The Show Must Go On

Council Watch

llustration by Doug Potter

At 9:15am Friday, Oct. 30, 1998, the Austin Music Network met its newest fate -- and its most promising yet -- when Rich Melchior's Austin Music Management Group signed on the dotted line with the city of Austin. For a few tense hours last week, however, it looked like the deal might go the way of so many previous plans to save the channel. Melchior was all set to sign the contract with city lawyers when questions arose during last Tuesday's regular meeting of the council's subcommittee on telecommunications infrastructure that threatened to postpone the signing -- a delay that some saw as potentially fatal to the new station. Music Commission Chair Bob Livingston says he was aiming only to get his commission's concerns about the contract on the record, not to scuttle the deal, by raising concerns -- including the ratio of Austin to national artists that would be played on the station, and the division of royalties for existing AMN archives and for new material developed under Melchior's watch. When city lawyers couldn't produce the contract to respond to Livingston's questions, however, councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Gus Garcia suggested that the signing be postponed until everyone had a chance to look it over.

Though Melchior wasn't present at the meeting, he reportedly found the delay unacceptable, and the deal impossible if the contract couldn't be signed immediately. Rumors flew about a rash of firings at the new channel -- a letting-go of the staff that had been hired, and in some cases begun working, before the deal was even signed. "All I know is that R.M. [Melchior] did ask his staff to stop working until everything was cleared up. So I stopped working," said one music network employee.

The panic got city officials motivated, and Livingston was called to a quickie meeting on Thursday in Betty Dunkerley's office to review the contract and sign off on it, if he could. Livingston said although the terms were not exactly those the commission wanted, they were close enough, and he added the commission's blessing to the deal.

Melchior denies that his takeover of the station was in question last week. "I never thought it was going to fall through," he said, "but it was getting more and more difficult to get the timeline right." Melchior said that all the commission's concerns were addressed in the contract, and the city would get all royalties from the use of its archives. The contract also provides for the city to receive a cut of profits from any new programming that receives a cash or in-kind contribution from the city.

As for the still-running debate over how much Austin music will run on the channel, music commissioners at their Monday (Nov. 2) meetingwere surprised to find their request that the new AMN play 80% local artists superceded by a new document, prepared by city lawyers, that commits the channel to a "predominance" of local artists. Melchior said he resisted committing to the commission's 80% request because he didn't have the resources to meet the target. He said that although the current station meets the 80% goal, "it has done so with a very high rate of repetition of the library. And a good portion of the stuff is from '93 and '94, which doesn't always represent an artist and their act today. Our goal is the same -- emphasize Texas artists, but to do it in a way that maximizes viewership."

Melchior's recent hiring of staff for the new channel gives him some real street credibility. In addition to public relations manager Jim Ellinger, recently of ACTV renown, Melchior has hired Don Harvey as the station's talent coordinator. A co-owner of the Austin Rehearsal Complex, Harvey has been a drummer for Austin musicians including Charlie Sexton and Storyville, and was a co-founder of the SIMS foundation. Harvey believes his Austin music pedigree was one of the main reasons he got the AMN gig. "I don't believe I would have been hired if Rick's intent was not to have Austin music be the main focus of the network," he said.

Harvey has cooked up a plan to kick off the new network (which will be known as AMN: The Music+Arts Channel) in dramatic fashion, with a 24-hour marathon of Austin bands playing live in AMN's new downtown studios that should air in early December. Before that, he said, Austin viewers will witness the station's development on the air, as dress rehearsals will be aired live starting in mid-November. And by their own account, the station is going to be a stunner. "It's gonna be gorgeous," said Ellinger, "the best looking channel on the Time Warner lineup."

As is often the case in Austin politics, this argument had on all its sides people who are sincerely interested in the issue at hand and believe they're on the right side of the issue. Ester Matthews, former AMN station manager (and administrator of the contract between Melchior and the city), said tension was inevitable in the handover of the station:

"Things were strained because there was a lot of fear about the change. Everyone down [at the old station] had their heart in it; that's why it was hard to let go. It's going to be like going to college -- the baby's grown up," Matthews said.

The AMN welcomes the interest of supporters and critics alike. "We're flattered," said PR guy Ellinger. "They're worried about the future of the network. There will be close second and third looks to make sure everything's okay, to make sure we don't trip and fumble and lose our beloved music network."

Among Austin music boosters, nobody seems to want to see that happen. Like Henry Benedict [of Cinema West fame] before him, Melchior seems to be merely a businessman trying to ply his trade, with a little personal gain and benefit for the city thrown in. Unlike Benedict, though, Melchior is doing so with the benefit of a valuable public resource -- the current station's archives and audience, the fruit of much thankless labor on the part of the old network staff -- and therefore owes it to the city, the music commission, and all those who have given him the benefit of many doubts throughout this process, to make good on his promise to keep the "Austin" in the Austin Music Network.

Ellinger said that will be easier to achieve because of the work of those who toiled before them ("literally and figuratively under the bottom side of the Austin City Council," he said, punning on the station's old studio in the basement of the council chambers). Quick to acknowledge the station's debt, he suggested a tribute: It has been an oft-cited fact that AMN has been so underfunded over the years that the network could only afford one camera. "We should spray-paint it gold and put it in the lobby of the new studio," he said. "We should put a plaque on it that reads, 'In dedication to the employees of Austin Music Network, era one.'"

This Week in Council: Discussion on awarding about $1.5 million in fee waivers and infrastructure incentives for the Lamar-Sixth Marketplace development.

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