This is the story of the Great Access War that took place in Fayetteville in the early 1990s, when Fayetteville Open Channel, the city’s long-standing access provider was torn apart by political strife. It didn’t have to happen, but hey, welcome to the world of non-profits.
Over the years I have enjoyed many conversations with staff and board members of various non-profits. And they invariably express gratitude for the fact that their meetings are not taped and put on television for the world to see. The grim-faced, thin-lipped critics of public access in Fayetteville, unwilling to face this reality, would maintain the Big Lie that public access somehow exists in a universe completely different from other non-profits.
If the Access War surprised the public, it doubly surprised the city government, which has never totally appreciated (no matter which administration is in office) the love that people in the community have for public access, and how passionate and eloquent they can be in its defense, no matter what name it may operate under at the time, whether it be Fayetteville Open Channel, Access 4 Fayetteville, Community Access Television or Your Media.
Oh yeah, I was one of the “reformers” elected to the FOC board in 1991.
The Death of Fayetteville Open Channel
1990's “Access Wars” almost saw the end of public access
The events described here happened a lifetime ago, and yet the passions surrounding the fall of Fayetteville Open Channel are similar to those we see today in Fayetteville. Most of the participants in the story have returned to private life, so they are not identified by name. To this day, there is some anger over what happened to FOC, and some would still attempt to assign blame for what happened. The truth is that almost everyone involved behaved honorably. There is no need to dredge them through the mud at this late date. That aside, the events described
happened as I have written; I was there.
In September of 1991, a group of political reformers took over a televison station. In the seven months before control was wrested from their grasp, they used the resources of the station to battle the political machine which ran Fayetteville. In many ways, it was the participants’ finest and darkest hours. Though the group held together magnificently before the fall of Fayetteville Open Channel (Fayetteville's first access provider), afterwards cohesiveness was lost in a maelstrom of infighting and senseless finger pointing.
The situation had developed with bewildering rapidity, and most of us who were involved had little opportunity to map out any sort of comprehensive strategy. In a nutshell, fearing that the Board of Directors of Fayetteville Open Channel - in existence since 1980 - was about to hand over control of public access to an embattled city government, many of us joined the membership ranks of FOC in order to elect our own slate of candidates to the governing board of the corporation.
In July of that year, the FOC Board President held a meeting with the FOC staff, explaining that, under the aegis of the city's newly appointed cable administrator, with FOC becoming part of the PEG (Public, Education and Government) system, public access was now to be a “department of the city.” She allowed a fledgling FOC producer to tape the meeting, unaware that what she was saying was to have an electrifying effect on the community at large. Within a very short time, word of the tape's existence swept through FOC. Many producers felt threatened by the proposed changes, particularly those whose programs were of a political nature.
One producer felt so strongly about the perceived danger that he obtained his own copy of the tape and scheduled a time slot for it to be shown - along with his own editorial comments shown via subtitles - thus galvanizing much of the community. For several years, Fayetteville had been torn apart politically by a number of issues, ranging from the use of herbicides to incinerators to ambulance company monopolies. Capping it all was an impending election, in which voters would be given the chance to retain the city manager form of government, or return to the mayor/alderman form.
The progressive community already felt besieged. Several outspoken critics felt that their jobs were endangered by their public statements; some went so far as to claim that their phones were tapped. Some in the city administration labeled those who spoke against city policies as “aginners,” meaning that were against progress.
Some were even referred to as “anti-city,” with all the loathing with which communists and labor organizers were spoken of in years past.
For many, the plan to give any control over public access to a city administration that so many had cause to distrust typified everything that was wrong with Fayetteville. Indeed, FOC had been used quite effectively by those rallying against a proposed incinerator, some of whose proponents were on the FOC Board. Accordingly, FOC saw many new members join that summer, so that they might have a voice at the annual membership meeting in September. Several longtime activists from the progressive community ran for seats on the FOC Board.
Roller Coaster Ride to Hell
That 1991 membership meeting was perhaps the most vocally violent in the history of the station. Accusations were hurled back and forth, and personal abuse was aimed at the FOC Board members. Some of the accusations were made by those who were not actually aware of the facts involved, but reacting to the perceived threat.
