The year 1984 is known for its Orwellian imagery, but in Tucson, it was a year that spawned artistic expression in the form of alternative media options.
In 1984, the Tucson Weekly and Access Tucson launched (with KXCI FM 91.3 going on the air in late 1983). While the Weekly and KXCI appear to be weathering the downturn, Access Tucson has been hit hard.
The organization's budget took another 15 percent hit in the upcoming fiscal year, as the city attempts to balance its budget. That's in addition to the 10 percent cut that Access Tucson faced last year. All told, an outlet that recently received seven figures annually and employed 23 people now must function with what amounts to about $750,000 and a staff of 11 full-timers and three part-timers.
As a result, Access Tucson is closed for the month of June. The public-access channels remain on the air, with prerecorded and automated programming.
These cuts happened despite a deal the city cut with Cox Communications two years ago to keep Access Tucson visibly viable. That deal brings more than $5 million annually into Tucson's coffers.
"The city went to the mat to make sure Cox would provide public education and government channels, and they worked out a very good funding arrangement," said Sam Behrend, who has been with Access Tucson since its inception and took over as executive director in 1987. "... We thought some of that was earmarked to fund us. That's how it looked to us, and that's how it looks to subscribers who look at their cable bill and see that $1.38 a month is for PEG access.
"Even though the city's sales-tax revenue has taken a nosedive, and they're in a world of hurt, their cable revenue is level and hasn't gone down. What's happening is the city is taking more and more of that cable revenue for other things and cutting our funding. All that cable revenue from Cox goes into the general fund, and we're funded as an outside agency in the budget process.
"We were created by the city of Tucson in 1984 to do this job, and the primary reason they wanted an outside agency to do this is the city didn't want to be in the business of content control. It would be an issue of government controlling the media. We were created by the city to do a job the city wanted done with revenues created by the cable company, but now, what they've done is disconnected the use of funding from the source. The city wants to take a hard look at the funding issues, and I think that's a good idea."
Access Tucson has acted as a platform for a variety of unique visual endeavors, giving the city's public-access outlet a reputation for catering to the often-mocked fringe.
"The soapbox that you think of when you think of public access (means) anybody can learn to use the equipment, and they're pretty much free to do whatever they want. That's where you have a lot of the religious shows and people with an ax to grind; it's very quirky and eclectic, and some of it is amazing, if you dig for it," Behrend said about those who utilize the downtown building, which houses two functional television studios and 12 editing systems. "There's a tremendous amount being produced in Tucson. We do more than 100 shows a week, which is amazing. The gamut is broad, from the typical (shows) that Saturday Night Live parodies to things like the Tucson Roller Derby. That's really unusual."
Access Tucson also wants to brand itself as an outlet for nonprofit organizations that struggle to finance their public-relations operations.
"We help them craft their message," Behrend said. "We can help those groups get the message out. Those groups now are starting to do more with the rich media they develop with us. They're starting to chop video they use with us so they can place it on their Web site, (and to) distribute DVDs they produce here.
"That is leading us in a new direction. We're trying to launch an entirely new service this year. That's the exciting future we're trying to find money to fund," said Behrend.
Perhaps that funding will come from the newly formed People for Access Tucson Foundation, or through the ever-drying well of grant funding. "The nonprofits really want this service," Behrend said. "They're looking ideally for a one-stop PR shop that can help them get their message out there in a variety of media. We're looking at helping them monitor modular content for their Web site and (our) new Web site, Tucson.org, which has not launched yet.
"We can't really afford to give away this new thing, so we're trying to figure out how to work with nonprofits to use what limited PR money they might have and really stretch it. We're probably looking at fee-for-service, although it's going to have to be small, or nonprofits aren't going to be able to invest. It's in development. It's not launched. It's what we're trying to put together over the next year. ... Hopefully, by Jan. 1, we can launch. When we talk to nonprofits, they're pretty excited about this, and they want to work with us, because it's a way we can help them."
Access Tucson also expects to have an on-demand option through Cox up and running in the foreseeable future.
But even with these changes coming soon, Access Tucson remains a haven for anyone interested in learning the inner workings of television and video, in front of and behind the camera.
"Free orientation is the starting point. The information is on our Web site at accesstucson.org," said Behrend. "The orientation is free. In one hour, people get a really good sense of what our organization does and how it helps the community. It's really friendly; it's several times a month. It's a great way to get started, and it's there they can decide what they want to do."