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A Brief History of Community Media

Today there are as many stories about how community access television began, as there are community access TV stations in the United States.

There is a nearly apocryphal video program called "Everybody's Channel,"  Part of the story involves the beginning of cable TV itself, and some Pennsylvania coal miners who couldn't watch the ballgame in their local bar because a hill, that was their mine shaft, stood in the way of over-the-air broadcast signals. In response to this and countless other communities beyond the reach of broadcast television, pioneering entrepreneurs built community antenna TV systems (CATV) where broadcast waves could not go. Instead, cables hooked up to antennae on high spots or tall buildings carried the broadcasts to TV's. These CATV entrepreneurs were the men and women who began what we call Cable TV today.
Quickly thereafter, two facts converged: CATV operators learned they could carry more channels - as many as twelve - than broadcasters were providing (6-8 in the 1950's and 1960's), and in communities where local CATV operators built the nascent cable systems, people thought "Can they cover our local issues like broadcast affiliates do in big cities?"
Add to this mix the academicians and philosophers of media and culture who came up in the 60's. Marshall McLuhan said "the medium is the message," talked of a "global village".
A man named George Stoney felt that the time was ripe for his film documentary students to do more than make personal statements. He wondered whether they could teach "ordinary people" to make their own TV programs.
Although he detested the term, George Stoney is the father of Public Access Television.
{C}Born in 1916, George Stoney studied journalism at the University of North Carolina and at New York University. After working as a freelance journalist, an information officer for the Farm Security Administration, and a photo intelligence officer in World War II, he joined the Southern Educational Film Service as a writer and director in 1946. In 1950, he formed his own company, and by 1980 had made over 40 films on subjects ranging from birth control, insurance, and the mentally ill, to the nature of the Baha'i faith and the situation of indigenous people in Canada.

An early advocate of video as a tool for social change, Stoney was the Executive Producer of the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change/Societe Nouvelle from 1966-70. In 1972, Stoney co-founded the Alternate Media Center with Red Burns at New York University, which trained the first generation of public access producers/activists. In 1976, George was a founder of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, today known as the Alliance for Community Media. In Massachusetts, Rika Welsh was one of these early "Johnny Appleseeds" of public access, and continues fighting for community media today.
Mr. Stoney was instrumental in getting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to mandate that cable operators modestly fund public access for equipment, training, and airtime. "That was in 1972, and at that time the people on the FCC weren't beholden to the broadcast industry," he says. "Now the broadcasters can own the cablecasters."
In Manhattan, George was instrumental in the founding of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, one of greater New York's many access centers. For more years than many people currently working in access TV have been alive, George continued to mentor, motivate, and inspire staff, board memenrs and volunteers in access TV centers across the nation until his death at 96 years old on July 12, 2012
The all-encompassing image that fits community access TV everywhere is that our Bill of Rights protects individual citizens' rights to free speech, and that in the electronic media present, the ancient soapbox is now provided by public access TV and Internet videoblogging.
The history of public access contains a key element: public-private partnerships. Unlike telephone, gas and electric, cable television is not essential, not a "lifeline" service. Therefore, the U.S. Congress decided that the for-profit cable operators should be able to provide benefits to the local communities in which they string their cables. These benefits have taken shape as community media centers. This "give back" by cable operators has become mutually beneficial. Communities get a vital media communications resource, and cable operators get exclusive, locally targeted programs which help sell their product in exchange for their access to the community's public rights of way.
Today, public, educational and governmental access television stations across America, and around the world, annually produce more hours of original, non-repeated programming than ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Network combined.