Clad in a plaid blazer, ash-blonde hair slicked into a low-volume pompadour, Andy Eppler channels a Colorado-ized version of a late night host as he gestures to his sidekick, Jack, during a live, pre-election special edition of his homegrown talk show, Boulder County Tonight.
“We’re on public television right now, so I think by the rules you get a monkey puppet — at least one,” Eppler tells the audience gathered at Longmont Public Media (LPM) on Nov. 3. “Mine is my childhood friend, Jack. Put your hands together for my old friend.”
The audience claps. Jack squeaks. Eppler winks.
Boulder County Tonight has been a regular fixture of LPM’s programming for the past year, bringing in local politicians, gadflies and journalists (like yours truly, full disclosure, on episode two) to talk about community concerns, all filtered through Eppler’s irreverent, sometimes profane humor.
It’s classic public access programming: local, off beat, corny, funny, awkward.
Though in today’s extremely online world, it’s easy to wonder what function public access TV stations serve. Their creation — and federal mandate in the ’70s — was a response to the monolith of commercial broadcasting. Television was powerful, and public access gave some of that power to the people.
Funded, at least partially, through franchise agreements between municipalities and cable companies, public access TV programming was originally broadcast only to cable subscribers in the city (though the internet has changed this a bit). For cities that have a franchise agreement, between 25 cents and $1 of every cable subscriber’s monthly bill goes toward public, educational and governmental, or PEG, programming, typically shown on three separate channels. Municipalities can only use this money to purchase equipment, not staff. The governmental channel airs council and commission meetings and announcements from local leadership, while the education channel runs school closures, lunch menus, board meetings and student-produced content.
On the public access side, anyone in the community can schedule time to use the studio and equipment to produce content, and, as long as the content is lawful, it’s broadcast to your community.
But cable subscriptions are plummeting, meaning PEG funding is dwindling, and social media has made everyone a content creator. The Alliance for Community Media found that the number of public access stations has dipped from 2,500 in 1980 to 1,600 nationwide in 2020, many of them operated by a skeleton crew of one to three employees — like Longmont Public Media.
“It’s a community center,” says LPM board member Anthony Maine. “That, to us, is what defines public access; moving beyond cable, engaging with other modalities and creating the opportunity for synergy between those different modalities.”
While the media landscape may have shifted seismically, public access operators see their role in society as unchanged: bastions of free speech, a voice to the people, a middle finger to commercial media. LPM, like other public access operators around the country, is broadening its approach to services and funding in a bid to stay alive.
But of course not everyone thinks it’s a fight worth waging.
THE LEGACY OF BOULDER’S CHANNEL 54
The City of Boulder’s public access TV station, Channel 54, went off the air in 2009. (However, of the nine sources interviewed for this story, none could remember exactly when the end came.)
Like all the great stories about Boulder, this one is mired in controversy and over-the-top personalities. And like all great stories, no one wanted to go on the record about it.
“It’s one of those stories where everyone wants to talk about it, but there’s too many people still alive,” laughs Alan O’Hashi, former head of Channel 54.
O’Hashi says he was appointed by City Council to be on the board for Boulder Television’s public access station “to kind of oversee the management of it.”
“But what I didn’t know at the time was they were trying to close down that organization and start something new because — I won’t name names, and maybe you’ve heard some of the names — but there were some producers in town who were causing problems for City Council.”
According to a Daily Camera article from August 2009, Tony Perri resigned from his position as head of Boulder Television’s Channel 54 to concentrate on education-based content for Boulder’s Channel 22, which is still in operation today (although not under Perri). The article addresses an investigation into allegations by former producers who accused Perri of mistreating women and refusing to air their shows.
Perri told the Camera the complaints were being orchestrated by a producer he suspended for misconduct.
The archived comments of the article seem to address the controversy to which O’Hashi alludes, with many people sounding off angrily about Jann Scott, a regular producer on Channel 54 who went on to form his own freewheeling community media group, Boulder Channel 1.
“I remember growing up in high school and my mom talking about Jann Scott,” says local adventure legend and bike enthusiast Ryan Van Duzer, who got his start in outdoor TV on Channel 54 in 2006 with his show Get Out There, now a YouTube channel with 165 thousand subscribers.
“He may have covered some important topics in Boulder, but he was a rabble rouser.”
But did Jann Scott kill Boulder public access TV?
“I really don’t think it was his fault,” says Van Duzer, “but he was definitely a Boulder character for a long time.”
Scott didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
O’Hashi says that by 2009, Boulder City Council wasn’t interested in hosting a “traditional public access TV station” anymore and absorbed the PEG money and equipment into the governmental and educational channels.
“I was surprised — the station was going pretty well,” O’Hashi says. “We had some pretty set parameters and programming. And I’m a firm believer that there should be more of an outlet for people to just say what’s on their mind, as long as it’s lawful. So that went kind of outside the box that some of the city people thought we should [be in.]”
Sarah Huntley, director of communications for the City of Boulder, says the City’s franchise agreement with Comcast does not require the City to run a public access station. Instead, the City “really lean[s] into our government access television,” Channel 8, which shows City Council meetings, boards and commissions, plus some city announcements from Inside Boulder News and other programming developed by city agencies. Channel 22, the educational station, is managed by the Boulder Valley School District.
