Sleeping With the Television On

Teething Problems at the Austin Music Network

Artistic Director Tim Hamblin
photograph by Jana Birchum

Forget death and taxes. You want universal certainties? Ziggy won't be funny, any Seventies disaster flick re-running on TNT will star George Kennedy, and if you flip on the Austin Music Network, you'll see footage from the Austin Acoustic Music Festival.

Tim Hamblin, the artistic director at the Austin Music Network (AMN) admits in delicate terms that "our programming is now at the stage where it's more sterile at the moment," and in more brutal language that "it hurts me to switch it on and to think, `Goddamn, this shit again?'" And Kent Benjamin, former head of programming at AMN claims, "I stopped watching it about six months before I left because I thought it was boring."

So what's on the network that's so dull? Well, everything. Rock, pop, punk, jazz, acid jazz, lounge, techno, blues, country, conjunto, folk, industrial, Tejano -- even some old New Wave videos. Most of it's from Texas, some of it's national. It's indie, and major label. There are locally produced live shows, and clip shows of both big names and no names. Okay, it's not all dull, but rather part of the problem may be, as Benjamin notes, "you can make yourself so broad and diverse that you end up appealing to nobody."

AMN actually does an admirable job of giving equitable exposure to a broad range of music. Yet if you watch for any given length of time, you begin to notice a disproportionate number of shows and clips coming from a small number of events. Redundancy settles in quickly. The band may change, but the song remains the same.

On the flip side, unless you put yourself through some prolonged watching, you'll never become familiar enough with the schedule to know where to find shows you might deem worth watching. AMN does have a grid where it tries to program certain shows in certain fixed time slots, but there are few places to get the listings. The best place to get them was once the Chronicle, but when the channel went 24 hours, the listings got too long and had to be cut from the publication.

They do appear in the Austin-American Statesman, but in the weekly television supplement Show World, not in the Gen X catch-all XLent where you might expect -- and it's not even a complete grid. There are listings on the Internet, but that obviously requires a computer and an Internet link. Finally, three times a day, AMN itself runs a banner with the day's programming on it, which, interestingly enough, entails the viewer watching the channel simply to find out what to watch.

Probably the biggest reason the programming isn't very good right now is because the person programming the channel readily acknowledges that she's not very good at the job. Says current Program Manager Ester Matthews: "I don't think I'm that good at it. I have an accounting background, so I do things by the numbers... I do have a lot of interest in music, but I don't pay that much attention to performers, the names of songs. I enjoy singing and I enjoy listening, but the specifics of it escape me. I'm hoping not to have to do it in the near future because that's really not my expertise; but we've lost a lot of staff in the last year, so I've taken on that job with the intention of passing it along to another employee at some point."

The program manager isn't very good at programming because that's not the job she was hired to do. Matthews was once former councilmember Max Nofzinger's aide, and when he stepped down, she was reassigned to AMN as what she calls "kind of a media communications coordinator," helping market the channel and acting as a liaison between the network and the city's many commissions and sub-committees.

But after South by Southwest last year, approximately six months after Matthews came on board, Kent Benjamin quit and his duties got reassigned. Three months after that, original manager Ronnie Mack left, and his duties also got reassigned. Ultimately, Matthews took over the management and the programming of the network, and went from having authority over nobody at AMN to having authority over everyone. On top of that, just after she took over, AMN went to 24 hours continuous broadcasting. In a short span of time, AMN lost two crucial members of an already small staff and became a much bigger endeavor.

Departures, expansion, amorphous job descriptions; AMN is definitely still a work in progress. And as with any situation such as this, there have been problems: internal conflicts, friction with other city departments, and resource deficiencies. Some of these problems are the result of personal differences down at AMN (the offices are housed in the basement of the City Council chambers), but many of them are simply a result of how the network came to be. Explaining the latter, then, obviously requires a brief history lesson.

Most people involved with the creation of the network credit either or both Tim Hamblin and Hank Sinatra with the original idea for AMN. Sinatra actually ran for mayor at one point with establishing a local music channel as one of the items on his agenda.

After finally gaining approval from the city, the project almost faltered before it ever happened. The network was originally awarded as an independent contract to what was called The Austin Music Channel Company, yet after several months, it became evident that the Music Channel Company was the wrong choice. The city decided to terminate that contract with the head of the company and make a settlement.

