Seattle public access funding threatened in Mayor's budget

by Sonia Krishman, Seattle Times

Seattle's public access TV channel SCAN could go dark under Mayor Mike McGinn's proposed budget. It's no secret the city of Seattle faces a $67 million budget hole. So funding public-access TV channel SCAN to the tune of $650,000 a year, begs some reconsideration, said spokesman Mark Matassa.

There are arguments on both sides. Public-access advocates say pulling the plug will spell the death of the local voice. The channel caters to a spectrum of political views. Plus, they say, they fear a programming void for immigrants, especially the Somali and Ethiopian communities, who rely on public access for news and events in their native languages.

"OK, 10 seconds ... "

The cameras inside Seattle's public-access TV studio zoom in on the three psychics about to go live. The women sit behind a card table covered with green cloth and the essentials: tarot cards, an astrology book and a faux crystal ball.

"A Psychic Speaks" has all the trappings of a public-access show. It's campy, no-frills and draws a loyal following. Every other week for the past eight years, Jann Nelson and Carolyn Johnson — plus a guest of their choice — have spent a half-hour taking viewer calls and answering people's most pressing questions. What's going to happen to my health? Will I ever find love? The women try to soothe the distressed and comfort the heartbroken.

But now, their show — along with more than 40 other regular programs ranging from "Gays for Jesus" to "Ask an Atheist!" — could go dark under Mayor Mike McGinn's budget proposal.

It's no secret the city faces a $67 million budget hole. So funding public-access television, to the tune of $650,000 a year, begs some reconsideration, said Mark Matassa, the mayor's spokesman.

There are arguments on both sides. Public-access advocates say pulling the plug will spell the death of the local voice. The channel caters to a spectrum of political views. Plus, they say, they fear a programming void for immigrants, especially the Somali and Ethiopian communities, who rely on public access for news and events in their native languages.

But government officials question the wisdom of paying two-thirds of the channel's budget in the age of YouTube and streaming video. In years past, when television was the main platform for video, it was an important way for the city to support free speech, said Bill Schrier, head of the city's Department of Information Technology. Now, vast changes in technology have made it cheaper and easier to reach audiences online, he said.

So the administration is asking, "Does it make sense, in these tight budget times, to be giving $650,000 to fund a cable channel when there are a whole bunch of other avenues on the Internet?" Schrier said.

It's an issue that's playing out across the country. In California alone, 50 channels have shut down in the past five years, according to the Buske Group, a communications consulting firm.

"The Internet can certainly supplement what a public-access channel can do. But it cannot replace it," said Deborah Vinsel, chairwoman for the Northwest region of the Alliance of Community Media.

"We don't discount that technology and time marches on," she added. "And in a generation, maybe the Internet will be the dominant source. But it's not yet."

In Seattle, SCAN TV, the nonprofit running the programming on Comcast channel 77 and Broadstripe channel 23, has a five-year contract with the city, which ends this year, to receive most of its operating costs from cable-franchise fees. These are fees that cable companies pay the city for the right to broadcast in Seattle.

Next year, these funds are projected to drop more than $600,000, according to budget documents.

That's mostly because people are choosing cheaper cable packages or canceling service altogether, Schrier said.

Instead of continuing to pay most of SCAN's budget, the idea on the table is now this: Put the contract out to bid. And whoever wins will get $100,000 in operating funds from the city for the next two years. SCAN would be welcome to bid, Schrier said.

Dian Ferguson, executive director of SCAN, called the offer "insulting."

"We know that we could not do what we're doing for $100,000," she said.

SCAN's budget for 2010 is about $900,000. With 15 paid staffers, more than half goes to payroll. Only a fraction, $14,000, comes from donations. Without city funds, SCAN would likely shut down, she said.

"To us, (the proposal) is a statement of saying, 'We don't want you,' " she said.

Ferguson added it's unfair that SCAN is basically getting eliminated when the Seattle Channel, which broadcasts more government-related programming, is taking a much smaller cut.

For Nelson, 68, and Johnson, 63, "A Psychic Speaks," they said, has been their way of giving back to the community.

"Like one person told me, we're cheaper than a psychiatrist," Nelson said.

Off camera, Nelson, a grandmother, who cleaned houses most of her life, is creating a dating website called www.soulpick.com. Johnson is a retired teacher who taught art in the Seattle school district.

The longtime friends said they've known since early on that they were clairvoyant, because of an indisputable "intuitive voice." But they didn't tap into their talents until later in life.

Nelson started learning about handwriting analysis and numerology — the belief that numbers, such as birth dates, influence life. Johnson learned tarot cards and palm reading.

In 2002, a mutual friend wanted to launch a show about psychics with Johnson as the moderator and Nelson as the first guest, Nelson said.

"They put us in an empty room with a table and a chair and they said 'Talk,' " she said.

But Johnson got stage fright on-air and blanked, so Nelson swooped in. "I have a big mouth, so I just started talking," Nelson said. After Johnson recovered, the duo decided to go forth as a team.

The show airs every other Tuesday out of SCAN's Greenwood studio on North 98th Street. Most of the crew are volunteers. As such, technical glitches are bound to occur. Last week, ear-piercing microphone feedback blasted through the airwaves, prompting some callers to hang up. But the hosts played it off.

Humor takes center stage. When callers ask questions like, "Am I going to have a heart attack?" Their answer: "I don't know! Go to the doctor."

Callers first phone in with their month and date of birth. Then the predictions flow.

"This year is not a year for you," Nelson said to a 58-year-old woman without hesitation. "If you're not in a romance and you want a romance, wait ... because next year, it won't last."

"I see a lot of victory coming around you," Johnson chimed in.

"Let go of past relationships," added Marcia Moonstar, the guest astrologer.

During the broadcast, Johnson took a rare moment of seriousness to address the budget crisis and maintaining a public-access channel.

"Where else can people like us have a show?" Johnson asked. "We hope our station keeps going forth."

"That's right," added Nelson. "Keep grandma out of the casino!"

article originally published at Seattle Times.

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