Speech vs. Money

Due to budget cuts, the fates of Access Tucson and Tucson's Channel 12 remain up in the air

Talks about the future of local public broadcasting in Tucson revolve, at least in spirit, around people like Joe Sweeney.

The perennial Congressional candidate and City Council gadfly's opinions are regularly sent over the airwaves into Tucson homes. He vents during the open-comment section of City Council meetings (see it on the city's Channel 12), and he was the longtime host of AZ Examiner on Access Tucson (check public-access channels Cox 98, 99, 120 and Comcast 72, 73, 74).

Sweeney is one of those quintessential American voices that free-speech advocates say need to be protected—the voice of otherwise marginalized dissent, loony in the eyes of some, but nonetheless a symbol of upholding the loftiest of national principles.

What to do with those voices is being examined in terms of dollars and cents (and digital equipment) by the Tucson City Council. Predictably, the argument has become more philosophical than logistical.

Weeks into the talks, the council was still weighing several options. As recently as Oct. 12, city officials were again discussing putting public-access nonprofit Access Tucson and the city's Channel 12 in the same building—an option dismissed as financially unfeasible months ago.

"The situation changes daily," said Lisa Horner, the executive director of Access Tucson. Horner said needed building repairs would be less costly than officials initially estimated.

At stake is the money received by the city through negotiations with Cox Cable—the $1.38 charge that subscribers' bills suggest is dedicated to public, educational and government programming. The city in the past has used that money to broadcast council meetings and public forums, as well as programs that highlight goings-on downtown and interviews with city bureaucrats. They also sent a chunk to Access Tucson to train locals to produce independent, unmediated television.

The most recent budget for those services allocated about $900,000 for Channel 12, and about $300,000 for Access Tucson—sums that are just a fraction of what the groups received a couple of years ago.

Now, the city is facing a budget deficit of more than $50 million for the fiscal year that began July 1, and the council is looking for services to cut—especially services that can't be construed as "core," i.e. police, fire, parks and recreation, and transportation. This year, at least $11 million needs to be cut from "non-core" spending.

Public broadcasting has long been a target for cuts, and the determination to make a cut to broadcasting appears at an all-time high; after all, City Manager Mike Letcher describes the budget situation as "unprecedented." But no decision has yet been made, despite what's been reported by other local media.

It's not as if the city is without ideas. A proposal from the UA's Arizona Public Media to take on two Channel 12 employees and the station's equipment, and to broadcast gavel-to-gavel, unedited council meetings, is outlined in a draft intergovernmental agreement, available online. Access Tucson's proposal to do the same, making use of partnerships with local schools and educational programs, is also in hard-copy.

However, each recommendation has elicited a string of new angles and reservations from those around the council table. So far, the only firm decision is to do an appraisal of the city building that Access Tucson occupies at 124 E. Broadway Blvd.

At the Sept. 28 council meeting, Letcher pleaded for decisiveness, at least in process. "What are my revenue parameters?" he asked. "It puts us in a difficult situation to negotiate (with Arizona Public Media and Access Tucson) without any parameters."

Letcher opened his presentation that evening with musings on the importance of transparency in government and the preservation of a public voice. But when he next spoke, having taken in council responses, Letcher said simply, "This really is about money." By Oct. 5—the day that was to be the day of big decisions—he said he didn't expect a decision for weeks. He recommended the council go with the Arizona Public Media proposal, and figure out the public-access piece separately.

Arizona Public Media has an interest in the deal because it allows "a direct conduit to what's going on the city," said Wendy Erica Werden, the group's director of marketing and brand management. "All media looking to remain relevant are looking for partnerships. And there are a lot of similarities in what (Arizona Public Media and Channel 12) do."

City officials are interested, because they see high-quality programming and the prospect of jobs for at least two people among those holding the 8.5 full-time positions now at Channel 12. "They could continue their careers," said Ann Strine, the now-retired director of the Information Technology Department that oversaw Channel 12. Under any of the recently proposed outcomes, the rest of the employees would be laid off.

The deal-making began when Arizona Public Media approached city officials early this summer. Access Tucson, unaware of the initial discussions between the other two groups, was late to the table; the nonprofit was closed for much of the summer because of the last round of budget-balancing. A deal with the city would strongly influence the nonprofit's future, and they do have two advocates on the council—Paul Cunningham and Karin Uhlich—who have lobbied to get the group at least included in the talks.

Without a city check and almost no other income (until a new fundraising strategy takes off), Access Tucson is hard-pressed to argue it can offer the same kind of security that Arizona Public Media can. Its strong card is its role as the home of unmediated public access.

"There will always be a guilty pleasure in watching that fringe element," Horner said. "Legally, the city can do what it wants with that money. It's a moral and ethical issue. It's really easy to back-shelf that voice."

Both groups propose a fee-for-service arrangement with the city—Arizona Public Media to a tune of about $325,000, Access Tucson for about $240,000. More than $200,000 worth of digital equipment will be transferred.

Jack Gibson, the director and general manager of Arizona Public Media, has told the council that there is no option for a public-access element in his group's proposal. He has also said he has to wrap up the deal by Nov. 1 for it to make financial sense.

"We're right up against that deadline," Councilman Steve Kozachik said this week. "We might even be past it."