It Takes a TV

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

Last October, months before most Americans had even heard of Kosovo, a group of Albanian Americans tried to boost awareness of the simmering conflict by making appearances on the ultimate attention-getter— television. But not as guests on CNBC or Larry King Live: these TV novices put together their own news program and aired it on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, a local public-access cable facility that has grown into a thriving community outlet for alternative news and public-affairs programs.

"I was recognizing a situation where what we had to offer could really make a difference on a critical issue," says Anthony Riddle, executive director of MNN, of his commitment to getting the show into the lineup. Riddle believes public-access TV is one of this country's greatest forums for free speech, replacing the old town square where folks would congregate to discuss ideas and air grievances. "You've got a village like Manhattan," he says. "You don't know who your neighbors are, literally. So public access gives an opportunity for the community to say, 'Here's who I am, this is what I believe, and this is what I like.' To a great degree, that creates a lot of tolerance and understanding."

"It's programming that's highly personal," says Jed Sutton, producer of Channel Surfing USA, which features clips from some of the spunkiest shows. "It's everything from cooks who only use easy-bake ovens to talk shows hosted by transsexuals to guerrilla reporting on hard news stories that the networks won't touch."

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."

The public access show Albanian-American Television began airing when Kosovo was still a blip on most network news screens. Avni Mustafaj, president of the National Albanian American Council, and a coalition of other Albanian Americans, produced the programs to spur American interest in the Balkan conflict and help the Albanian community better understand the dynamics and complexities of the situation. When Dutch peacekeepers stood by during a massacre at Srebrenica, for instance, Mustafaj says many Albanian Americans were perplexed and angered. The producers arranged for humanitarian aid workers to appear on MNN and explain the necessity of nonintervention by peacekeepers. They presented news in Albanian and an in-depth analysis of Slobovan Milosevic's rise to power. "We thought we were ahead of the curve as a vehicle to distribute information," says Mustafaj.

In the last month, the ad hoc coalition of 12 producers— all in their mid twenties to mid thirties— has splintered. Some have headed to Albania to work as translators. Others are finding their hands full just keeping track of family members— like Agim Gerbeshi, whose parents are still in Pristina and whose two sisters have fled to Macedonia. As a result, the program was suspended in January— with regret, says Mustafaj, because right now it could "fill in the cracks for Albanian Americans, keeping them updated on the negotiating process and the ramifications of changing the peace process."

Mustafaj has now turned his attention to the nonprofit Kosovar Relief Fund, which he hopes to aid through on-air fundraising on MNN— something he could never do on commercial television. The Kosovar Relief Fund has been collecting money, clothes, and nonperishable food items for Kosovar refugees, and helping Albanian Americans contact dislocated relatives. Mustafaj plans to air a fundraising program on MNN that highlights the relief effort taking place in New York City.

Many viewers surf past the public-access channels because of the clunky, homemade look that dominates the medium. Mustafaj admits it was a letdown when he realized his program didn't compare to the look of CNN, but thanks to MNN's free training classes he has learned how to operate a camera, edit a program, and produce a live talk show. Part of MNN's goal, says Riddle, is to help people "understand what the potentials are and how to use them. Not everybody can afford television equipment. But since things have become a little less expensive, we're in a position to offer training classes in how to use the equipment." MNN provides cameras and editing facilities to those who have completed the training.

The evolution of the video camera and editing and graphics software has had a direct impact on the progress of public-access TV. "[Video cameras] have become cheaper and easier to operate, and postproduction has been demystified," says Sutton.

Still, despite the training and the relative ease of equipment use, some public-access shows are "very poorly done," admits Riddle. But, as with much amateur experimentation with technology, "Sometimes the mistakes people make are more interesting than anything else. And you can make mistakes. You messed up this week. So come back next week and try again. Whereas, in network television, what do you get? Two strikes and you're out."

In many ways public-access television is the poor but proud bastard child of commercial television. Its operating costs are paid for by local cable providers in exchange for cable right-of-way within the municipality. So PAT is able to operate commercial-free and outside the ratings rat race. In fact, public-access programs air whether thousands of viewers are tuned in or just one. And you can't help but wonder how many have discovered the hundreds of obscure programs that run each week, like Antennaman, the celluloid home for a saxophone-playing homeless man who says he's on a mission from another planet to bring happiness to earthlings.

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.

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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