Chad Johnston is used to running a TV station with too few hours in the day and not enough money in the budget. Lately he's also been building one from scratch.
In a converted brick apartment building on East Geer Street, just north of downtown Durham, Johnston has been setting up computers to convert analog video tapes into a digital format that will be broadcast on Durham's new public access TV station, which went on the air earlier this month. He's also training Sedrick Miles, the newly hired director of operations for Durham's station.
Johnston is executive director of The Peoples Channel, the Chapel Hill public access TV station and media center that celebrates its 10th anniversary this weekend.
"I've been [at The Peoples Channel] for five years, and I feel really lucky that I got there when I did," Johnston says. "I describe it as an organization that was getting out of its teen angst phase. I think we're at a really good point now."
Durham's station, which does not yet have a name, will use $110,000 in city and county funding on building rental, equipment and staffing for the next year, Johnston says. That's enough to maintain the status quo and keep current shows—most of which are religious programs produced by about 65 area churches—on the air.
Meanwhile, Miles hopes to plant the seeds of community involvement. He's already met with current producers and hopes to bring in new participants from across Durham's diverse culture.
"I've just spent a lot of time listening and will probably do a lot more listening, so I can understand where everybody's coming from and what they need," says Miles, who recently moved to Durham from Philadelphia, where he worked in community media and ran media literacy programs for young people.
"We don't have any guaranteed funding beyond this year," Johnston says. "If this is going to be successful, we need someone doing what Time Warner never did, which is to see who's not represented on the channel and go out and find them and see how we can help them."
Durham was among the first cities in North Carolina to be affected by a change in the state cable TV franchise law when its agreement with Time Warner Cable expired at the end of 2007. Initially, the company cut off technical support and closed its studio to public access TV producers. But in response to public pressure, Durham's government negotiated an extension agreement with the company. (The company never collected funds the city and county had allocated; that money—the $110,000—funds the Durham station for one year.)
Producers and several community groups organized a brainstorming and planning session in October that approximately 60 people attended (including Indy editor Lisa Sorg; the Indy co-sponsored the event). Johnston worked with Peter Skillern of the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina on a business plan for the station.
The state of public access in Chapel Hill was similar when Vimala Rajendran returned to North Carolina in the early 1990s after a stint producing documentary video in Canada. "I found that we did not have a public access TV facility that was accessible," she says. Time Warner Cable provided a small studio with limited hours and no bathroom, far from public transit.
In 1995, Rajendran, Robert Gwyn and Eva Metzger signed the charter document that created The Peoples Channel. They rented space on Elliott Road that has been the channel's home since. Rajendran now chairs the organization's board of directors.
The 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act allowed local governments to require channel space and funding for Public, Educational, and Governmental, or PEG, channels as part of the cable franchise agreements municipalities signed with cable television companies.
The media landscape has changed drastically since then. Digital video equipment has gotten cheaper, easier to use and more portable. YouTube launched in 2005, becoming one of the most popular of the free online video sharing sites.
The Peoples Channel does not live-stream its content on the Internet due to intellectual property liability issues (the nonprofit can't afford the errors and omissions insurance other media outlets use to protect against copyright infringement lawsuits, Rajendran says).
In some ways, making media has become an everyday part of life for many people. Yet Rajendran says the role of a community media center is that much more important, as people of all ages and backgrounds learn how to use the tools of media production. TPC currently offers courses in studio and field video production, computer animation, Flash, Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Most classes cost $90 for Chapel Hill residents or $100 for non-residents, but the group also offers a "sweat equity" option that allows people to pay for course through volunteer labor.
"TV has not been completely replaced by YouTube," Rajendran says. "The desire to make television and to have a training ground for people in the community has not diminished at all."
Meanwhile, the laws that govern PEG access have also changed. In 2006, North Carolina followed a handful of other states in establishing a statewide franchise system for cable TV, stripping local governments of their bargaining power in the process. Early versions of that legislation all but eliminated PEG programming. Johnston, who serves on the board of the national Alliance for Community Media, was one of many PEG advocates who spoke before lawmakers at the North Carolina General Assembly to convince them to preserve both channel space and funding for PEG. The law says local governments can ask for up to five channels for PEG channels, and provides some public funding.
"It's been a rough couple of years in terms of whether or not we're going to exist," Johnston says. Yet today, he says, TPC has cash reserves for the first time he can remember. "We're at a point now where we can breathe a little bit and start to think about the future again instead of just surviving."
Among Rajendran's ambitions: No more rent payments. She'd like to see TPC purchase its own 9,000- to 10,000-square-foot building and expand into a better media center with more laptop computers equipped with editing software available for local producers to use.
Rajendran would also like to see the Town of Carrboro pick up The Peoples Channel's broadcast; fresh faces on the organization's board of directors; and expanded youth outreach. The group's summer media camp for kids ages 12 through 17 is in its fourth year.
She says Durham's public access station will benefit from the diversity of The Peoples Channel, which broadcasts shows on sports, politics, pets, local music and media criticism.
"One thing I'm most proud of about The Peoples Channel is how accessible it has been for citizens of all classes and all backgrounds," she says.
The Durham center will host an open house in June, Johnston says. At that time, he and Miles will work with supporters to put together an advisory panel for the station and hash out other policy issues.
"This whole Durham process was at a snail's pace for 18 months," Johnston says. "Some folks got very excited and then, when they realized how bureaucratic and slow the process was, they were kind of like, 'Let us know.' We want to go back to those folks and say, Here we are. Now that we have this, what do we do? Who's willing to help?"