After that, the idea of the network as an independent contractor was dead. The city then took control and made Ronnie Mack, who had been on the board of ACAC (formerly ACTV) with Hamblin and Sinatra, the new project manager. According to Mack, "The reason it got under the umbrella of the city was basically to salvage it. They didn't think if they went through the [request for proposal] process again, that the music network funding would hold up -- the support from council and everything. So, we basically had to prove the concept real fast. And quite frankly, I didn't think they thought we could get it on the air. At that time people were probably thinking, `Well, let these guys give it one last try and if they don't make it, we'll put it all to bed.'"

One last try meant only 45 days to get the channel on the air. Mack hired Ingrid Weigand as operations manager in charge of production (shooting material and getting it edited, etc.), Kent Benjamin as head of programming, and later added Hamblin as artistic director; Sinatra was originally going to be a sub-contractor doing productions, but at least partially due to personal conflicts, he decided not to work with the network. Those four principals -- Mack, Benjamin, Weigand, and Hamblin -- had to "go in and do the impossible," says Mack. "There was no time to sit around and dream up how we'd like [the network] to be. We had to make it happen or it wasn't going to happen at all."

Program Manager Ester Matthews
photograph by John Anderson

It happened on April 1, 1994, although the channel's debut was an auspicious one; AMN was paired with Country Music Television (CMT), a combination which, as Hamblin puts it, some thought was an attempt to "make us fail." The arrangement was that AMN would interrupt CMT nightly for four hours. Hamblin recalls checking the AMN request line and hearing messages left by angry country music fans, inquiring with the use of colorful language as to why their Brooks & Dunn had been pre-empted in favor of local, and to them, unknown musicians whose weird looks obviously justified the questioning of their sexuality.

Eventually, AMN received its own channel (15), expanded to six hours, and finally went round-the-clock last August as part of the city's cable agreement. Theoretically, AMN is funded by Time Warner Communications (formerly Austin CableVision). Through their cable franchise agreement with the city, Time Warner Communications puts $3 million annually into the general fund, from which AMN draws its annual budget of $290,537. Therefore, it's the city, not the cable company, that decides the fate of the network. "You have to be really careful with the network and the city," says Matthews. "We're still called a pilot project. One councilmember can get mad at us and we are gone out of the next budget."

Don't see much rap on AMN? Well first, there isn't much of a local rap scene to cover; but more importantly, because it's a city division, the network has to be smart about not airing anything overtly offensive, especially during the daytime, lest some irate mother calls a councilmember asking why a city organization is broadcasting a video with homeys sporting "gatts" and using catchphrases like "Yo, bitch" or "mothafucka" while her impressionable child is watching. That would be bad for the network.

Being perceived as expendable by the organization that controls your fate, however, has far greater limitations than those resulting from the fear of offending the wrong people. It makes asking for more money almost impossible; and much of what stymies the network can be traced back to resources, or a lack thereof. Consider what the AMN faces in trying to produce a local show.

For one, AMN has only one camera. Let's repeat that: AMN has only one camera. Try running a production company that films live music with one camera. It can't be done -- at least not well. AMN does have access to ACAC equipment, particularly the multi-cam, which is used for doing concert tapings, but there have been slight problems with the sharing of equipment; items have gone missing or were not adequately maintained (at times equipment usage and other production squabbles have caused serious friction between ACAC and the AMN). Moreover, AMN is just one of several local institutional users of ACAC's equipment, so they don't necessarily have it at their disposal either.

After procuring the equipment and making sure that everything is functioning, it takes about four hours to set up and an hour to break down the stuff, making it much more cost/time/resource-effective to shoot a longer event that's going to give you multiple bands rather than shooting a live performance by one or two bands. That explains the abundance of Austin Acoustic Music Festival, Armadillo Homecoming, and Austin Chronicle Music Awards show footage. These are opportunities to get large numbers of bands without having to go to multiple locations and repeatedly making the fixed five-hour time investment. Never mind that they are shown over and over; these are programming bonanzas.

So, you've overcome your equipment problems and you've captured a plethora of performances. Now, the footage has to be edited. AMN has but two editing systems, both of which are borderline obsolete, and both of which are Amiga-based. That's Amiga, as in the computer company that no longer exists, which is crippling because it's not compatible with Mac or PC. So there's no tech support, no spare parts, no nothing. One system went down last July and was inoperable until October. For that time, AMN was reduced to the one editing system that's only capable of editing clip shows; hence developing a backlog of footage like the Women in Jazz series and Rock the River Clean, in addition to the still unedited footage from the Acoustic Music Festival. (What you're seeing on the channel, by the way, is footage from 1995.)

