Mayor McGinn's community media problem

by Jonathan Lawson

Why does Mike McGinn's office seem to have such a problem with community media? After local blogger/journalist Sakara Remmu (pen name Sable Verity) criticized the Mayor in blog posts, Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith took it upon himself to complain to Remmu's employers at the Tabor 100. Tabor fired her rather than harbor a perceived enemy of the Mayor's office. The episode raised troubling questions about abuse of power and the Mayor's office's respect—or lack thereof—for independent media.

That lack of respect was on full display in the Mayor's proposed budget, released last month, which slashes city funding for community access TV provider SCAN. SCAN trains local video producers and airs their programs on local cable channels. Previously funding SCAN in the neighborhood of $600,000 a year, the Mayor's current proposal would reduce that annual amount to just $100,000—a cut which would essentially strangle the nonprofit out of existence, and leave the city without a local training facility dedicated to helping local producers develop programming for community audiences.

Listen to a report on SCAN from KBCS 91.3FM.

McGinn's chief technology officer Bill Schrier argues that the rise of blogs, YouTube and other social media web sites make it much less important to invest in public access television. But despite increasing access to news and information on the Internet, more people still get their basic news and information from local TV than from any other source—especially elders, low-income communities, english language learners, and other marginalized populations.

Ending SCAN, as the Mayor's budget proposes, would be a huge loss for the city—and would impact marginalized communities disproportionately. Despite its "Wayne's World" reputation for amateurish programming, public access TV provides truly essential programming for many Seattle communities. A Reclaim the Media study found that SCAN airs more locally-produced public affairs programming per week than all local broadcast TV stations combined. It's easily the most diverse broadcast outlet in the city—because it's one of the few outlets that offers local people and organizations to create their own programming and broadcast them to their communities. SCAN has been an exceptionally rare resource for many ethnic communities, providing the only regular local programming centered on content of relevance to youth of color, Ethiopian, Somali, and Korean communities, among others.

This programming doesn't produce itself—and SCAN's video training courses are an essential service which allows local media makers to pursue their aspirations to create informational and cultural programs. The city's proposed budget would outsource Seattle's public access channel, and would entirely defund local video training—leaving future generations of grassroots TV producers without a way to develop professional skills and hone their voice.

Schrier has received deserved praise for his forward-looking advocacy of a next-generation, fiber broadband network which could provide affordable, high-speed video access to all city residents. However, this plan is still an uncertain dream. For the present, and for the foreseeable future, television remains far and away the most common source of information for all people, especially low-income populations less likely to be able to afford expensive Internet connections and equipment. Indeed, DoIT's own studies show that people of color and low-income residents of the city are a third less likely to enjoy fast broadband than their neighbors. These local communities stand to lose the most if community access TV is defunded.

It's no secret that the city is facing huge economic challenges, and that painful cuts are the norm across all parts of the Mayor's budget proposal. However, public access is funded not out of general operating costs, but rather out of cable franchise fees paid by all local cable subscribers. These funds are much more stable than tax income and other revenue sources for the city, and shouldn't need to be raided as part of a broader budget-balancing scheme.

The Mayor's office would seem to agree, at least when it comes to the funding of its own cable channel, which is funded by the same franchise fees as SCAN. In contrast to the deep cuts proposed for SCAN, the Seattle Channel comes out great in the Mayor's proposed budget—its multimillion dollar budget survives virtually intact from last year.

The comparison between Seattle Channel and SCAN funding is especially appropriate given Schrier's argument that video can be found as easily online as it on television ,so there's less reason to spend on TV production. If his office really believed that, wouldn't it seek at least proportionate cuts to the Seattle Channel's lavish Arts Zone programming, rather than throwing SCAN alone under the bus?

There are many ways public access TV in Seattle can—and should—be dramatically improved. For starters, there should be two channels instead of just one, allowing more programming to get on the air and stay on the air, developing audiences over time. The station should have training facilities in central or south Seattle. closer to where community need is the greatest. Instead of helping SCAN evolve in this direction, however, the city has kept the nonprofit on a starvation diet, and is now poised to smother it with a pillow.

The City Council shouldn't let this happen. They should recognize that this is less about scarce funds than it is about a community media problem within the Mayor's office. The Council should replace —in fact augment—SCAN's funding, and help community media in Seattle continue to grow.

Scan TV

Thanks for this article. Hopefully the city will realize the value of community media and change their minds!

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey