Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript of the Episode 81 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Mike Wassenaar on public access media and community owned networks. Listen to this episode here.
Mike Wassenaar: Regardless of how technology changes, we need policy that enables us to be able to provide content for citizens.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
Today, Chris interviews Mike Wassenaar. Mike is a Senior Development Officer with the Free Press. He has extensive experience working in community media. Public access, educational, and government video programs, often referred to as "PEG," provide local programming to the communities they serve. As media becomes increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of corporate providers, public access plays a critical role in local information delivery. Mike provides an expert's perspective on where the problems are and what local communities need to consider when they think about the future of public access. Here are Mike and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today, I'm on the phone with Mike Wassenaar, a Senior Development Officer with Free Press, and someone who I got to know when he was leading the St. Paul Neighborhood Network here in Minnesota. He has 20 years of experience working with community media and radio and television. Welcome to the show.
Mike Wassenaar: It's good to be here, Chris. Thank you.
Chris: Mike, I'm excited to talk to you, because, first of all, you've got a great voice, and you have an incredible amount of knowledge, and you're never afraid to speak your mind. So let's get into this. What is the role of the public access channels in the modern era?
Mike: Well, I mean, I think you need to look at public access community media organizations. And I'm going to speak sort of more broadly here. They're also about government access organizations, as well. As civic organizations that produce content, do training, and really help to provide civic information at the local level. And, then, in the best sense, communities that have strong, healthy public, educational, government channels -- community media operations -- are providing information that other communities simply don't have, about their lives, the culture, civic information, that's going on from day to day. That's what the BEST of these organizations are doing, across the country. And it's kind of a shame that you don't have one of these types of organizations in every community of any type of size. Because they can provide information that a commercial media source simply isn't interested in doing.
Chris: That's very interesting. And I'd like to just very quickly provide a thumbnail sketch of how it came to be that some places, like here in St. Paul, we have a terrific station like that, and other cities may not have it. Can you step us back and just explain how that came to be?
Mike: In some local communities, you had a combination of very good state law, because the way in which the federal law was set up, governing local cable, of franchising, the states could set up certain types of franchising regimes. And then, municipalities within those states had either a great deal of power or did NOT have a great deal of power to be able to negotiate with corporations for use of their property -- for their rights-of-way, to be able to make money as they deliver services to people around the municipalities.
So, one of the provisions that local communities negotiated for, when these franchises were set up in the '70s, '80s, '90s -- and even recently, in the last 5-10 years -- are these community content networks. Either networks that are based in local colleges and public schools, local governments, or nonprofit entities that work with the public. You know, much like a library does, to provide content that local communities need. So, you see in some states, where there's really sound law, a flowering of this type of service. In other states, where there is not as strong a law, which I believe is in the community interest, you don't see as many of these operations. So they are relatively rarer in certain types of states. In a state like Minnesota, there's actually a very, very strong law that was set up in the 1980s, when franchising came to the state. Cable came to the state relatively late, compared to other states around the country. And as a result, you actually had a flowering of these types of organizations, both government-based organizations as well as nonprofit organizations. And organizations that were in small communities in the state as well as large communities, like St. Paul. So that's really the reason you had this sort of tradition set up. And that's why it doesn't exist in certain states.
Chris: It seems like the history of the public access is really tied to the cable industry. So what is the future like? And the present? Is it still going to be tied to the cable companies? And is that appropriate?
Mike: I think that it's necessarily tied, because of the funding source, in many communities. Many of these organizations, either government-based or nonprofit-based, have large majorities of their funding based on funding that comes through franchise fees of one sort or another. And then passes through a local government -- a local government option, or a local government budgeting. So, as the cable industry changes, this is going to put that funding stream, I think, in some question, in many communities. More and more of the revenue that the cable industry receives comes not through a cable fee but through Internet revenue. And Internet revenue is not subject to local franchise oversight -- and local fees that are based upon that revenue source. So what's happening now is that revenue growth is happening, actually, EVERYWHERE in the cable industry, but it's most explosive on the Internet side. And more and more of the cable industry's interest will be in putting their activity on that side of the industry that's not locally regulated. That is a problem for local governments across the country, primarily because they rely upon those revenues to be able to provide these kinds of services. So that's, I think, going to be a big issue for these organizations and government entities over the course of the next, say, 5-10 years, as more and more of that revenue stream goes toward the Internet side, which is not locally regulated. Actually, it's a federal issue that needs to be brought up, by local governments and by nonprofits around the country, as the industry is changing.
