Guest Opinion

W(h)ither Public Access? The demise of Access Tucson is a major blow to the city.

Tucson’s award-winning public access programmer, Access Tucson Community Media, closed its doors on May 31, a victim of having its funding siphoned off by the cash-strapped city.

Although in early June, the Tucson City Council voted to fund the organization for two more months, according to Access Tucson Executive Director Lisa Horner, the details—including the actual budget—are not yet worked out.

In any case, the funding appears to be just a stop-gap measure, she suggests. Unless there is some radical change, likely this will only delay the organization’s demise until the city can evaluate responses to its controversial request for proposals for someone to manage both city and community media services on the cable system.

“There is really no rebounding,” said Horner. “Community media as we know it is gone.”

To make matters worse, it is unclear what will happen to the 30-year archive of community media productions now housed at Access Tucson. According to Horner, while considering the funding issue, the council also agreed to allow the material to remain on site for the next two months, but she worries the city is not committed to preserving it.

Though Tucson still gets about $3.5 million annually from cable license fees, the city has poured that money into the general fund and steadily reduced the portion allocated to public access, until the spigot was shut this spring. In mid-May, Horner announced that the well had run dry.

For more than 30 years, Access Tucson played a vital community role, providing training and resources for media production to groups and individuals as well as programming the city’s public access channels. Though production quality varied and shows could sometimes offend, over the years the system produced many solid programs, most of which never would have appeared in a commercially-driven media environment. Perhaps most important, Access Tucson provided members of a diverse community—and particularly those members with the fewest resources—the opportunity to have their voices heard.

“We were able to do a tremendous amount of work for non-profits and community organizations,” Horner said.

Community value—and its ultimate loss—is at the core of this story. In the mid-1990s, I covered the cable license renewal process in Tucson—and its implications for public access—in a series of articles for the Tucson Weekly.

At that time, the license agreement required cable provider TCI to pay millions in license fees annually—including about $1 million to fund Access Tucson—and provide ample space—13 channels, four of them administered by Access Tucson—to carry public, educational, and government (PEG) programming. During negotiations, the company maneuvered to reduce its funding for Access Tucson and, just as significant, to reduce channel space for public access to make room for profit-generating commercial programming.

The tension between commercial interests and community interests—ever-present in U.S. communication regulation—was the key issue in the cable license renewal process. The city, to its credit, stood firm in those negotiations on supporting public access. It pushed the commercial provider to protect the public interest by guaranteeing space for free speech on the cable system—as well as the opportunity to develop skills necessary to exercise that speech. Ultimately that position was successful.

Since the 1990s, the cable industry successfully lobbied for state law limiting the support they could be required to give PEG channels and community media. The city formally diminished the position of Access Tucson, treating it like a third-party contractor rather than a city-created service provider, and the economy soured, encouraging officials to look for revenue streams wherever they could find them.

The demise of public access in Tucson is part of a trend in cities facing a combination of bad state law and a bad economy, according to Mike Wassenaar, president of the Alliance for Community Media, a national organization representing community media outlets. Where the law allows legislatures to ravage community media funding sources, he says, cash-strapped cities will do it.

Unfortunately, this undercuts vital public services, as Wassenaar points out.

Wassenaar holds out little hope for Tucson’s plan for the future of public access. The request for proposals envisions a single provider that would “facilitate workforce development by offering classes and training opportunities in media production; create and distribute marketing materials highlighting Tucson as a great business destination; highlight and emphasize the city’s strong international relationships with the Mexico market; provide and enhance the city’s media production of mayor and council meetings, and manage and maintain public access media channels.”

Oh, and the city expects this to be done with an influx of $300,000 per year for two years. After that, the provider should become self-sustaining.

“It’s total fantasy,” says Wassenaar. “You cannot provide any of those services [for a city the size of Tucson] for that amount of money.” Without a strong, community-funded community media outlet, Tucson loses a key public resource that has reflected well on the city as a whole.

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