Yet, even though the editing equipment is nearly outdated, it's still more advanced than what most beginners can handle, and beginners is mostly what AMN employs thanks to the city's pay scale, which doesn't compensate network editors in line with what the industry pays advanced editors. Therefore, it takes a bit of a time investment to get new editors to a point where their learning curve flattens out. Once they get to that point, however, they're financially better off working elsewhere. To make matters worse, there's been a high turnover of editors recently, and time spent training new editors has been virtually wasted.

Many of the problems could be alleviated if the network had -- everybody's favorite panacea -- more money. But, if AMN is a "questionable division" because "the city council can't necessarily see the benefit that the network is creating for the musical community," as Matthews asserts, how can AMN possibly expect the city to buy them better editing facilities or a multi-cam set-up or even just increase the operating budget?

Theoretically, the network has the ability to make money on its own, a potential that obviously means not being financially dependent on the city. By hiring themselves out to do production work for record companies and bands -- concert videos, electronic press kits (EPKs), etc. -- the network could conceivably generate the money they need to get off the public dole.

Here's how it would work in the best of all possible worlds: The network would get a call from a label, perhaps Almo, saying something to the effect of, "We've got Gillian Welch playing Austin in a month. Could you film the show and put together a concert video for us?" The network would say, "Love to. That'll be X thousand dollars, please." They would then shoot the gig, edit the footage, and hand over the finished product to Almo. AMN would get paid, and here's the bonus, have additional material for programming. Voila! Instant library.

It sounds like a wonderful solution. You solve programming and money problems simultaneously. Sadly, this scenario doesn't happen very often; AMN generated around $6,000 last year. The reasons it's not happening are two: First -- surprise -- is a lack or resources. See, Austin is the operative word in Austin Music Network. The general goal of programming, although unwritten anywhere, is to have the content at about 75% local or Texan, and the rest national.

If AMN editors are spending time on material for record companies, they're not spending time editing footage for local bands. As it is now, there's a backlog of local productions to be edited and editing time is already at a premium. Because programming is so Texas-centric, if the network is offered the chance to do, say, an interview for an EPK with a non-Texas artist, they'll probably pass and lose out on the money. Sometimes, it isn't just the cash but the coup AMN misses out on; the departed Benjamin claims the network balked on the chance to do the very first Oasis interview this side of the Pond.

Second -- surprise surprise -- AMN's being a city division also hinders doing productions for profit. Without their own multi-cam, AMN would have to use ACAC's, but ACAC equipment is not supposed to be used for any kind of commercial venture. There are other legal issues, such as copyrights and other artist rights, the city isn't used to dealing with which make doing productions difficult; and there could be more legal land mines to navigate once privately owned businesses began thinking that a publicly funded organization was taking work away from them.

So, yes, because AMN lacks equipment, they have difficulty doing the very things that might get them the money to acquire better equipment. Furthermore, because AMN is a city division, they have problems doing the other things that keep them from being a financial drain on the city. Isn't it ironic?

Aside from the legal and equipment hurdles, AMN just hasn't marketed itself very aggressively for doing production services. Marketing the channel was part of what Matthews was brought on board to do, but with Benjamin and Mack leaving and the network going 24 hours, little things like programming the channel kind of got in the way of Matthews' doing any marketing.

In fact, Matthews saw the expansion as a prerequisite for marketing AMN. "I've always felt like it was more important to get us to 24 hours than it was to market the channel because I thought that we needed to be 24 hours before we could really market the channel," says Matthews. "But I'm sure there are some in government that thought we should be trying to make money."

The reality of the situation is that the financial/resource problems aren't going to be cured anytime soon. Being 24 hours is taxing in a way that being on the air only four or six hours wasn't, and Matthews is the only manager who's ever had to deal with the inherent increase in demands. Institutional limitations, however, are not the only things affecting programming.

Personal differences have caused problems at the network since day one. Remember, this was the reason that Hank Sinatra, the man some credit with originally conceiving the idea of the network, opted not to work with AMN as a production sub-contractor. Even the most basic procedural philosophies have caused internal strife at AMN -- thereby influencing what ended up on the air.

Operations Manager Ingrid Weigand
photograph by John Anderson

The departed Mack, for one, wanted production to serve programming more. He approached things from the standpoint of "if you shoot 60 hours of the Acoustic Music Fest and you know you're not going to get them edited for another six months.... What I would say to serve programming is `Let's go through there and pick out three or four of the hot bands. Edit that material first and get that on the air.'"

