It Takes a TV

Like the Net, Public-Access Television Brings Power to the People

WPA Presents, a program sponsored by the Women's Prison Association, places cameras in the hands of incarcerated moms and their children, and encourages them to talk about the pain and stigmas associated with prison. One daughter documented the anger she felt the day she came home and discovered her mother missing and no one would tell her she had been sent to prison. "She thought her mother had just abandoned her," says program coordinator Linda Prout.

Tenants & Neighbors is another program that gives voice to the disenfranchised, encouraging tenants to call in for expert legal advice on resolving landlord conflicts. Riddle insists a program of this kind would never air on commercial TV. "Oh God, no," he says. "The people who own the buildings are the same people who own the television stations."

Public-access producers can be as radical in thought and speech as they want, provided they don't air obscenities or break the law. "We don't fancy ourselves thought police. We generally don't prescreen programs. We don't look at programs to see what should go on and what shouldn't go on," says Riddle, whose MNN airs approximately 65,000 tapes a year on a first come, first served basis.

Channel surfing: Avni Mustafaj believes public-access TV can "fill in the gaps for Albanian Americans."
Michael Sofronski
Channel surfing: Avni Mustafaj believes public-access TV can "fill in the gaps for Albanian Americans."

Even hate groups like the KKK are legally entitled to equal play on the airwaves. When Riddle was program manager of Atlanta's public-access center, he was approached by a member of the White Aryan Resistance group who wanted to air Race & Reason, a provocative show advocating hard-line racist and anti-Semitic viewpoints. "I was frightened by certain ideologies," says Riddle, who is African American, "but what I found was, the answer to stupid speech is to allow them to speak. If you let people hear what they have to say, it's not that frightening because it's idiotic, basically. Whereas if you hold them back, then it seems there must be some power or mystique to it."

Now and then someone does go too far. Jed Sutton recalls the producer of a former MNN program, Sick & Wrong. "This guy was doing his best to offend and upset," says Sutton. "He showed autopsy footage. He showed his dead rat crucified. And he was ultimately arrested for beheading and barbecuing iguanas," although those charges were later dropped. When Midnight Madness, a talk show hosted by women in G-strings, was temporarily suspended at MNN for being too sexually explicit, the access center staff said the only calls they received were from disgruntled viewers who wanted the program reinstated. "I think people are hungry for stuff that isn't canned," says Sutton. "They want real people without the sugar coating or [who are not] hamstrung by the sponsors or the producers."

Riddle was recently watching a local news program that cut to footage of an Amadou Diallo march. But instead of reporting on the protest, Riddle says, the newscaster told viewers, "If you'll hold on we'll tell you how to avoid the march."

Eventually, even the Kosovo crisis will find itself replaced by a newer, hotter news event. But that doesn't mean the story has come to an end. Albanian producer Gerbeshi says after the war stops, it will be even more important to revive Albanian-American Television. "We need to keep it up and bring on the good stuff. Talk about what we should do to forgive and escape the hate."

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