This is sort of an instructive lesson in why every community needs public access television.
When the Fayetteville Government Channel First came into being in 1992, most of the volunteer committees set up by the city agreed to have their meetings shown on TV, except for the Planning Commission. Long considered to be one of the most important government bodies, their decision seemed unfathomable. And yet they were unapproachable on the subject
Some folks would have gone, “Ah well, maybe they will see the light one day,” but then again, that would have been stupid. A group of us determined to tape their meetings and put them on public access until the Planning Commission agreed to allow FGC cameras to tape them.
The entire process took several months. It needs to be noted for the “Tsk, tsk” crowd that, unlike the pasty-faced little thugs who did the job on ACORN some time back, we presented the commission meetings in their entirety - even when we were having fun editing.
Hell, no, we won't go - on Television
Fayetteville, 1993: Convincing Planning Commission to do the right thing took a form of video guerilla warfare
Many communities across the United States enjoy a form of television known as a PEG system - channels provided by the city, for the benefit of the local citizens. PEG (Public, Education and Government) channels are very popular across the country. Not only do they offer locals the chance to speak out on a wide variety of topics, but the government channels also serve as a local form of C-Span, offering gavel-to-gavel coverage of city/county meetings.
It provides a window into the process of government usually not afforded to those unable to physically attend meetings. As a result, such channels are at once very popular with local citizens, and a little unnerving to elected officials - especially in towns who don't offer these channels, but whose citizens would like them.
There is nothing like a little empowerment to make some elected officials nervous.
In Fayetteville, before 1992, everything was offered on just one public access channel, Fayetteville Open Channel. Because of time constraints, only the meetings of the Fayetteville City Council and the Washington County Quorum Court were aired on FOC.
In 1992, things changed radically, when the city of Fayetteville officially offered three separate PEG channels. It was hardly a seamless operation, though. From the very beginning, some were determined to be dragged kicking and screaming into the age of television - if at all.
It took several months for the new Fayetteville Government Channel to set things up so that they could tape as many meetings as they needed to. Then, as now, much depended upon both time and the availability of personnel.
Nevertheless, the new channel was very popular with the citizens of Fayetteville. For the first time, not just city council or county meetings were shown, but also committee and commission meetings, made up of citizen volunteers.
Fayetteville itself has long had a reputation for being one of the most politically diverse - and divisive - cities in Northwest Arkansas. The home of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville has been known for many years as "The Athens of the Ozarks" - a place not only known for its beauty, but also for the spirited and intelligent debate that often marked public controversies.
In fact, public access television itself had almost been lost due to bitter public debates in the community. But by 1992, all of this was behind Fayetteville; not only was there a new access provider, but a new government channel that everyone was pleased about.
Well, not quite everyone.
The entire subject of having cameras in public meetings was a sore point with some in the business community. In fact, during a public survey (The Fayetteville Vision Project), several in the Chamber of Commerce had felt that cameras should be removed from City Hall entirely.
The chief problem with "empowerment" is that all too often the "wrong" sort of people are empowered. And for several years, activists of all stripes had utilized public access well in Fayetteville. Not only that, but folks were not too shy about expressing themselves at council meetings.
Take the cameras away, some felt, and the activists would melt away into the woodwork.
Though those who would remove cameras altogether failed to make any headway, there was still another way to thwart those activists - or "aginners" as one daily newspaper referred to them, meaning that they were against progress for their community.
Though most committees and volunteer boards at City Hall, had no problem with going on Fayetteville Government Channel, there were a few holdouts - chief among them being the Planning Commission.
Though each and every city board and commission (made up of unpaid citizens who volunteer their time and energy) is important, some deal with issues that can directly affect every man and woman among us, and the Planning Commission is one of those.
One of the commission's jobs is to see that Fayetteville, which is growing by leaps and bounds, has some control over that growth. A city that doesn't endeavor to plan for the future may well find itself turning into an urban nightmare.
Naturally, the workings of such a body will attract a lot of public attention, some of it unwanted. To the consternation of much of the viewing public of Fayetteville, in July of 1993, the Planning Commission voted formally not to allow FGC to videotape and show their meetings.
That should have been the end of it. Nothing to see here, folks. Everybody move along, now.
Some might have whined. Some might have said, "oh, well, you can't have everything." But if you're gonna live in a town known as the Athens of the Ozarks, you gotta earn the right to call yourself that.
The Planning Commission hadn't factored public access television into their calculations.
October: it must have surprised the Planning Commission to see volunteer public access producers come into the city council chambers (where the commission held their meetings) and set up field cameras.
Full Disclosure Time: I was part of that crew.
Though cameras were in operation, no one seemed to be playing to them, even though some in the audience obviously cared very much about the subjects they spoke about, namely their neighborhoods.
The meeting went by without a hitch. Although we didn't use the city cameras that were in place for meetings, the meeting - which aired on Fayetteville's public access station - looked as good as any seen on the FGC.
Through back channels, however, we learned that there were some on the Planning Commission who were very annoyed that the cameras were there, though there was nothing they about do about it.
There were other issues at stake, other than simply having important meetings shown to the public. Several of the members of the commission had uncomfortably close business ties - not only with each other, but with developers coming before the commission.
The situation went on for several months. Public access producers taking time out of their lives to tape and edit a government meeting, because the body in question still refused to allow "official" cameras into their meetings. There didn't seem to be much logic involved.
Looking back, I can only assume that they thought we'd get tired of it after a while, and leave them alone.
In fact, just the opposite happened. While the Government Channel, like the aforementioned C-Span, offers gavel-to-gavel coverage of meetings, there was a distinct advantage independent public access producers had over government employees. Though we had taken pains to make our tapes look as professional as possible, we realized we weren't bound by that.
The Planning Commission was going to tired of us long before we got tired of them.
We started small, with just a few innovations. "NYPD Blue" was still in its infancy, and handheld camera shots were all the rage. Accordingly, while one of our cameras remained on a tripod, one of our camera people would hoist a camera over his shoulder and walk around the room, getting angles that were creative, to say the least.
Then, in the editing room, some parts of the meeting might end up being in black and white. Film noir, anyone?
And for those who liked foreign films - ala Godzilla - some sequences might find a commission member opening their mouth to speak, and their voice catching up with them a few seconds later.
Still, no luck. Though we were having great fun at the commission's expense, they weren't budging. Though we were all adults, we were tolerated as though we were a neighbor's particularly backward children. So, we upped the ante, just a little.
We already knew of the close business ties that at least two members had with each other, and with those who came before the Planning Commission. On-screen, when they would appear, their business connections would be linked via graphics.
That went on for a few meetings, and then the ultimate touch was added. As Gilbert and Sullivan played over the end credits, all of the members' financial ties were listed, along with information as to which business interests had donated money to their various failed political campaigns.
Applause followed at the end of the program.
That seemed to do the trick. We were officially "invited" to a Planning Commission meeting, where not a word was said about the content of the meetings that had been shown on public access television. Instead, those of us who stood up spoke about the First Amendment, the People's right to Know, and I even talked about how much better the meetings would look, using the Government Channel equipment.
With no discussion, they voted to allow their meetings to be shown on FGC.
Life went on. We all went back to our own projects, the Planning Commission was on television on a regular basis, and the citizens at home learned more about their city government.
That's as close to a happy ending as you get in politics, most days.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a science fiction novel, "Freedom Run," and "Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002."
Little Rock Free Press - February, 2007