It makes sense. If a band's starting to generate a buzz, they want all of the exposure they can get while people are still talking about them. Heck, with the turnover rate in this town, in six months the band might not even be around anymore. Currently, at AMN, six months can be one of the shorter waiting periods. Yet, Mack claims that hurrying the process along often met up against "that certain person [who] would argue against you, maybe put up walls and scream and holler, that that would be an unreasonable proposal."

Even though Mack left last summer, that exact conflict still lingers. On December 8 and 9 of last year, AMN set up two nights at Stubb's specifically for the purpose of getting footage of local bands that they didn't yet have, Earthpig, the Adults, etc. There were 11 bands total. The event was called "Soon to be Seen on the Small Screen." The performances were great, the production -- the lighting, the sound, the footage -- was one of the best AMN had ever done. Everybody was generally pleased with the way things came off.

Hamblin, the artistic director, was anxious to get some of the material on the air. "I wanted to get stuff on the next week," he says. "What I tend to do is say, `Let me take a single off and get one edited.' I haven't been allowed to do that yet. I've been told I can't get the tapes. I've made the strongest requests that we get this out as quickly as possible, because I wanted to get some out for Christmas; even one song by each band could have easily been gotten by Christmas. But I was told that was not possible. It wasn't going to be edited until the middle of January."

Although the production's title carried the name "Soon," Ingrid Weigand, who's in charge of production, which includes editing, thinks Hamblin may have been expecting a little much. "I'm surprised Tim said that because he knows things don't happen that fast," she says. "Tim is normally really eager. As soon as he sees something he wants... I cannot stop editors from their assigned jobs and give them something new every time Tim sees something."

Wouldn't it be easy and basically non-time-consuming just to take one song out of each performance and get it on the air, maybe put it in New Vids on the Block, the show comprised of, oddly enough, new videos? Yes, but unfortunately that's kind of a policy sticking-point. According to Weigand, "We do not put raw footage on the air. And by the time I have an editor go log the show and edit one or two cuts just as a single, I might as well spend the five or six extra hours to get the whole show out."

This is one of the most hotly contested procedural differences at AMN. Weigand just isn't going to put local footage on the air, playing next to national, major label, big-budget videos unless it also looks professionally done. "When you throw raw footage on the air, I think there's no faster way of ruining a reputation," says Weigand. "I'm trying to be more careful that, if it goes on the air, it looks good. If you just grab raw footage and throw it on, it does give you the immediate satisfaction of getting something on the air that got shot two weeks ago; but I don't need the call from the artist, and there are some artists in this town that will call and say, `What did you pick that song for?'"

Another part of airing delays is that AMN generally edits footage in the order they receive it; because the one editing system used for doing live shows was down for several months, the network developed a huge backlog of unedited footage. So, AMN's priority was to finish off, yes, more of that Austin Acoustic Music Festival footage before doing the "Soon to be Seen." By controlling what gets edited when, Weigand has a tremendous impact as a de facto programmer. These factors cause a considerable slowdown in turn around time, but according to Weigand and Matthews "Soon to be Seen" is actually not even behind schedule.

"When we did it," explains Weigand, "we said that we should start running them in January. And the first one is going to go on in January." Technically, that's true. One -- precisely one -- of the performers, Jake Andrews, got aired in January, and that was on the very last day of the month (the next segment is scheduled to hit the air in mid-February). Does the 50-day turnaround to get one of the 11 bands done constitute "soon"? That depends on perspective. For Hamblin, it's frustratingly slow because he's anxious to get new programming on the air. Given past performance, however, it's quick work.

Again, that Austin Acoustic Music Festival footage that just got finished in December was from 1995. In fact the "Soon" part of the "Soon to be Seen" series appeared in the moniker only because, according to Matthews, "I made up the title of that concert. And I did it because no one else came up with a title, and I like alliteration."

The perception of the network hinging on the person in charge having a penchant for a particular literary device, however, isn't even the pinnacle of the ridiculousness. Remember, Matthews acknowledges that she isn't that good at programming and that, paraphrasing, the specifics of music escape her; but it isn't just her being out of touch that affects programming.

AMN is broadcast from Time Warner, not from the network's studios as it once was it the early days. That means the tapes of all the shows to be broadcast have to be taken to Time Warner at least three days in advance of their airing date. In order to conform to this requirement, AMN makes deliveries of tapes two times a week. They box up the tapes, take them upstairs, drive them to Time Warner, and unload them. This is a job Matthews once had. Now that she's programming the channel, that's one of the factors she claims has to be taken into consideration. In other words, minimizing the number of tapes that the person who has to take them to Time Warner is part of what determines what ends up on the air -- even though it increases repetition and decreases flexibility and variety.

