R.I.P. George Stoney, NYU Film Professor and Godfather of Public Access TV


NYU film professor, documentarian, and pioneer of cable access George Stoney passed away last week. He was 96 years old.

I had the opportunity to study under Stoney as a film student at NYU in the late 1990s. Back then, the elderly teacher (always in his trademark hat) cut an iconic silhouette as he wandered the streets of the Village. I saw him taking one of his familiar strolls just a few months ago. As students, my friends and I often marveled at how he kept going at such a strong clip while in his 80s. But according to the Times‘ obituary, Stoney was still teaching at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts “the last year of his life.”

In addition to the dozens of documentaries Stoney produced and directed, he was a first rate teacher of documentary film. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American and world documentaries, and his love of the subject was so palpable, it was hard not to fall in love with it, too. I will never forget how he introduced me to the work of Frederic Wiseman at a screening and lecture of Titicut Follies.

The Times obit gets into a fascinating, huge part of Stoney’s life which I knew much less about: how he was kind of the Godfather of cable access.

With other media-savvy activists — Stoney helped create the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, which began lobbying industry and government regulatory agencies. If cable companies were going to put their cables beneath or above public streets, they argued, they should be required to give citizens a share of the new cable broadcast spectrum — public access. That requirement was added to federal communications law in 1984.

“There would be no public access if not for George Stoney,” said Rika Welsh, another early member of the cable programmers lobbying federation and a board member of Cambridge Community Television, the public-access operator in Boston. “He understood what it could be, and believed in its potential to bring communities together.”

Here’s a reaction about that, on a blog called Travalanche, from an NYU student who encountered Stoney some years before me:

He was my academic adviser during my short stint at NYU Tiisch, for no other reason than that he was randomly assigned. At the time I knew only vaguely that he was a documentary maker, and that (at the time) seemed an unfortunate match-up. And Stoney (already quite elderly two decades ago) seemed less than interested in my own dreams and intentions. He just kind of rubber stamped my paperwork during our brief interactions. It wasnt until I began to work at Brooklyn Community Access Television in about 2006 that I learned that he had been a towering and revered figure in the public access community, essentially the guy who started the movement. If I’d only known or cared back then! I’ve since come to have a deep love and respect for public access, having spent a good bit of time working in the field and even creating some programs. It’s kind of the electronic equivalent of indie theatre. But in the early 90s when I was at NYU, I’m sure I considered it (like most people still do) a kind of joke. So now I am left with regret at the lost opportunity to have learned more from the man.

R.I.P. George Stoney, a figure of the Village who will be missed after having taught probably tens of thousands of students.

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