Tag Archives: Federal Communications Commission

Public access – The idea, the potential, the stories

Who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behavior. It used to be the parent, the school, the church, the community. Now it’s a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell,  but a great deal to sell

In these few words journalist George Gerbner artfully summed up the vision of public access television.   His was a vision shared by many who have played a role in realizing that mission over the past four decades. The very idea of public access spoke to early advocates’ commitment to the social potential of cable television.

The pre-history of public access goes back to the late 1960’s, a time when cable usually meant a system that delivered broadcast television to communities beyond the reach of the broadcast signal. In 1969 the FCC ruled that “no CATV system having 3,500 or more subscribers shall carry the signal of any television broadcast station unless the system also operates to a significant extent as a local outlet by cablecasting and has available facilities for local production and presentation of programs other than automated services.” Though that rule was rescinded two years later, the idea of local programming endured in ensuing FCC rule making.

The original premises on which early decisions about cable rest underlie most of the tensions that have now erupted. First is the implicit assumption that the spectrum belongs to the people and that the FCC is responsible for regulating the people’s radio waves as a common carrier. (I remember my naïve dark ages discovery that my revolutionary microwave oven was authorized by the FCC.)

Also informing early FCC action is the fact that cable television, unlike phone, gas and electricity, is not an essential service. Thus policy-makers concluded that the for-profit cable operators should be required to provide benefits to the local communities in which they were laying their cables. In a breakthrough ruling the FCC mandated that “beginning in 1972, new cable systems [and after 1977, all cable systems] in the 100 television markets be required to provide channels for government, for educational purposes, and more importantly, for public access.

These public access channels were grouped as “PEG” channels while public access was interpreted to include the presumption that the corporate franchisee would support equipment and airtime for basically unlimited access. And therein lay some early tests of the concept of free speech….

The first public access community access television launched in 1968 in Dale City Virginia; in 1970 Stoughton, Wisconsin followed with WSTO TV. On the national scene, Fred Friendly, head of the Cable TV and Cable Commission, recommended a leased-access plan for public use that was later abandoned. A key figure at this juncture was filmmaker George Stoney about whom local filmmaker Mike Hazard has produced an informative and inspiring documentary. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZowiCZKzvo)

Public access advocates may have underestimated the ensuing conflicts. Prospering access agencies focused on assuring channel access, building a local volunteer board, good programming and audience development.   At the same time many community local cable owners struggled to keep the tower operating – at least for the Sunday football game.

Somewhat in the background, a cataclysmic change inside the Beltway changed the rules. In 1979 the Supreme Court struck down the FCC public access rule, declaring that the FCC had no authority to mandate access. The Court rejected the common carrier argument, ruling instead that cable companies were private persons under the law and that public access requirements were a burden on their conglomerates’ free speech rights.

The Court ruled that the right to regulate cable rests with the U.S. Congress – the quiet beginning a still unfolding narrative….

In spite of broad support for PEG from the access advocacy community, Congress exercised its authority by passing the Cable Communications Act of 1984. Public access took a blow with passage of the 1984 Cable Franchise Act, which declared that “a franchising authority may require channel capacity for pubic, education or government use. This restrictive measure was mitigated in part by the Cable Communications Act of 1984 which barred cable operators from exercising editorial control over content of programs carried on PEG channels; the legislation also indemnified cable operators from liability for the content.

In the early days of public access, corporate interests that coveted the cable channels were willing and able to pay the price, while city authorities that exercised authority over the franchise were able to make demands on franchisees. Mature public access cable systems built studios, hired staff, trained volunteer crews and established their unique role. Advocacy, good government, community action, cultural groups, academic institutions and other public interest groups took advantage of the opportunities to tell their stories and to engage the public.

Over time, the seeds of media deregulation, sowed in the 1990’s, bore bitter fruit in the new century as corporate interests in control of the spectrum began to impinge on public access. With an ever-expanding range of media options – coupled with intense pressure at the federal level, public access channels became increasingly vulnerable to city officials’ willingness to capitulate to conglomerates. Opinions differ on the basic question of whether new technologies will inevitably render public access obsolete or if public access is the vehicle to expand local production and engage more individuals and institutions in the democratic process.

