Eager for their television debut, teenager Naeemah Kelly and a gaggle of her peers crammed into a friend's living room last fall, prepared with popcorn, chips and candy. The group of young producers chattered so excitedly that they missed the first 30 seconds of their own public-access cable show. Thankfully, the dramatic orchestral theme song snapped them back to attention.
"It was so cool to see and hear ourselves doing what we worked so hard to do," said Kelly, 17, a producer for the Youth Noise Network. Seeing herself on the show she and other teens created for Durham Community Media (Channel 18) is fulfilling, she said.
"But it's really not about me. It's more about what I'm trying to do and the problems I'm trying to solve for myself and other people," she conceded. Kelly and the dozen other teens behind the monthly Youth Noise Network program are trying to educate their peers across Durham on issues such as democracy, the census, violence and sexuality in 30-minute installments airing Monday evenings. Others on the public channel express their views on faith, environmental pollution and the local reggae scene.
Since Durham Community Media launched its public-access channel last May, the station, which reaches 70,000 Durham households, has added more than 70 new shows and projects to fill the channel's 24 hours of airtime. But now Durham Community Media is struggling to keep the lights on in its humble East Geer Street studio. A sunken economy and local funding cuts are challenging the channel to find $20,000 over the next several months or go dark.
"Things are looking up," said Chad Johnston, executive director of The Peoples Channel, a nonprofit organization that manages the public-access channels in Chapel Hill and Durham. "But they're certainly not perfect."
Between local and state funding, Durham Community Media has about $58,000 for the coming year to keep its single staff member, air programs, train new producers and keep the office open. Just getting that sum was tough. A month ago, Durham's city and county governments were debating the issue, with the county manager recommending no funding for the station. But Johnston met with city and county leaders, and supporters of the channel, including some members of the Youth Noise Network, packed public hearings. They touted the opportunities public programming gives to communities underrepresented in the mainstream media, such as ethnic and racial minorities, gay, lesbian and transgendered people and low-income residents.
Among the supporters was Nia Wilson, executive director of Durham nonprofit SpiritHouse, the organization that runs Youth Noise Network. "The most important thing for them to recognize is that they are media makers, not just media consumers," said Wilson, who oversees the students as they produce and edit their episodes. "They become much more globally aware through this work. They do a lot of investigative research on what's going with young people all around the world and figure out ways to share it with their peers in ways that are engaging to their peers."
After hearing the pleas for support, both the city and county governments agreed to each give the station $20,000. In addition, Durham will receive about $18,000 from a state fund to support public, education and government television, Johnston said.
The station will hold fundraisers and approach individual and corporate donors to raise the additional $20,000 it needs to maintain its services. Those efforts of late have been creative but small. On the one-year anniversary of Michael Jackson's death last week, the station held an outdoor movie night, projecting The Wiz on the side of a building on East Geer. This week, the channel will host a reggae show Friday in downtown Durham. The station also sent out 1,100 mailers this week to ask past supporters and participants for contributions.
But even with the lofty goal of raising another $20,000, that sum is just enough to stay afloat and not enough to increase the number of classes in camera work or editing, or even to better equip the makeshift studio, which is only slightly larger than a college dorm room and until recently didn't even have a video camera.
As much as the economy has contributed to the financial situation, at the heart of the station's budget woes is a change to state law in 2007 that changed how public-access channels across North Carolina worked, Johnston said. Previously, Durham had combined government and public-access programming on Channel 8. At the time, Time Warner Cable was required to run the public-access portion from its East Club Boulevard offices, allowing all Durham residents to produce their own shows. But the 2007 law relieved Time Warner and other companies from having to offer access to its studios. The law also revoked the ability of local governments to negotiate with local cable providers on services and fees that could help pay for public-access television. Now the state has that control.
Instead of cities and towns getting their own revenue from cable providers, the state now taxes those providers and doles a portion of that money to municipalities. Some cities and towns funnel that money into public access. But the city of Durham has never used revenue from cable fees for the public-access channel, and city leaders in recent budget talks said they didn't want to change that policy. So instead of funding public access through that state tax revenue, the city will continue to put those state taxes in its general fund. The $20,000 the city has agreed to give to public access comes from a different fund for nonprofit grants.
The station has allies among city and county leaders, including city Councilman Mike Woodard, a member of the city's former cable advisory board who helped the station's management transition to The Peoples Channel. Just last month, he said, he was flipping through channels and saw a segment on the historic Hayti district near downtown Durham, where black culture and business blossomed in the first half of the century.
"It was incredibly rich to see Hayti in the 1950s," Woodard said. "I don't know where you would see that kind of programming, other than on a public access channel like that."
Because Time Warner sees the public-access channel a competitor for viewers and advertising (because it's a nonprofit, Durham Community Media can't accept advertising, only underwriting), the company won't provide detailed viewership statistics to Durham Community Media, said Sedrick Miles, the lone staffer who runs the Durham station. But since the channel's inception last year, he has heard from a number of church pastors who say their home-bound parishioners count on being able to watch services from their living rooms. He also frequently hears from on-air contributors who have been recognized in public from their cable appearances.
Among them is Kelly, a rising senior at Hillside New Tech High School, who said her fellow students are somewhat surprised when they see her on-air.
"They'll say, 'I didn't know you did all that," Kelly said.
In fact, she does. And her behind-the-camera experience even helped her land a spot this summer on a team of teens who videotape baseball games for the Durham Bulls. All that is on her résumé before she turns 18, and she's well on her way to the communications degree she wants to earn in college.
"I've learned how to communicate," Kelly said. "It really helped me to learn how to voice my opinion and realize that when something is not right, how to fix it ... I'm able to influence others through this work."