The day Durham public access television went on the air was the day it almost didn't.
Chad Johnston recalls working in his Chapel Hill office on May 3, 2009. He powers on, and then frantically phones friends with TVs in Durham to ask, "Do you see us? Do we sound OK, look OK?"
"I don't even remember what the first show was," Johnston says. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful behind black-framed glasses. "We were so busy, the system we built was so very barebones, we weren't even certain things were gonna work. We were just flying by the seat of our pants."
If you're Johnston, flying by the seat of your pants is typical. He has worked tirelessly for almost nine years to give the citizens of Chapel Hill and Durham a platform to make their voices heard, first at The Peoples Channel and, after a taxing struggle with the state Legislature, as the orchestrator of Durham Community Media.
"Chad has a very forward-thinking approach to the role of public access, and he is well respected among the national community of media reformers," Fiona Morgan, an associate in research at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, wrote in an email. "I'm so sad that Chad is leaving the Triangle, both on a personal level and because of all that he's given and helped create here."
Next month, Johnston will leave his post as executive director of The Peoples Channel and Durham Community Media to become the head of SPNN, a public access media center in St. Paul, Minn. "I'm doing the exact same thing, it's a bigger community, it's a bigger organization," Johnston says, "but it presents itself with a whole bunch of challenges and opportunities that I haven't experienced before. And I haven't had a winter in a long time."
Johnston started in public access television more than 20 years ago. When he was 14, his mother dragged him down to a station in Columbus, Ohio; from there, he started making skateboarding videos and filming his friends' bands. Johnston graduated from Antioch College where he learned how to use media for social change.
He credits early work in a Portland, Ore., public access center for politicizing him. "It was right after the Telecommunications Act passed in 1996, so there was all this concern about media consolidation," he says. "We were going to have five corporations that owned all the media. That seemed problematic to me, in terms of a healthy democracy. So that's when I sort of shifted from being a media artist to more of a media activist."
Johnston spent a year in Argentina volunteering with independent media groups following the country's economic crash. Because of his understanding of the relationship between politics and media, the war in Iraq brought Johnston back to the U.S. In 2004, he accepted the position as executive director of The Peoples Channel, a public access media outfit formed in 1996 by Chapel Hill citizens who were unhappy with the public access service TimeWarner was providing.
Johnston describes his early work at TPC as bringing the organization "out of its teen angst years," transforming it from something "cute and quaint" into a highly used public access media center with a substantial viewership—combined, TPC and DCM reach 115,000 households—and a national reputation; organizations such as the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture and the SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors have honored Johnston's work.
TPC's transformation began with a technological overhaul: "We were still using dial-up," says longtime colleague Jeremy Taylor, the station's creative director. "Right when Chad walked in the door, he was like 'Listen, we gotta get this upgraded. We gotta get caught up with the times." Under Johnston's leadership, TPC has grown from two and a half staff members at one station to two stations with seven staff.
It is this drive to transform that defines Johnston's work. "We're really taught in this culture that we don't have authority," he says. "Somehow, the news anchor's opinion is way more important than ours. To see people transform and say, 'No wait, my voice actually means a whole lot, and it means just as much as that one does' ... that is super powerful and inspiring."
Powerful and inspiring enough to see him driving to Raleigh every morning in the summer of 2006 to fight doggedly to preserve the existence of North Carolina's public access stations.
Johnston battled cable companies and the N.C. Legislature over new laws that drastically changed the ways public access media stations in the state are funded; essentially, cable companies are no longer legally obligated to fund public access channels as they were in the past. While TPC, a nonprofit, was not adversely affected by the new legislation, Durham lost its popular, TimeWarner-funded public access channel altogether. So began the arduous process for Johnston, and for many other media producers and activists in Durham, that would culminate in reclaiming their public access channel.
"Everything around the legislative process was pretty low," Johnston says. "To watch that happen when we were trying to produce amendments and things, to literally watch half the committee look to the TimeWarner and AT&T people before voting on an amendment—it was pretty gross to watch."
The result of that process was the 2006 Video Service Competition Act, a new set of laws that exemplify the challenges public access media face in the digital age. "North Carolina is really a prime example of where cable companies have changed the rules of the road," says Josh Stearns, public media director at the Free Press, a national group that advocates for Internet freedom and media reform. "We're seeing this around the country: Cable and Internet providers are trying to rewrite the rules at the state level, so they don't have to support and fund community television the way they have in the past."
After Durham lost its public access funding, the city allocated $110,000 to pay TimeWarner to run a new public access channel, which the cable company reluctantly agreed to provide after Durham threatened legal action. However, TimeWarner didn't accept that money, so it went to DCM.
What followed was an extended debate among city and county administrators, nonprofit advocates and community members—in particular, a group of Durham producers who had relied on the old public access station to air their faith-based programs—about how the new station should be run and what to do with the money.