With the passage of time public access has assumed a wide range of profiles. Local development is dependent on the engagement of the public and the inclination of local officials to recognize and support public access in franchise agreements. In the Twin Cities area a number of municipalities and groups of cities have issued franchises that include relatively substantial PEG support.

Statewide the profile of public access development is uneven, heavily dependent on local political realities. As of 2015 these public access television channels are extant in Minnesota: (https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_public-access_TV_stations_in_the_United_States_(Louisiana–Montana)&action=edit&section=6)

The Twin Cities boasts of a unique manifestation of collaborative efforts among advocates, local government and independent franchising authorities. Metro Cable Network Channel 6 is a must-carry on each of the local cable systems – prospective users have yet to capitalize on the potential.

As the politics of media regulation, including rules governing public access, garner headlines, it is important to note the ways in which individuals and organizations that hold to the “idea” of access are adapting and adopting enhancing technologies. PEG organizations are maximizing the potential of cable to distribute and repurpose in creative new ways. Collaborative partnerships are forging to achieve common goals. Access systems are experimenting, retooling, reimagining their tools, but not their role as the medium for an informed and engaged demography.

Those pioneers who pursued the idea of public access, and persisted to protect the people’s rights to speak and to know, have stories to tell – of triumphs, of wars with conglomerates with “a great deal to sell”, of technology that has erupted with lightning speed and of their efforts to give voice to those who have stories to tell.

Bloodied but unbowed, these hardy folks will soon gather locally to recall their stories. Volunteers are organizing an informal reunion set for Sunday, September 27, Noon – 3:00 at the Northeast home of the Minneapolis Television Network in the Thorp Building, 820 18th Avenue NE., Minneapolis, MN. The idea is to share stories and to affirm the original commitment to a vision. The story of public access television is a relatively short story in which technology and democracy have come to crossroads at many junctures. The event is open to anyone who has a story to tell, a memory, a plan, or just a commitment to the idea of public access television, the vision of a media in the hands of those who have something to say, not just something to sell.

Contact Larry Johnson, larryjvfp@gmail.com or 612-747-3904.



Heeding the prescient insights of Herbert I. Schiller

For manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be nonexistent… It is essential, therefore, that people who are manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions. Herbert Schiller

As a naive would-be activist I learned from my wise father that it was  folly to “argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”  Thus primed I absorbed with delight the wisdom of Herbert I. Schiller who railed against commercialism and made a powerful case for the imperative of constant vigilance in the arena of media ownership.  Though Schiller wrote decades ago – he died in 2000 – it is no exaggeration to say that his insights have played into my innate skepticism and framed my perspective on the tsunami that threatens the free flow of information and ideas that is the sine qua non of our democracy.

Schiller rued the fact that “the cumulative effects of unbridled commercialism, however difficult to assess, constitute one key to the impact of growing up in the core of the world’s marketing system.  Minimally, it suggests unpreparedness for, and lack of interest in the world that exists outside the shopping mall.”

“The flow of information in a complex society is a source of unparalleled power,” Schiller wrote.  It is axiomatic that power thrives on complexity.  The Have’s proceed unfettered, content that few will have or take time to monitor the manipulations of the Federal Communications Commission, much less the politics of who serves on the FCC.  They know that no one, including aspiring writers, will track the mighty and ever-shifting global publishing monopoly. We are assured that FISA is keeping a keen eye on the NSA, including the legions of contracted employees whose allegiance is to the corporation. Clearly, only advertising giants have the resources or motivation to track the flow of information through the complexities of social media.

Unwittingly perhaps, each of us is profoundly affected by the messages that flow to our unsuspecting and generally distracted minds. Those with the power to shape the message deftly deliver it to its intended target – us. We the consumers, the voters, the preservers of “the American way” absorb like a sponge the media- saturated culture in which we marinate.  We blithely deal with the cares of the day, oblivious to the engulfing reality that Schiller anticipated:  “That media system (whose ownership and control becomes ever more concentrated under capitalism) will privilege selfish and authoritarian values over positive notions of the common good and social justice.”