So that's the first thing. The second thing, I think, is that as you're looking at more content development and at viewer listener media consumer patterns change, organizations that are interested in serving local communities need to be thinking about how they're reaching them with -- how they're reaching those communities with content. And I think that means that you have to be diversifying your revenue, as well as diversifying the things that you're doing. That's why you're seeing organizations interested in, for example, community radio licensing. There were a host of nonprofits as well -- nonprofits around the country that do cable access television -- who applied in this latest round of low-power FM applications that the FCC opened up in 2013. The reason why they're doing that is because they're trying to find ways to reach more people, cultivate audience, and to build more meaning at the local level. And I think that's the promise of these types of content networks, frankly -- is that in an era when there's more and more media consolidation, we need to be thinking about ways in which we can be developing local content that's meaningful for audiences. Because I think people are starved for content. They're starved for meaning. They're starved for information about what's happening in their local government. And we are facing sort of a crisis of civic information if we're not investing in these types of resources.
Chris: So, if I could sum up, what I'm hearing is that these public access centers have been tied, in the past, to the cable networks, and, to some extent, that was their only way of distribution. But, more importantly, it was their source of funding, that allowed them to do a lot of training, to make equipment available, things that I think we'll get into in a second. But, as we move forward, the threat to public access isn't so much that they might lose channels of distribution on the television channel lineup but, more, that they're not going to be having the revenue that's necessary in order to train people and have the equipment that people would need to create content. Is that fair?
Mike: I think that's a fair characterization. I won't discount the threat of not being able to get distribution on content networks. That still is a problem. And it's a major sticking point in negotiations around the country right now. Cable operators are looking to reduce the amount of capacity on their TV networks and increase the capacity on their Internet networks. That division between Internet and locally-regulated cable is driving a lot of this behavior. So you're actually seeing the cable industry trying to recapture channels -- recapture real estate, if you will -- because they're not building more real estate. OK. They're not putting massive amounts more money into their cable plants.
Chris: Rather than putting money into making their system, they'd rather just kick of local channels that aren't producing any revenue from them, and -- sort of their narrow perspective.
Mike: That is -- well, that is correct. And they're trying to increase their, uh, revenue -- if they're trying to increase their worth to their investors, you can understand the logic. And I don't disagree with the logic. I disagree with the means. And I disagree with the outcome.
The other issue that people should be aware of is that in the last decade, there's been an enormous pressure on local government finances. So, the double whammy, if you will, is that local governments are under increasing pressure just to be able to deliver basic services. In some communities, there is an open debate whether or not this type of information service is a basic service. I'd make the argument that it can be. In many communities, it may not be defined as one.
I mean, it's a little bit like what's happening in many communities with libraries. You'll see local communities who are passionate about their libraries, and support their libraries. And you'll see some that actually close them. And that does not better the information wealth of the community, when those resources go down. So -- I mean, that's the other pressure that's happening, Chris, is that local governments are under extreme financial pressure. And they're looking for any source of revenue they can cut to be able to balance their books. So that the other, sort of, part of the economic pressure that's on these channels.
Chris: I wanted to highlight something that you did say, and I just wanted to push in on it very quickly, which is that the cable companies use our public rights-of-way for their wires. And their business model would not work without it. And now, in a number of states, they've changed the laws to really restrict what cities can ask for in compensation. But no city is able to charge for the rights-of-way -- usage by cable companies -- for delivering broadband or telephone services. Which is -- I know, a lot of local governments are frustrated about, for the reason that you said, which is that the revenues from the television channels is going down, which is what the city gets compensation for in the rights-of-way, whereas the revenues for the broadband and the telephone are going up. And the -- us taxpayers -- you know, the ones maintain the right-of-way, our land that's being used for it -- we're seeing less and less money, even as the cable companies make more and more money.
