron Placone: There's a couple of things going on there. First of all, I think that net neutrality is not covered as much as it needs to be, and a lot of cases, it's not necessarily covered honestly. You know, I'll use MSNBC for as an example. They're owned by Comcast. You're not going to find an honest net neutrality piece from them, or at least I sure haven't. So that's part of it. I think another part of it is, people are aware of it when they shine a light on it and then they just think that the battle is over or that we don't have to worry about it anymore. You know, when John Oliver did that segment on net neutrality when we were about to lose it, they crashed the FCC's website because so many people wrote comments.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, millions of people.
Ron Placone: And when they actually take an honest poll of it, when it's, like, an issue that's in the blogosphere or news-sphere or whatever you want to call it, about 83+ percent of Americans favor net neutrality all across the political aisle.
Christopher Mitchell: I've seen that too.
Ron Placone: But then what happens is people go, "Well, we haven't really seen any effects yet." And I think the general person isn't necessarily aware of, well you haven't seen any effects yet because we're battling this out in court. You know, when Ajit Pai said, "Hey, the loss of net neutrality is going to bring about more jobs." The only area where he was right about that was when it comes to attorneys because they've been working plenty because they've had plenty of work, either defending net neutrality or defending Ajit Pai's FCC in court, because that's what's been going on. People have just been battling in court. So I think the general person isn't really cognizant of the entire war, metaphorical war, going on around this issue. They just kind of become aware when a battle happens. And I think that's largely the fault of the press. Plus let's be honest, it's not the sexiest issue at face value, you know.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's bring it back to Pasadena. And you're absolutely right. Although I think you going back to 2004, it's wonderful. A lot of people think I've been around since 2013, and so this is a long going issue. Just the fact that most people know what it is now is remarkable. But I wanted to ask you, those kinds of people who aren't paying as close attention, do you think you need to mobilize them to get Pasadena to move forward or is that not necessary to get Pasadena to move forward?
Ron Placone: Oh, I think you need to mobilize as many people as possible because I think this is going to be one of those things. It might take a ballot initiative. It might take an alliance, which involves some people running for office. I think it's going to take a big local push, and one of the things I've been trying to do — you know, I think messaging just really needs to be on par. An organization that I'm really excited about — I mean, I like Free Press a lot. I've been following them for years, pretty much since they started. Fight for the Future I think has really been knocking it out of the park as of recent. I really love what they're doing. And a lot of these organizations are a little more specifically net neutrality focus because they understand that we really need to hold the front lines. The way I like to see it — and I hate to use these war metaphors because I am like one of the biggest passivists I know when it comes to the literal thing. But in the metaphorical world, net neutrality is kind of the battle for the net that we have to win, but muni broadband all across the freaking country, that's the war, so to speak. And that's what we really need to do to win this thing once and for all, and to make sure that the Internet is always going to be the open platform and the medium we know it as. It's going to take city-owned Internet all across the country, and you know, the proof's in the pudding worldwide. I mean all the countries that did this in the first place, they get better speeds than we do, better access than we do, and they usually pay a much cheaper price for it. The countries that did what we did and handed it over to corporate interest and allowed organized duopolies to happen, their access kind of sucks. Look at Australia. So you know, the proof is out there that this is a very important thing and cities that were ahead of the curve, they're kind of celebrated. I mean look at Chattanooga — they're Gig City now. They sniffed this out early on. They've had their municipal service since 2014. They were ahead of the curve. I think that there needs to be some strong messaging there. I'm trying to get #BigCable to really catch on, on social media. I think it's the next important chapter. But you know, there's so much going on right now and it's such a divisive time politically on so many levels, as we know — and we could open that can of worms and be talking all day — that I think a lot of people, they sort of see this as this is kind of something we have to put on the back burner. My perspective is, look, I understand how you might come to that conclusion, but here's the deal. Without an efficient communication vehicle, any other effort we have in this country is futile. We need to have an efficient communication vehicle. Go ask the firefighters in California who got their data throttled while they were fighting a fire how important that is, and it's because of the loss of net neutrality that that was allowed to happen, that Verizon was able to get away with that nonsense.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I think it's worth — I mean, I'm always a little bit touchy about that example because it's not clear that Verizon would have not been able to throttle them, but the important thing is the FCC would have been able to step in and resolve it, which is something that we lost. There's always people who are looking to try and discredit people like you and I if anything is said inelegantly, so I wanted to make sure we nailed that down. Do you have any last thoughts here as we're wrapping up the interview that we didn't get a chance to talk about?
Ron Placone: Well I just want to let people know — I know that your following are other people that are really into these issues. If you're in Southern California or in Pasadena, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. RonPlacone.com is my website. Right now is just kind of an informal task force of me and people that are, you know, usually affiliated with my show in most cases, kind of helping out in any way they can. So please, if you want to get involved directly, please reach out to me.
Christopher Mitchell: You record a live news show, and they can jump in on the comments and talk about muni broadband there. What time do you record usually?
Ron Placone: Mondays through Thursdays, 1 p.m. eastern time / 10 a.m. pacific time. And it's just Get Your News On With Ron. It's just on my YouTube channel, youtube.com/ronplacone. And if you're into, hey, how do I get started in my town, obviously Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you guys provide great, phenomenal resources that I tap into all the time. And also, you know, you can look at my playlist and you can see what I did at my city hall. Some people have asked me for my transcript. I've sent it to everybody that has asked. You know, I'm more than happy to share that if you want it written out or you can watch what I did at my city hall and do it at yours and see what happens. So ronplacone.com, youtube.com/ronplacone, and @ronplacone on Twitter.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thanks for coming on. It's great to hear not just that you're doing great things, but that everywhere you go you're finding people that are trying to figure this out.
Ron Placone: I think we're slowly starting to build the movement, Chris. And thank you for doing what you do because I mean, you guys are the backbone. And you guys have been for a long time now, so it is essential what you guys are doing and I look forward to us collaborating more in the future.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and Ron Placone, comedian, YouTuber, and broadband advocate. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on important research from all of our initiatives. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Follow us on Instagram. We're ILSR74. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 347 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.