In essence, the membership was packed by those fearing the changes in order that a more “liberal” slate might be elected. But this was no conspiracy, as was later charged, but a natural reaction to the perceived danger. And, in truth, it wasn't anything based in reality which brought the concerned men and women forward, but a natural reaction against a body seen as cooperating with a repressive city government. Legally, if the city were to actually “run” public access, it would be legally prevented from censoring any of the programs, no matter how hard it might wish to. But in the heat of the moment, few could be convinced of that.
Almost immediately, the new board members began feuding with the remaining FOC Board members, who saw them as a threat to what they had carefully built up and protected over the years. In turn, the long-time FOC members were seen as the dupes of a corrupt power structure who were all too willing to deprive the public of the chance to speak their minds. In many ways, it was the continuation of a long-running war, with public access being only the latest battleground.
Over the previous few years, members of the two groups had faced off politically in bitter fights, yet now they were sitting side by side. In retrospect, it could be likened to taking a roller coaster ride while holding a bottle of nitro-glycerin.
Then, as now, Fayetteville was growing by leaps and bounds with new money competing with old for domination, and “progress” regarded as Holy Writ. Political activists had long used public access all too well in Fayetteville, and that hadn't been appreciated by certain elements of the power structure.
The newer board members favored an aggressive stance towards the city, while the older members opposed openly challenging the city, especially over something they saw as a “non-issue.” Committee meetings were often nightmarish happenings in which supposed adults would snarl curses at each other, and raise voices at the drop of a hat.
Following one particularly acrimonious meeting, one member patted a long-time board member on the shoulder, and said, “This is how we get things done, by yelling at each other and then working out an agreement.” The older man was not amused. Despite any agreements which the divided board hammered out, there were still major areas of contention, chief of which was Fayetteville's Cable Administrator. The new members were still opposed to a
city employee “overseeing” public access. Yet, the original rallying point, that this individual would have hiring/firing power over FOC employees had been excised from the language of the proposed contract.
Now, that’s Entertainment!
There was also a great deal of discomfort remaining on both sides. Some of the newer members felt that the world had a burning desire to know what FOC Board meetings were like, so unbeknownst to most of the board, plans were made to televise live the November 1991 board meeting. The notion that the board as a whole should decide whether or not to televise never occurred to those helping to set up the studio that day.
It was an interesting meeting, all the way around. As board members arrived that chilly November evening, there was some surprise that the meeting had been moved from the FOC break room to the studio, in which tables and chairs had been set up. The smug faces on those “in the know” discomfited those who were not. The President led the evening off, announcing her resignation. She followed with a long litany of reasons, most of which derived from her feeling that the new board members were destroying FOC. The board sat stunned, though there was little time to react, as in quick succession, several other board members resigned that night - all on live television.
What to do now? Should FOC be dissolved? Did the remaining board members even have a quorum? The strategy move of televising the meeting live, throwing the older board members off balance had backfired badly.
Hesitantly at first, but with growing resolve, the surviving board members decided that there was indeed a quorum.
Thus, survival was chosen.
At the very least, it was great television. At one point one of the remaining board members walked into the break room in order to refill a now empty coffee cup. Gathered around the break room television set were the vanished board members, watching the proceedings as they were played out on live televison. No one spoke as the coffee cup was refilled.
Though regrets were expressed in front of the cameras, in reality there was some gladness that they had resigned.
FOC was now in “safe” hands.
The next day, several of the new board members held a press conference in order to explain their side of things. Though an air of respectability was sought, they had no idea of the forces with which they were dealing. Almost immediately, the daily press began to label the new board members as “anti-city.”
Virtually the only support for FOC came from the Grapevine, a local alternative weekly, and the Washington County Observer, a West Fork based weekly. For all intents and purposes, most of Fayetteville only saw the attacks upon what remained of FOC in the daily press. As if that weren't bad enough, several of the board who had not resigned now wrote letters of resignation, before there was even a chance to replace those who had walked out.
Then word emerged that the older board members had formed Access 4 Fayetteville, and
intended to vie for the contract before the city council. Through A4F had no address, no studio, and no assets, it did have considerable political clout, something of which FOC currently had none of. The Access Wars had begin in earnest, and FOC was badly outgunned.
Beginning of the End
The FOC board scrambled to put a new contract proposal together, so that the organization might retain the contract when the Fayetteville City Council voted on the issue in March. Even though it seemed a losing battle, there was still some hope that public opinion could be called upon so that victory might still be possible.
