Media Watch

Access Tucson Abridged

Access Tucson has become less accessible under city budget cuts. As of Sept. 7, the cable-TV forum for any community organization, crusader or nutcase with a message has cut back the hours it's open for production, dropped the number of hours per year any single community producer has access to equipment, reduced the frequency of many continuing programs, canceled one of its self-produced public-affairs series and begun hiking some of its fees.

Executive director Sam Behrend isn't happy about it, but says this--along with a new plan to solicit donations--is the only way he can cope with the city of Tucson's 43-percent cut in his operating budget.

"It was shocking to see this big a cut," says Behrend. Access Tucson's city-funded operating budget dropped from about $700,000 to $400,000. The city's $360,000 for capital support--equipment maintenance and such--was untouched. (City monies for Access Tucson come from fees dunned the cable TV companies, not the general tax base; the "lost" cable money was diverted to programs like streets and police.)

Access Tucson also raises about $200,000 each year in fees and grants, and made the mistake of building a $300,000 emergency reserve, which apparently led the City Council to believe the group might not notice if exactly that much money was eliminated from its budget.

"We're being punished for doing a good job of fiscal management," Behrend says.

Some people around town blame City Council member Kathleen Dunbar for Access Tucson's hard times. She was the swing vote on the garbage fee, say the conspiracy theorists, so she was rewarded by being allowed to hack away at some of her least favorite recipients of city funding. And that would include Access Tucson.

Whether or not Dunbar is truly the Cruella de Vil in this scenario, Access Tucson was already watching its funding slip faster than Marv Albert's toupee.

"When the city cut our operating funds this year, after 10-percent cuts each of last three years, the staff took it personally," says Behrend. "They said, 'Look, we've worked hard to help every group in Tucson tell its story, and we feel like we've done a good job, but we've never told our own story.'"

So Access Tucson is inserting 30-second spots between shows to promote its work--something that broadcast stations have done for decades--and is reviving its print-based newsletter as a fund-raising tool, although the organization's board has not yet targeted a campaign goal. "It's one of the first times we've ever asked the community for money," Behrend says. "We're finally having to do things that other nonprofits have done all along." The first issue hit mailboxes Sept. 18, and Behrend awaits the response.

But because the production facility is no longer open or staffed enough to accommodate the full line-up of live weekly shows, Behrend is running those shows on alternating weeks, so he won't have to send any community producers to the exit. "It's confusing to viewers," he admits, "but that's the only way we could shoehorn everyone in."

Despite facing a 43-percent cut in operating funds, Behrend managed to cut only 30 percent of his public services, without laying off any staff members.

Behrend hopes that in February, the City Council will consider tossing more money his way, which might allow him to extend Access Tucson's hours and reinstate the series TucsonVision, in which community organizations hosted shows about their work, with Access Tucson providing the crew and set.

"When you do six or eight of those programs in a season, they have an afterlife beyond running on cable," he says. "You've got a nice video library you can use for training, recruitment and board development. I'd really like to be able to bring that back."

Despite the financial difficulties, Behrend doesn't want to give the impression that Access Tucson is collapsing into a little white dot in the middle of your TV screen, then fading to black.

"We're still here, and we're still fulfilling our mission," he declares. "If somebody comes to us and says they have a message to deliver, we still have a lot of services to offer; our staff is still working hard to facilitate people reaching the community. In the world of diminished independent sources of news and information, what else is out there? There's the Tucson Weekly and KXCI to some extent, but they're not like Access Tucson, where everyone has a right to say what they want directly, without being censored or controlled in some way."

Access Tucson has played host to everything from earnest independent documentary producers and the Tucson Pima Arts Council, to local poets and musicians, to ufologists, Satanists and neo-Nazis. Now, that's entertainment.

"Through us, people with nontraditional or minority opinions can reach a mass audience," he says. "We're in 150,000 homes in Tucson and Pima County; television is the way a lot of people are used to getting their news and information. It's the only public green space on the information highway."

As for his own staff, he says, "We're kind of dejected, but excited" about figuring out new ways to do their job with less money. And Behrend is trying to be philosophical about making a sacrifice for the good of the overall budget.

"I guess we paid for a couple of cops, or a couple feet of sidewalk," he says. "But if these cuts did put in a sidewalk, we should at least get our name on it."

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