By the People, for the People
It started on a mountain, and now it's over the hill: channelAustin is turning 40
Forty years ago, there was no YouTube. There was no iMovie. And suggesting that video cameras could be built inside phones the size of wallets would probably get you committed.
There was, in short, almost no way for the general public to produce and distribute video to a wide audience. Not part of the networks? Sorry, not part of "the media."
But 40 years ago was also the beginning of Austin's community access television (ACTV), the one place where "viewers like you" could shoot, produce, and show their own work. Despite the now-ubiquitous culture of DIY film production, Austin's eclectic community TV project is still around and still making an impact.
It's been through several name changes, seen its share of controversy, and faces continuous threats of extinction. So in honor of this impressive feat of longevity, the current incarnation, channelAustin, is hosting a three-day birthday bash. After all this time, it certainly deserves a celebration.
"This place originally started as the people's voice [and it's] been a phenomenal incubator for talent," said Executive Director Linda Litowsky. "It's a place where indie filmmakers and bloggers and musicians and videographers and film producers all came to actually get their hands on high-end professional equipment either for free or very inexpensively."
The East Austin studio, specially renovated with the help of $1 million from the city in 2009, is a mecca for anyone interested in moving pictures. The facility includes a room packed with top-of-the-line computers with the latest movie-editing software and two mini-studios. Then there's the main studio itself, a massive soundproof room complete with a rig – and history – to rival those of professional TV news operations. Brian Blake, channelAustin's IT director, has seen it all: a full jazz orchestra, a pirate ship, you name it. Then, there are the numerous programs hosted in the studio – panel discussions, community forums, cooking shows, impossible-to-categorize oddities.
All told, channelAustin runs about 500 hours of content a week, about 100-200 of which are brand spanking new.
It's a long way from the community television station's inception 40 years ago.
ACTV began thanks in part to Federal Communications Commission rules put in place in the early Seventies that required cable companies to offer free channels for the use of the community. With a city grant of $600, the first broadcast was something straight out of a guerrilla army's handbook. On Aug. 1, 1973, a group of University of Texas students drove up to Mt. Larson, where Austin's broadcast towers were stationed, and simply plugged their lo-fi equipment directly into the signal box. The footage of that day is used in the soon-to-premiere documentary Access This. And the "broadcast" really is quite something: nothing more than a few people sitting cross-legged on the ground, handing off a small microphone that's attached to a shaky camera. Things only got better (and then a little worse) from there.
The station produced untold hours of community events. As the newbies became veterans, more and more Austinites began creating their own unique programs as varied as an entire cable network's 100-channel package. By 1998, ACTV was operating three stations and worked with a $650,000 budget. And it certainly was the "incubator of talent" Litowsky described: Two of Austin's favorite sons, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, both launched their film careers with the production tools at ACTV.
Linklater famously edited and converted his 1991 classic, Slacker, at the old ACTV station. He also used all the free equipment he could. But ACTV had much more than just professional-grade gadgets.
"The bigger thing is that it was such an eye-opener for Austin," Linklater said. "I'd come from a little town in East Texas, and there was nothing remotely like that. You know, I'm kind of the arty-farty film guy, but next to me was the gamut of Austinites."
One look at the community channel's shows – then and now – only underlines this wild mix of programming. One of the most popular shows is the long-running, multi-platform Atheist Experience, which airs the same day as locally televised church services. Then there was David Haun's Carmen Banana Show. For the "family-oriented" program, Haun cheerily dressed as slightly strung-out, freakishly breasted Carmen Miranda and had all sorts of fun. Linklater can't forget the one guy who did a show about mules.
"Just mules. I think the name of the show was called Mules Today," laughed Linklater. "And then there was hardcore political stuff and the religious stuff. There [were] young freaks making crazy music videos. It was an odd little mixture of what Austin is, and only because Austin itself had created this big sandbox for Austinites to express themselves."
Speaking of hardcore political stuff, conspirator extraordinaire Alex Jones also got his start at ACTV in the mid-Nineties. In the Access This documentary, Jones attributes his entire career to his start at ACTV. Perhaps just as significantly, "he met his wife here," said Litowsky.
It hasn't always been fun and exuberance, though. The station ran into some serious money and personnel problems between 2003 and 2005. In the end, ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal (who'd renamed the station Austin Community Access Center) was convicted of embezzling $354,000 from the station. Since it was funded both publicly and through $1.3 million from Time Warner Cable as part of a franchise contract with the city, ACTV faced increased scrutiny. It was a rough time for ACTV, and part of the reason it's gone through a few name changes.
After the embezzling debacle, "we came in as Public Access Community Television, PACT, to get away from the ACA stigma," said Litowsky. Then "we changed our name from PACT, which kind of sucked and was really boring, to channelAustin, because we believe we channel everything Austin."
But channelAustin took another hit in 2011, when the city ended its franchise agreement with the cable companies and cost the network about 30% of its funding. What was once an operation with 14 full-time staff members and open 86 hours a week to the public is now down to eight staff members and open only 40 public hours. Their budget is about $520,000 a year, 20% of which comes from donations.
"Funding will always be a challenge for every nonprofit," Litowsky said. "And I think realistically speaking, it's important to make sure our community realizes that we're here and understands the value and the relevance of a community media center like this."
Sense of Community
Then of course, there's the YouTube era. Where ambitious young filmmakers once faced expensive startup costs and few accessible mediums, cheap cameras and omnipresent video sites have significantly decreased the individual auteur's need for facilities like channelAustin. It still has some of the finest editing software available to the public, but the station now serves slightly different needs.
"This place has kind of now come full circle," Litowsky said. "Instead of being so much about the individual ... it's kind of about the community; it's about nonprofit organizations that may not have access to the high-level technology and the tools."
Apart from channelAustin's youth program, channelAustin also helps local mom-and-pop shops with promotional work. But perhaps the best examples of channelAustin's community outreach? Thanks to the channelAustin efforts of Sohn Lee and his family, the area's large Korean community has access to local, relatable programming. Since 2000, Lee has produced three shows on channelAustin, all of which focus on Korean worship, news, and current events.
"The Korean community is a tight-knit community and [Mr. Lee] frequently has people come up to him and thank him for having the Korean programs available," said Lee's daughter, Tina, who helps him with the projects. "Quite often, we even get letters and emails from viewers that are non-Korean. And it's really heartwarming to see that, because some people will write, 'I do not understand what you guys are saying but the music is entertaining.'"
For Litowsky and the rest of the channelAustin crew, that uniting of a local community is what keeps them excited about public access television, even in the face of various uncertainties.
"Regardless of YouTube," Litowsky said, "everything about this place is about its community. It's for the community, by the community. And I think no matter what ... we will always stand for that."
Celebration Station'Celebrating 40 years of channeling everything Austin'
Friday, Aug. 2, 8pm: Slacker double feature, Marchesa Hall & Theatre (6226 Middle Fiskville), $10
Saturday, Aug. 3, 7pm: Musical benefit party, Vuka (411 Monroe), $40
Sunday, Aug. 4, 3:30pm: Access This premiere, Galaxy Highland (6700 Middle Fiskville), $10
Visit www.channelaustin.org for a complete schedule of this weekend's festivities.