Northampton Stands Up for Community Media

Last week people lined up at a microphone in a community meeting room in Northampton, Mass., to express their support for Northampton Community Television (NCTV). The hearing was organized as part of the city’s 10-year cable-contract negotiation with Comcast.

And the residents sharing their stories and discussing the value of their community media center are lucky to have the opportunity to share their perspectives.

Since 2005, at least 25 states have stripped franchising authority away from municipalities, meaning that states alone now have the power to negotiate these contracts. AT&T, Verizon and other companies wrote these cable-franchising laws, which have resulted in severe cuts for community media centers around the country. Several centers have been forced to close.

We’ve fought to retain our local authority in Massachusetts. The telecommunications companies have introduced no less than four bills since 2007, but we’ve come together and beaten them each time. In fact, Massachusetts has more than 100 community media centers — more than any other state — which gives residents a deep appreciation of the importance of local voices.

At the hearing, a local producer said that NCTV allows community members to represent themselves and tell their own stories by taking cameras into their own hands. Students talked about NCTV’s invaluable media and technology literacy trainings, which can open the door to future job opportunities. One student said that NCTV had helped him secure a grant for a short film he’s working on.

And a business owner commented that NCTV provides a venue for local artists to share their work and enrich the community — a sentiment echoed by musicians in attendance.

A UMass media and communications professor highlighted NCTV’s role in showcasing a diversity of voices and discussed the need for noncommercial speech on television. And a representative from a local library added that the video and audio NCTV collects creates an important public record.

Many people value NCTV because it brings city meetings and other special events into people’s homes. As one participant put it, “NCTV is a gold nugget in the community.”

Community media centers across the country are funded largely through cable contracts. This is part of the cable companies’ mandate to give back to communities in exchange for use of public property and public rights of way.

But cities like Northampton will retain authority over these contracts only if residents stand up and speak out to beat back bad bills. We shouldn’t be shy about holding companies like Comcast accountable to their public obligations. In fact, similar contract negotiations are happening right now in Philadelphia — home to Comcast — and in St. Paul, Minn. (Folks in Philly can fill out this survey to tell Comcast what they think of their service and can go here for more information.)

Specific items are essential to the survival of these community media centers. Attendees at the Northampton hearing asked Comcast to support NCTV financially to the fullest extent possible, to provide programming in high definition, to connect to the NCTV facility via fiber and to provide a detailed program listing for NCTV in on-screen guides.

Some of these items have national implications.

For example, there are only 10 stations nationwide that are broadcast in high definition — and only 1 under Comcast. HDTV is now the norm and it’s essential to NCTV’s survival because discerning audience members want to see the best available signal. When viewers land on channels without HD, they often change the channel, leaving NCTV — and similar community media stations — in the dust.

The contracting process takes a full two years, so we won’t know the Northampton outcome for some time. However, if this hearing is any forecast for the future, local community media enthusiasts and media activists will stay engaged and keep an eye on the process. In fact, those who missed the hearing can send in written commentary.

Video of the hearing is available here.

And folks in other areas can check in with their local media centers, support their work and stand up when it’s time to demonstrate the importance of vibrant, independent, community-centered media.

Photo courtesy of NCTV

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good