Sunday, February 6, 2022

Excerpt Citizen Media Maven --- 1995 Legacy and Local Governance

From Filling Our Dance Card: The Governance Waltz which comments on having community roots.

From a staff perspective, one of the most awkward things about nonprofit management is recognizing a future boss amongst your random encounters. It is often the expectation that a board will rejuvenate itself with prospective successors. However, carbon copy replacements, if put forth, may not be strategically in the best interest of sustainability or progress. And compelling newcomers are muted by the legislative legacy of our state, one of the first states to implement expediency for cable companies in the franchise process that underwrites community television. Communities do not have a seat at the table.

The Legacy

In Connecticut, the media democracy movement is not strong. Community-based franchising was eliminated in 1995. Democratizing our communities with local government meeting participation and archives, distance learning delivered via TV, or non-commercial media from underserved voices remains legislative rhetoric, not the on-the ground reality. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Alliance for Community Media the Executive Director  Riedel, wrote “No longer a Thought, but an Institution” in the Community Media  Review (1976-2001). In spite of the fact that every Connecticut community was to have some form of Public, Education and Government Access with PA-95, ACM's Director Riedel’s exclamation was not fully realized in Connecticut. Dismantling the franchising process eliminated the frail but consequential opportunities available to local communities.

I believe the history of our local Public Access leadership is similar to small stations everywhere. Initially, governance seats were filled with early advocates of public access, those who literally wanted access to the tools and stage. If stations had staff, it was rare that the staff was well suited to run a nonprofit, handle community relations and keep abreast of technology. What has sustained the movement is the idea of media's importance to democracy and the need for its accessibility for all. 

At some point in the history of every nonprofit community TV station, leaders discuss producer representation on the governance board.

In Wallingford, community media began in 1975 as an electronic message board operated by library staff. It evolved into formally managed video productions with shows like 200 Main St, about happenings at the Library. By the mid-80s, Focus on the Mayor was a regular program in which the Mayor was interviewed by local reporters.  By 1990, people became interested in making video with cameras they could borrow like checking out a book. Then poof. A badger parody brought the town employee operated, coordinated operation, to an abrupt and boisterous end. Without the self-interest of a handful of producers, a public access nonprofit rebirth would not have occurred. However, producer myopia ultimately crippled the organization. 

Townie vs Outsider 

Townies know the whispered stories: the rivalry within rivalries, truth concealed within tragic accidents and earth shaking losses, the high school relationships—bitter and sweet. They know what is absent on main streets, and why. They may have seen what is alleged: a drug deal with a janitor, bruises on a family elder, the ‘hidden’ liquor cabinet, doors entered or exited at the wrong times of day, fake IDs, or the carcass of an arsenic poisoned fox in one of several local apple orchards. 

Serving in a community where you grew up has advantages. As a townie, many of the proverbial layers of the onion have been peeled. Nevertheless, organic waste is toxic. It is best to compost scraps. And, no matter how chill your preparation, tearjerkers sting.  The intimacy of being a townie comes with knowing when tears will come and can help build the strategy for purposeful distance. Sometimes, a comforting application of cold water, and making the necessary cut at the root, is unavoidable in a first time encounter with a person and their story.

Most hometown quilts have champion teams, unsung scholars, decades of community gatherings All hail those parades, the bands that tempted fame, the talents that decided to leave and not return making them similar. However, the cross-stitched names, the fabric choices, the reason each quilt is hung behind glass in the foyer of the town hall, or grange, or library is hyper-local. The devil is in the intimate stories of every community. 

The upside of being a newcomer is that everyone gets the same opportunity to be welcomed and discovered. The down-sides are the awkward moments. Even if you were born with a charismatic halo, or a Simone Biles like talent and grace for uneven bars, balance and vaulting; some moments will have their own infamy.

Chances are you will come up short in the awkward times. Those moments you hear who did cocaine after shifts at the local diner, who no longer has a driver’s license, who already battled cancer, who sold the farm land developed into mansions, who is on their fourth fifth marriage Not that I would be counting, or that the person you are chatting with served on the Town Council, or ran for mayor, decades ago. If you were a townie, the family names on buildings would be connected to stories. The clubs for Hungarians, and Italians and Polish and Spanish and Filipinos would be connected to actual people and community heritage.  

It often comes down to that. Building and working with a board has its own learning curve. These are the bosses who must help guide decisions on purchases, regulatory responses and, most of all, fundraising. They need to believe in the mission and trust you. They need to watch the channel and welcome conversations with people they know about the station's value to the community. 