Huntley questions the relevance of public access TV in today’s world.
“The decision of whether we bring back a public access channel is not mine to make,” she says. “The franchise is signed by the City, to be approved by the city manager and City Council. It’s not something that I really have a significant voice in. From the ‘should we do it perspective,’ I would have a lot of questions about how we would do it, and what the impact would be on our current day resources, and whether it’s actually even the best use of those resources given all of the access to streaming that we currently have in society. But, you know, if we were directed to do that, and there was value seen in that by the folks who get to make that decision, we would be left to implement it.”
A NEW PUBLIC ACCESS IN LONGMONT
“When you’re saying that maybe public access isn’t important in the modern age, you’re really assuming a lot about your community,” counters Boulder County Tonight host Eppler. “And probably the number one problem with that assumption is the idea that everybody in your community can afford modern tools to express through and knows how to use them. Whereas Longmont Public Media, they are able to provide cutting-edge tools and cutting-edge training, largely by volunteers. That’s, I think, just the epitome of communication in the modern age with a focus on community.”
Longmont Public Media is a nonprofit “makerspace” where members of the community can do more than just make public access TV programming, like learn video or audio editing, create podcasts or even host concerts. The org, which in 2019 won the contract to operate all three of Longmont’s PEG channels, gets a portion of its funding from PEG fees, but also through membership fees.
“I think what makes us unique is our change in membership model,” says Sergio R. Angeles, executive director of LMP and one of its three staff members. “Most of the other [public access] stations, from what I’ve seen, just charge one yearly fee, and it’s like 25, 35 bucks a year, which is not sustainable as franchise and cable fees decline. Because cable subscribers are unsubscribing, there will be no money to sustain public access or a community media center. So we said let’s increase the dues — which are still extremely affordable — and see if we can sustain a public access station primarily through a membership model.”
Memberships are offered on a sliding scale, from $25 per year to $25 per month, depending on your needs, with a free option available.
Longmont Mayor Joan Peck has publicly voiced concerns over the sustainability of LPM’s business model, voting as recently as this September not to renew LPM’s franchise contract for another two years. (She was the sole “no” vote.)
“There has been slow growth, and I wouldn’t actually make that an issue with LPM as much as COVID, because they came in right at the start [of the pandemic,]” Peck says. “So they had difficulty with their membership. They came back to us for more operating money twice and we said, ‘Yeah, we got it,’ but I personally suggested they needed to look at their business model because they were only counting on memberships. Do some more research before just coming and asking for more money.”
LPM board member Maines says the organization is looking to replace dwindling cable franchise fees with a diversified matrix of funds, from memberships to grants to corporate sponsorships “and whatever else we can come up with.” Angeles believes the next two years “will show whether or not a model like what we’re doing is viable.”
Angeles says there’s also been pushback around some of the content created through LPM, particularly Eppler’s Boulder County Tonight, which Peck has called out in City Council meetings. But as long as the content adheres to LPM standards, Angeles says “we’re not limiting anyone.”
“We are very community focused, and we want to broadcast and distribute as much local content as possible,” says Angeles. “And that means that content is created by the residents, for the residents. And if there are sometimes [producers], like Andy — what’s the right word to describe his content?”
“Colorful?” offers Maine.
“Colorful,” Angeles agrees. “I mean, you know, the whole point of public access was free speech.”
Maine says LPM is starting to branch out more into the community, hosting its first internship program this past summer, with plans to partner with Longmont’s OUR Center to help teach digital production skills to those who don’t have the means. Maine also points to The Shakedown, a locally produced podcast where hosts discuss the criminal justice system from their experiences inside and out.
“A focus on accessibility, I think, is key. Our intent is to always have a free tier membership, so that no matter what, people have access to this equipment and learning,” Maine says. “It’s a difficult balance trying to figure out what we should focus on. In the end, it’s about having the time to do it.”
Despite “having my concerns,” Peck says she hopes LPM succeeds.
PUBLIC ACCESS 2.0?
In a 2015 short documentary by The A.V. Club, Barbara Popovic, a nearly 40-year veteran of Chicago’s public access world, said, “The conversion of people from being consumers to creators of content, which continues to this day through social media and through YouTube, public access has not received its just due as one of the first triggers of that horizon.”
Popovic and other media experts wax poetic on the role of public access in the 21st century, wondering why cable companies, which have now become internet service providers, aren’t federally mandated to provide video hosting and production services online in the same way they were required to provide that space on cable airwaves.
“Will YouTube continue to present all of this work for free, or will it come up with some system to limit the amount of producers on this site?” wonders Aymar Jean Christian, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. “And unlike public access, that limiting will not be in the interest of the public, it will be framed in the interest of YouTube.”
“The model that was established, which is that the industry that profits from our public rights of way, needs to set aside something for the public,” Popovic says.
The documentary ends with a hypothetical vision of the future, where YouTube becomes “Video Commons,” a “free, noncommercial video hosting and production service funded by Internet Service Providers as required by federal mandate.”
Maybe that’s public access 2.0.