Remember, again, that Matthews only has the power to program because the original manager, Ronnie Mack, and programmer, Kent Benjamin, left the network. And rather than hiring new people for each of those positions, the responsibilities just got reassigned -- leaving Matthews little time for the marketing job she was originally hired to do. And why did those people leave? Mack claims it was never his intention to stay indefinitely, and when a position opened in the city's Information Systems Department, working on the new, high-speed fiber-optic network -- something that's very much in line with his expertise -- he jumped ship.

According to Matthews, though, Mack may have overstayed his usefulness to the project. Of Mack she says, "Ronnie was able to set up the network very well, he knew the technical end of it, but he couldn't manage people. What he did was tell everybody what they wanted to hear. So it was turning into a big fiasco."

And why did Benjamin leave? He claims he committed to Mack for about six months -- just to get the thing off the ground. Original intentions aside, according to Mack, "Kent got frustrated a little early on.... There were some personality conflicts between Kent and at least one particular person that were real hard to resolve. Kent resolved them by just leaving."

Heck, Benjamin himself admits that. "I never had a job I hated so much, and it was the people." A couple of people hint that his leaving was the biggest blow to the network's programming. Benjamin is a living library of music, who was very much in touch with the local scene and very much aware of what AMN both had and didn't have, as well as of what had and hadn't been shown recently. Hamblin flat-out confesses that "his skills are sorely missed."

Of the four people primarily responsible for getting AMN on the air, two have left and two are still behind, although one, Hamblin, suggests that he's feeling anxious over the changes. "I've stressed my concerns to my boss that we need to get the channel back on course and get a fairer mix," he says. "We don't need to edit everything in the sequence we get it, and I try to diplomatically give the complaints. All I can do is say to Ester, `I think we should do this. This is a priority, that isn't.' She decides what she decides; and I have to respect that."

For her part, Weigand sees the personal problems as minor. "I do think whatever personality conflict there was, wasn't really any different from any other creative thing I ever been involved with before," she says. "One thing I might say about some management styles was that the creative differences weren't always handled to where everybody could work it out and then agree on something and then follow up. On the whole, though, I don't think it was anything totally unusual."

It probably isn't anything "totally unusual." In many ways, the network differs little from any other work place where employees don't always have the necessary tools for doing the job as best as it can be done. AMN, however, is unique in that there's nothing else like it in the country. Almost all those involved, even the departed, made it clear that they are amazed that a municipal government would make that kind of commitment to the arts. There are also many things AMN should be credited for accomplishing, résumé highlights that could help cement it as a permanent institution.

They were able to broadcast the Armadillo Homecoming show live both on channel 15 and feed it out on satellite so that anyone not fortunate to live in Austin could pick it up. Also, after striking a deal with Channel 6 (you know, the station where you can watch your city council at, uh, work) to use their facilities, AMN has recently begun doing a live show on Friday nights. Better yet, twice a week, on Sunday and Monday nights, AMN also airs its most popular show, Check This Action, a half-hour show that runs down everything happening in the Austin music scene during the upcoming week.

The point of the show, as it was originally conceived, was, in Mack's words, to "bring back that old feeling in Austin where there was this musical magic happening out there and you felt like if you were sitting at home you were missing it." CTA's two hosts, originally Tara Veneruso, who now hosts live show, and the Chronicle's Margaret Moser, succeeded, but only up to a point.

In the beginning, CTA was supposed to be a show that came on every evening, but again, AMN just doesn't have the resources to do that. As it is, CTA is done in the network's cramped quarters with just that one camera. To give you an idea of what the spatial limitations are like, when taping CTA, nobody can edit because the editing bays are adjacent to the "set" and the spillover noise would end up on the tape for the show.

So, despite the fact some things come off well, nothing comes off easy at the Austin Music Network. Nonsensical programming decisions as well as inter- and intra-office tensions that have led to loss of valuable employees compound the difficulties of just being underfunded and understaffed.

Nevertheless, AMN continues to survive if for no other reason than some people's determination to see it survive. Says Hamblin, "I've worked a long time to do this, and I want to make it work however it can work. Sometimes I understand the city compromises and I don't want to upset the city. I think this is a great deal. I think it can get a lot better. And I think if we get the chance it will definitely improve. But there are definitely these teething problems that are going to last a long time."

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