Mike: I think that's a fair characterization. I think the other -- the thing about this, from a content provider's perspective, is that it's the same cable that's providing content through different mechanisms, one through a television mechanism, the other one through what the FCC has classified as an information service, an Internet mechanism. Why do you have different regimes for the same content? And why do you have different regimes for the same physical equipment that goes to someone's home? That's the mechanism that we're under right now, and that's kind of -- in many different respects, it's not just in the cable industry. But this whole question of, like, what's an information service, what's a -- different types of service that the FCC regulates -- needs to be figured out in the future, especially as technologies are changing. Regardless of how technology changes, we need policy that enables us to be able to provide content for citizens.
Chris: If these companies had to pay a flat fee for their wires and the rights-of-way, that would be one thing. But they're paying a percentage. And as the percentage of that changes and goes down, it would be appropriate for us to continue getting the same amount of money back -- or more, as they're making more profits. And, you're right, local communities don't have any say in that, because this has all sat at the federal level, and they've made a mess of it.
Mike: I think that's fair. I think that's fair.
Chris: In our ideal world, five years from now, we've solved all the problems we want to solve, we have municipal networks in many places that are delivering services, what should a municipal network do to encourage this local information ecosystem, to make sure the access centers are doing their job well?
Mike: Well, I mean, I think you can look at operations around the country that are providing local content that's meaningful. Civic information that's useful, for the, you know, the needs of the local citizens. There's a host of different examples of that, around the country, where people are either -- where organizations are, in some cases, government entities -- are providing, you know, local information about elections, local information about cultural resources, educational programming, things that are really distinctive about the local community, via media production. You should be looking at that as sort of a way to be making these channels useful. Just providing a channel with no content is kind of nonsensical -- first, I mean...
Mike: So, you need to be able to provide content. I mean, that actually mirrors this other problem that, like, industries have, of, you know, when they've got 500 channels with nothing on. If you have a municipal channel and there's nothing on, no one will use it. So you need to be thinking about ways in which you're providing content meaningful for content, so that they use it and appreciate it. Because a resource that no one uses is meaningless. And, at their best, these channels can be used and relied upon for local information that's meaningful, about how you participate in government, how you can get a job, how you can take advantage of cultural resources, how you can express yourself and members of your family, how you can connect with other people from your ethnic community, from your religious community, and your spiritual life. Any of a number of things that are just distinct and unique about the local community that you live within. That's something that a national channel will not provide. You know, it just can't. So, we need to be thinking about that.
The other thing that I think is important, that still is a gap that many communities are not addressing, is that there is -- while many people have access to broadband, and many people have access to the wealth of information that's available on a few broadband networks, many people who are disadvantaged, or have lower educational attainment, or have significant challenges, to be able to be, really, a part of that economy -- that broadband economy -- need to have training. And I think that's a unique opportunity for these public, education, government organizations to be able to provide training. They have histories of doing technical training. That's the reason why, when I was in St. Paul, we looked -- we partnered specifically with organizations that were interested in providing broadband training, to be able to get people from disadvantaged communities to be a part of the economy, to get a job, as part of the broadband economy, or to connect with other generations in their family, or to connect with other communities to be politically active. And these are people who have disabilities, or who have had low educational attainment in their lives, trying to get a GED. People who don't have high English skills. And over the course of -- over a decade, you know, we actually created jobs, and got more people into the economy in St. Paul and Minneapolis through that educational training work. That's significant. And I think that's an opportunity that we need to be thinking about, if we want to try to reach full attainment of all Americans in the broadband economy. It can't just be about price -- and price incentives. It can't all be about economics. We know that we need to be providing content that's meaningful for people, so that they WANT to be a part of that economy, and be a part of these channels. And we know that we need to be able to provide training, for people to be a part of it. Because it's not as simple as turning on a button to watch television. So that's a unique niche, that these organizations can take advantage of, and be meaningful for local communities over the course, I think, of the next dec ** -- or year or two.
Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show, Mike, and helping us to better understand the history of PEG and the future of these public access stations.
Mike: You're welcome, Chris. And good luck.
Lisa: We encourage you to visit freepress.net . For more on PEG, check out Alliance for Community Media at allcommunitymedia.org . We also provide several articles on PEG at muninetworks.org . Just follow the "PEG" tag.
We want you to e-mail us with questions or ideas for the show. Write to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter. We are @communitynets . Chris is a busy tweeter, so you will not be disappointed. This show was released on January 14th, 2014. Thank you to the group Haggard Beat for their song, "Lazlo," licensed using Creative Commons. Thanks again for listening.