State Sen. Mike Woodard, at the time a member of the Durham City Council, recommended Johnston to manage the new public access station. "I knew of Chad's work at The Peoples Channel, and I knew it was exemplary," Woodard said. "I was impressed with him as a person, a programmer and a manager. He had a great track record and a reputation for being fair."
Woodard persuaded enough Durham community leaders of Johnston's credentials and it was this, Woodard said, that sold his recommendation to city staff. Johnston and TPC were given the $110,000 to run the Durham station for the next few years, as well as grant money from the Fund for Southern Communities.
But not everyone was happy with this arrangement, at least initially. "I think many of [the producers] just didn't trust us. There were a lot of cultural and racial issues, particularly around just Chapel Hill and Durham," Johnston says.
The Rev. James E. Vaughan, pastor at the Abundant Life Assembly Church, attended several of the city meetings where the future of Durham's public access station was discussed. "There was a concern that the Durham public access would be a stepchild of Chapel Hill, and Chad gave assurances that it would not, and it did not," he said.
Joe Thayer, producer of a program called Words of Peace, said: "Since TimeWarner kicked us to the curb so abruptly, and the city didn't seem like they were forthcoming with the funds, you tended to get suspicious of everybody, and their motivations and what they're gonna do, so there was some suspicion of Chad and what his motives were. But it was a fait accompli anyway, because he was the only game in town. And he's been great. I couldn't ask for anyone better."
Though Johnston has lived in Chapel Hill during his time in North Carolina, he has a certain affinity for the town just up 15-501. "Durham is an awesome community," Johnston says. "There's a lot of stuff happening there, it feels like a little Renaissance. We want Durham to be able to tell its own story, because a bunch of what's being said about Durham is so negative. The stories we're telling are drastically different and much more reflective of what's actually happening. Whether or not someone thinks that has an impact, I can't stress enough that healthy communities are healthy when they have the ability to understand themselves."
Overall, TPC is financially stable. "Though there's never a good time for an executive transition, if there were one, this might actually be a good time," Johnston says.
Taylor of TPC agrees: "Chad wouldn't go if he didn't feel that we were in a good place. He's presented all this information, all this groundwork for us. I mean, he'll be missed so much, but we're in a good place to move forward and we're very excited."
However, unlike TPC, DCM is consistently short on funds. Although the entities are two parts of the same organization, funds that are apportioned to Chapel Hill can only be used in Chapel Hill, and vice versa.
Wilhemenia Thomas, a Durham resident and producer of the program Gospel on the Road, wrote in an email last week: "DCM is in need of new equipment. Someone just called me regarding the audio for their show. The audio is off because the equipment is not working right now at the Durham studio. It takes funds to operate a studio."
Johnston and Monica Hughes, director of Durham Community Media, are optimistic, but they acknowledge that local businesses and individual donors will be crucial in keeping DCM on the air in the coming years. "What local businesses don't realize is, we are incredibly well watched. We get comments all the time, random phone calls all the time," Johnston says.
These are challenging times for public access media stations across the country.Corporate power isn't the only issue—the Internet is another. "In terms of viewing habits and how more people are getting their content online rather than over cable, [that] is another shift in how people consume their media, and that's challenging the ways people will fund community media," says Stearns of the Free Press.
But public access media is vastly different from Internet sites such as YouTube, Johnston says. "YouTube will never advocate for you. One thing we do is advocate in the community for spaces where media can be made at the community level, not as dictated by commercial forces, to help promote civic discourse.
"The other thing YouTube will never do is educate you. It's not gonna teach you how to be more effective at communicating, it's not gonna give you tools to do so, it's merely a platform. It's also different in that it's much harder to get truly locally curated stuff, and the vast majority of what we're gonna be is local."
Johnston says TPC/DCM has no way of knowing who watches the stations' channels, but that "community members around these parts crave local. Local food, local music, local production. And the same is true for local media. Further, they crave a 'local' that is authentic, that has real meaning. The local news doesn't provide that, just as the local franchise of a national company doesn't have that same feel of something that is truly born and bred from the soul of a community."
Johnston speculates that the audience is similar to the producers who use the station to air content: "anyone and everyone," including high school kids, seniors, church groups, fashion connoisseurs, members of the LGBT community and low-income citizens of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Not only can people air their own shows at TPC/DCM, but for a nominal fee, they can also take classes in subjects ranging from camera certification to production to editing to interviewing techniques. They can learn how to make a short film and how to get that film on—yes—YouTube.
Soon there will be courses on how to promote programming using social media and how to design apps for smartphones. No one from the community is denied and if someone can't pay, there's a sweat equity option: take classes for free in exchange for volunteering at the station.
"People have to understand: Yes, we're a TV station, but we are a community organization," Hughes says. "We are here so that people have freedom of speech. Yes, we are a TV station; yes, we're a nonprofit; but we are the voice of the people."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Good night and good luck."