Diane Welcome to Talking Cities. I'm Diane Moca, and today we are talking about public access. It's past and its future because we know media is changing. And we're with Jabari Simama and he is a senior fellow for the Center for Digital Government and Education with E Republic. So is public access important now? Does it even still exist? And what is its future? Jabari I would say yes. And I think it's particularly important today that local newspapers are closing down, that broadcasters are cutting back on their local news crews. So public access is important today because it provides a narrow cast, local voice that provides the community an opportunity to help actually redefine news. I was the first director of public access television in Atlanta in 1980. In terms of its future, there's a lot that has happened on the regulatory levels. I wouldn't necessarily see this as a threat, but the fact that more and more people are dropping their subscriptions to cable television and they're moving more, they're embracing the streaming services. And that's why I'm advocating that the next age of public access, and it's already here today. So it's not like it's 10 years down the road, it's going to have to look at new ways of distributing its programming and not rely entirely on cable television as a means of distributing the programming. Diane And that's one of the things we're trying to do here in Aurora. We've created Talking Cities, which is a media platform that is streaming, and we are interested in inviting the community in to participate in local news, economic development, spreading information about local businesses. We've heard here in Illinois that the city still continues to receive over a million dollars a year from the cable company that originally was supposed to go towards public access, but sometimes that money is being siphoned off for other things. So how do you talk to the public and the elected officials about the importance of retaining that money to go towards something like public access when they say, "Well, everyone has a phone in their pocket. They could pick it up and broadcast on YouTube or Facebook, so they've got public access already". Jabari The algorithm is often sexist and racist as well. And I think there's plenty of evidence of how certain groups and communities have been excluded or certain assumptions are brought to bear about certain groups and individuals. Because of the so-called algorithms, it's been an ongoing battle. And public access advocates have kind lost that battle. And now while we were spending what in today's dollars would be equivalent to about $1.8 million a year operating public access, the public access operation in Atlanta now is trying to operate off of less than $200,000 of today's money. And that shows you just that one example of how bad things have gotten on the funding side. But then again, when you think about moving to new platforms and how you monetize those platforms, then you're in a dangerous area as well. Because the thing that made public access television so significant, to use a phrase of the late Hosea Williams, who I spoke of earlier as being a lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, he would always say, "I'm unbossed and I'm unbought". So the question now, as you move to monetizing and perhaps even accepting sponsorships and advertisers on streaming platforms, are you still going to be unbossed and unbought? And that's remains to be seen. But without a source of funding or an ongoing source of funding, and with the cities having less and less control and the cities wanting to use more and more of the franchise fees on general operations, the question of how you fund public access in the future is an extremely important question. And I'm not sure if anyone has totally figured that answer out. I have advocated pulling together a coalition of the tech industry, community producers, individuals from HBCUs and technology focused and oriented higher education institutions, and having this group of stakeholders figure out, not only the platform and what it should look like in the future, but also how to sustain it. How do we keep this grassroots medium of free speech or what we used to call electronic soap box now, maybe a digital soap box, alive. So each and every citizen would have the ability to speak truth to power, could help define news, could value education that's very narrow that maybe the whole town wouldn't care about, but a particular neighborhood in the city cares about. How do we keep that alive? Because that's unique. You're not going to find that on local broadcast stations. You're only going to find that in a medium like public access. So it has significant sociological value for a community. So bringing all of these entities together to focus on that is, could be powerful and could come up with the solution for the long term sustainability of this grassroots community medium. Diane You mentioned educational institutions and one of the things I remember from public access in the past is it was a way that drew people in to get involved in the communication industry and media and provided training, a chance to actually put your hands on the equipment. We hear a lot about the creator economy. People are kind of learning on their own how to create, but to actually get into a real studio, get their hands on state of the art equipment, is that important? And how do you into funding for that kind of a program to teach those skills and then give those people jobs? Jabari Well, I think that's enormously important, and certainly in Atlanta, we were training community people, some who went on to college, some who did not go on to college, the public access as a way of creating marketable skills in the community is so often overlooked. So there's a workforce development aspect as well. More than just touching equipment, we're talking about digital literacy. That's the problem right now. I mean, people can, use TikTok and they can, they're consumers, but they're really not literate digitally. And that leads to mistakes and lots of problems. As you could see, that one day ends up a bunch of bad people show up at Washington, dc, DC and they try to attack the capital. And all of that is done through the digital platforms, organizing all and misinformation and disinformation. So the importance of digital literacy and using technology in responsible ways and humanistic ways can all be part of a new re-imagination of public access. All of that would be the way I would see a public access 2.0 looking and a sustainability model that keeps you from worrying from year to year about whether I'm going to have to shut the cameras off. That has to be a part of it. And as I said, there's just enough money in the industry and in communities, most communities, to support it. So the resources are there, the money's there. People are smart enough to know how to put this together. The question is, is the will there? And we have to challenge those who are in a position to do something about this, to have the will to do something about it. Diane Well, I thank you, people like you and our organization here. We certainly have the will and the drive and the motivation to continue to let people know about the importance of this. And I think that's what it takes, right? Is every little bit of light shining around the country on an issue helps to illuminate it. And we thank you for the work that you're doing and for sharing your thoughts with us for Talking Cities. I'm Diane Moca.
The Revival of Public Access and the Future of the Community's Voice
Public access television gives a unique opportunity to local communities to amplify their voice. Talking Cities has tapped into ‘Public Access 2.0,’ a state-of-the-art way to produce videos for anyone in the community. Jabari Simama talks about how different organizations like Talking Cities can truly make a difference by reimagining public access in an updated and socially-relevant way.
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