One of my go-to gurus for board related self-training is Joan Garry, the consultant branding her work as ‘because nonprofits are messy.’ She admonishes that the word ‘only’ be excised from our vocabulary in the context of tolerating ‘any judgment about whether our mission is less worthy than some other nonprofit.’ 

I was guilty of devaluing our mission. How could free speech and video stories stand side-by-side with feeding the hungry, or housing the homeless, or daycare? Then, I realized all the nonprofits in my community are better with us. Indeed, the entire community is better with us. Joan Garry puts it this way: 

“The land of nonprofits is like an orchestra. Each organization, each sector is like an instrument. The work of the orchestra is to build a more civil society, and help to create a more perfect union. In that analogy, every instrument matters.”

I had days that I tried to look at impact and accountability with math. Fifteen to twenty thousand cable subscribers But no measure for how many watch

Daytime hours had an exponential impact on use of the resources. Several hundred have visited or participated in TV making annually. There is no reliable data on impact or connection to the community. 

Social media insight reports provide hints. Video clip shared on platforms other than TV can have a handful, or upwards to several thousand, engagements. However, counts across platforms are tangled up in territorial boundaries. Ugh! And there are several personal milestones a day to acknowledge with 1,500 friends Growing, Growing, Growing. Around the clock cablecasting is 8784 hours in a leap year. Our stats outshine our peers in the number of unique programs per year But I fear: What if no one is watching?

To deepen the value of the board to the organization, and my connection to the mission, I needed to become a better storyteller. My waltzes, one-on-one engagements had to be translated into inspiring stories. 

If the Board is not watching, can we really expect others to be watching? Arrival at meetings can be awkward. Personal conversations between members with relationships are best to happen at the end of a meeting. 

Board Meetings now start with short videos from recent productions. I also needed to step into to improve the health of the organization. Studies show that dancing the waltz three times a week for eight weeks can improve the heart and lungs. Direct in-person engagement three times a week could likely do the same for the organization. Multiplied by each member of the Board and we could thrive unlike the same exertion on a stationary bicycle. Waltz is the basis for many dances. It is lively with a strong first beat and flowing steps that follow.

The “playing Democracy Now” story begins with how the show gets to be scheduled on WPAA-TV.

When the telephone is ringing at 3:03 PM it is usually because my day has gone off track. It rings when an anonymous, but vigilant viewer of Democracy Now finds it missing from play.  I am reminded that I am part of a community with this telephone ring. I am the volunteer that connects the viewer with the neighbors who think Democracy Now is “good enough to share.” represent the content as a guarantor, thereby making it ‘local.’ Being good is how Democracy Now is played on access stations across the nation because it is sponsored by someone in the community. We rebranded this sponsor process as GoodEnough2Share.  


There is a son and mother who knock at our door, instead of just coming in. They have something important to tell the people at WPAA-TV. Don Meno will not be returning. His last six weeks with us were precious. He loved working with the youth team on diction and making his show Face4Radio. “He was a very handsome man when he was on radio,” she said. RIP


There is a veteran partnering with a hearing impaired intern to design art that represents our mission Of course there was a service dog in the illustration.


There is the millennial with debilitating leukemia. A letter is written to affirm her disability claim. It describes her, vigilant but challenged volunteer trying to be of service at the station few days a week. Her inability to work full-time became clear to the judge at her Social Security hearing.


There is the actor performing sober for the first time with the theater company you host thanking the ensemble for their support.


The neighbor who fell off his roof was inspired to fight for his life when he saw the Sharing Joy video created by the community to wish him recovery.

There are more stories shared by our hosts and contributors. A common theme is being approached by strangers in parking lots because they look familiar and discovering why. They saw them on WPAA-TV. My favorite is how Beth became a rock star to all the residents at Masonicare where she works. A few actually described her as ‘brave.’ Indeed, she is And that is another story.

Until the board members watch the channel enough, talk about the channel enough, and discover their own stories, it is my obligation to show them how we know our impact exists. I need to make social media posts that they can fervently share and comment on. Here is where empowering people through their community roots can make the critical difference in our mission Be it a game of solitaire or dominoes, each, one engagement at a time. 

The voice of Johnny Nash is as clear with its message as it was in 1972 when I began to venture out into the world on my own.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone

I can see all obstacles in my way

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

It's gonna be a bright (bright)

Bright (bright) sunshiny day.


And tomorrow’s gonna be a brighter day

There’s gonna be some changes

Tomorrow’s gonna be a brighter day

This time you can believe me

- Jim Croce

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