Schiller didn’t mince words.

Our democratic society, quick to denounce overt manipulation, is nonetheless susceptible to the more subtle influence of the media. Schiller warned of corporate conglomerates’ control of the channels of communication – TV, radio, book publishing, newspapers, film-making, even recreational industries.  Specifically, in 1996 Schiller decried the Clinton administration’s information infrastructure politics as a move to abdicate “all power to the corporate communication sector.”  The media, Schiller insisted, are not neutral but active players in society, forces that demand attention, regulation, oversite.  Schiller cautioned that the federal government, steward of the channels of communication that belong to the people, was building “an infrastructure that promises to carry, for business and home use, all the image and message and data flow that the country produces.”

As outspoken as he was prolific, Schiller anticipated with remarkable prescience today’s monopolistic stranglehold on the flow of information and limits on cultural expression.  One can only speculate what Schiller would have to say today about the state and future of social media, online consumerism, cross-pollination among once-diversified industries, the ways in which information and ideas enter and flow through an intertwined network that spews forth from an elite cadre of decision-makers with their grasping hands at the controls.

Were he chronicling our societal regress, Schiller would no doubt lament the political and societal impact of the ferocious trend to aggregate wealth, control he media, and defer to the Deciders the implicit power to control.

Still, Schiller would not have lost hope in the power of an informed nation to focus on the restoration of the basic democratic values of equality and justice.

True, only a Neanderthal would revisit the work of a 20th Century thinker – especially an elderly scholar who had the temerity to delve into technology, consumerism, free expression and politics.  Still, for me it is therapeutic to understand from whence came my deep concerns and my commitment to do something.  All I can do is post this incomplete piece on my blog – on a rainy weekend when I hope someone will read it.   The ideas of Herb Schiller, a voice crying in the wilderness, deserve to be heard today.


These 20th century imprints may seem dated – the ideas are not.  These are a couple of sources I find helpful in understanding the work and impact of Schiller:

  • Lovink, Geert,  “Information Inequality: An interview with Herbert L. Schiller (http://cryptome.org/schiller.htm)  Includes a great list of Schiller’s writings.










National Broadband Map Answers the Question: WHere do all the wires go?


The Winter of 2011 is burying us – again.   Football season is history.  Ice from the neighborhood skating rink has flowed to the sidewalks which are now impassable.  What’s a homebound Minnesotan to do?


Once again, try delving into the world of information by and about government information.  Start with the newest game in town, National Broadband Map.  NBM as it is affectionately known, is a massive, reliable and comprehensive data base of searchable, interactive, graphic data now as close as your keyboard.  Settle back and try your hand at exploring what’s coming down the street where you life.  Compare data to learn how your neighbors, your friends and family, your competitors or your employer truly fit on the national telecommunications grid.


Okay, NBM is not strictly a video game.  It’s intriguing though, featuring infinite strategies, massive data about your neighborhood and that of your brother-in-law in Puerto Rico, and graphic maps  not only of broadband but of wireless, cable, fiber to the end user and more.


The NBM was created by the folks at NTIA, the National Telecommunications and Technology Administration in collaboration with the Federal Communications Commission.  The stated goal of the NBM project is “to encourage economic growth by facilitating the integration of broadband and information technology into state and local economics.


Putting their money where their mouth is the federal government has awarded a cool $293 million to 56 agencies, 50 states, 5 territories and the District of Columbia.  There’s a string attached, designed to ensure that the NBM game is constantly refreshed.  Half of that money must be used by grantees to gather data and report every six months on the availability, speed, and location of broadband services, as well as the broadband services that community institutions such as schools libraries and hospitals are actually using.  That unremitting data flow will continually refresh NBM.


Seriously, this is fun stuff – it’s complex but not confusing, responsive, and, best of all, the maps graphically depict how all the digital gadgets in your home, your car, your office and your pocket connect you not just with your kids (though that’s important!) but with the world writ large.