February, 1992: Fayetteville Open Channel held a telethon; which proved a moderate success. Whether the support shown was for FOC, or public access in general is unknown. Whatever the reasons, those at FOC were elated by the weekend event, in which not only was musical entertainment provided, but FOC supporters took the opportunity to press for public support. Enthusiasm was dampened, however, by the fact that so many long-time supporters refused to have anything to do with FOC by this point.
March 17,1992: The day everyone had been dreading arrived. Though going through the motions of negotiation, virtually no one at FOC believed that the contract would be granted the long-time provider.
Entering the city board room that night, FOC supporters knew that the handwriting on the wall was addressed to them. The A4F supporters looked as confident as the FOC group did uncertain. Still, FOC was determined not to go down without a fight. The two hours spent on that one issue made for one of the most contentious city board meetings in recent memory. As the evening dragged on towards its inevitable conclusion, some on the FOC side began attacking the city administration on issues not easily connected to public access, ranging from the defeated incinerator project to the abuses of the city manager form of government, which faced its own challenge in a city-wide election in June.
But at the end of the evening, as most predicted, it was A4F which had won the contract, and those regarded as the “usurpers” at FOC who were out.
Men and women left the chamber that night in tears. At least one FOC board member showed his open anger towards those producers who stated that their only goal was the preservation of public access, and that they would work with whichever organization won the contract.
After the Fall
Thus it was that FOC seemed to become what it had been unfairly charged with for so many months - a political organization. There were two schools of thought as to how FOC should conduct its affairs.
Several producers made the case that FOC should attempt - through its own productions - to dominate the A4F schedule. This could only be good for FOC, should the opportunity arise to win the contract back, and to further the goal of attaining some commercial work, which would help pay the bills.
The other approach was that FOC producers should be “encouraged” to boycott A4F completely, and the lack of programming might then force the city to return the contract to FOC.
Those making this specious argument forgot why it was that FOC lost the contract. It had less to do with FOC as an entity, than it did with the political makeup of those on the board of directors.
Short of that, some felt that FOC should simply store all of its equipment until the organization vied for the contract once again. Sadly, a modified form of the second approach was quietly pursued. Since producers were dues paying members, the board could not prevent them from using the equipment.
Still, some openly showed their disapproval of producers actually using FOC facilities - or A4F, for that matter - in order to produce programming. How disconcerting, that just when Fayetteville Open Channel needed the exposure the most, it was suggested that producers not do what they came to public access for in the first place - to make television.
Ultimately, because the FOC board were unable to plan for the future, and for the most part, circumstances prevented the activists elected in September of 1991 to move away from their activist mode, FOC became a splintered organization. Tempers flared on a regular basis, and fingers pointed at others. Blame for various screw ups were assigned, and faith was lost.
By the time the 1992 membership meeting was held, most people in Fayetteville thought FOC had simply gone out of existence.
While in 1991 the meeting room was overflowing, 1992 saw only a handful of participants - board members outnumbering members of the public. Ironically, one of the chief selling points that FOC used to sell itself to the public was that its board was elected by the membership, instead of being elected by the board itself.
But due to the lack of a quorum at the 1992 meeting, an election could not be held.
So board members were appointed to the board, much as in the manner of A4F. Within a year, Fayetteville Open Channel was forced to close its doors, and what remained of the equipment went to Access 4 Fayetteville.
What remained of FOC - the large tape library, and a small number of pieces of equipment - went into storage, until due to lack of payment, it was all sold at public auction. Much of the documented history of Fayetteville thus disappeared, never to be seen again. A4F later changed its name to Community Access Television.
Today, public access in Fayetteville is stronger than ever. Indeed, several hundred people turned out for its 2000 20th year anniversary. FOC is just a memory, an instructive lesson for many. The battle fought over FOC was needless, an exercise in madness.
But it may also have been inevitable, given the temper of the times, which are so similar to the atmosphere in Fayetteville today. Today, we can see that, despite the conflicts both elements of the FOC board cared deeply about public access. They were prepared to fight - even against each other - to see that it survived. That public access is thriving today is in no small measure due to those - on both the FOC and A4F boards - who fought for what they believed in.
Ozark Gazette - June 26, 2000