MN Broadband Summit – An Eyewitness Account

The 2010 Minnesota Broadband Summit breathed life into the reality and the future of broadband, not as an end but as a means – a means to economic development, of course, but more important, as a means to creating a state in which a Minnesota resident can live a rich live in a community with the tools of access to health care, civic engagement, lifelong learning, arts and culture. As convener and host, Senator Amy Klobuchar outlined the complex issues inherent in assuring access to high-speed broadband for all Minnesotans.  Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications, the regulatory agency responsible for telecommunications development, outlined the challenges he and members of a divided Commission face.

The intent was for the decision-makers from inside the DC Beltway to join an energetic and committed audience in learning from a truly fine panel of informed Minnesota leaders with unique perspectives on and experience with broadband.  Emphasis was on Minnesotans who are out of the loop because of geography, awareness, digital literacy or cost.

My original intent was to summarize the summit.  Even as I sorted through my notes and my reflections those who are more nimble and better equipped accomplished just that.  TheUpTake posted the video of the full summit on their site.  Blandin Foundation, which has taken the broadband lead in Greater Minnesota, has posted a virtual transcript of the proceedings.

What remains is to internalize and reflect.  Some thoughts:

  • Seldom have I heard a panel provide as much relevant, targeted and specialized information – I doubt that I have ever heard this much data, personal experience and vision delivered within the strict time limits dictated by the venue.  To a person, the spokespersons were “way above average.
  • Attendees included access leaders and visionaries who have been tilling the telecommunications turf for decades. For many present there was an “it’s about time” response. This cohort shares an implicit sense that there is a role for government to regulate (as well as fund) broadband development.
  • Along these lines, the panel touched on social issues generally absent from today’s politics.  They described with clarity specific strategies to ease or eliminate barriers, beginning with but not limited to geographic realities
  • Bruce Kerfoot. President and owner of the Gunflint Lodge, spoke for panelists and audience alike when he reminded the Senator and FCC chair that “the people on the end of the wires aren’t stupid.  We’re ready to roll and we have folks who want to be online.  We just need to be unified in our efforts to get heard.”
  • A consistent theme was collaboration broadly defined.   Kerfoot emphasized that Minnesota communities “just need to be unified in our efforts to get heard.”  Pam Lehmann, Executive Director of the Lac qui Parle County Development Authority, described how collaboration paid off for people in her county to apply where a Computer Commuter mobile tech lab was launched the following day.  More information on a StarTribune piece is available on Lac qui Parle’s site here.
  • Richard (Dick) King, CEO at Thomson Reuters, stressed that “people need to visualize themselves using technology. Stressing the imperative of public-private collaboration, King ticked off the reasons Thomson Reuters cares about broadband:  “We care because of our employees – we’d like for them to be able to work from home.  We’d like to bring other tech companies into the area.  Business needs a continuity plan — if something happens in the office, we still need to be able to carry on.  We need competition and redundancy.”
  • Engagement of local elected officials and decision-makers is a must, according to the panelists. A unified approach demands that local leaders are both informed and involved.
  • Panelists stressed that collaboration means public-private partnerships that are both essential and slow to nurture.  Speakers described in concrete terms the ways that the private sector, whether Thomson Reuter or Gunflint Lodge, depends on access and on collaborative efforts to promote a broadly-defined vision. Pam Lehmann, ED of the Pac qui Parle County EDA, described her county’s collaborative efforts and her vision of the impact of resulting federal funds on her community – proudly reminding the audience that the next day would see the launch of the Computer Commuter tech lab to spread digital literacy throughout the region.
  • Though the front-burner issue of net neutrality received modest attention, the implication was that this had been well addressed in the recent Net Neutrality town hall meeting chaired by Senator Al Franken.
  • Throughout the discussion the reality of cost was implicit.  Still it neither dominated nor stymied discussion which remained more on shared vision and possibilities.  The clear focus was on what was repeatedly described as a “win-win” approach.

In his introductory remarks Chairman Genachowski reminded attendees that, urgent as the issue, it’s not priority #1 with most people or their elected representatives.  His words seemed to me a hint, if not a clarion call, to those assembled to roll up our virtual sleeves.

The awesome volunteers and staff at the UpTake recorded Senator Amy Klobuchar’s remarks.