Won't Leave the Nest
Singing AMN's Praises
Danny Crooks of Steamboat also praised the network, and gave anecdotal evidence that the advertising on the station really works, thereby providing hope that ad revenues can be increased in the future. Crooks said it could be a coincidence, but he's always had trouble making ends meet -- until "about the time the AMN changed." He said his business is doing much better now, and "they're coming in because [of the network]. For what I'm spending, I'm very happy with it." An early critic of the AMN going commercial, Crooks said he'd been pleasantly surprised by its performance. "At first we were afraid they weren't going to focus on Austin music, but they've more than surprised us," he said. Steamboat is now holding monthly benefits for the network.
To the relief of the AMN supporters present, the council affirmed its unanimous support for the station; according to Mayor Kirk Watson, the council was concerned with "not whether, but how" the network could be saved. There are two reasons for this: First, the council believes the network is a unique resource, worth preserving. Second, because of a clause in the station's contract with Time Warner, Austin's cable provider, if Channel 15 goes dark for a period of 30 days, Time Warner gets the frequency back for its own use. Which means a new home shopping network, or something equally odious, would pop up on Channel 15, and if AMN wanted to come back, it would be relegated to somewhere in the cable channel stratosphere.
Singing a Different Tune
So the council wants to keep AMN on the air. But should the city give more money to a contractor who's performed so far below what he promised in terms of revenue? Only a few concerned citizens strongly felt it should not. And one of the speakers had a particularly high level of credibility in the world of Texas music.
Willis Allan Ramsey, a famed country music artist who has recently moved back to Austin, asked, "Why are we even looking at this right now? To say that their business plan in terms of projections is grossly underestimating what has occurred there -- I vote we form a task force and take a good long look at it." In the meantime, he said, "AMN needs to be stripped back to the bare bones." But he added that the council should find a way to preserve a music channel for itself. "I've lived all over the world -- New York, L.A., London," he said. "No other city has a station like this."
Watson then asked members of the music commission whether they recommended sticking with Melchior, or whether to do so might be "throwing good money after bad." Commissioners sided with Melchior -- though they had developed the contingency plan should the commercial station not pan out, commissioners told the council the contingency plan was just that: a last resort to keep the station on the air and out of the hands of Time Warner. For the station to have the best fighting chance, the commission advised the council to stick with Melchior.
Watson said that by giving the $200,000 advance, "You're making a long-term commitment at that point. The question is, how much and how long?" How long, indeed. If AMN's new revenue projections are correct, they won't be self-sufficient until 2003 or 2004. Nor can they reduce expenses to help make ends meet. AMN staff already took a $20-a-pop pay cut earlier this year. The station is spending $70,000 per month right now; to spend any less would compromise the level of programming, says Melchior. And if that happens, there would be no reason for new advertisers to sign on.
As Austin Music Commission Chair Bob Livingston put it, "Music and art is an intangible thing," and the Austin Music Network is trafficking in just those intangibles. Livingston cited the incubator effect the network has already had on upstart musical artists in Austin, and said the Music Commission is looking into starting a more formalized incubator program, in conjunction with AMN, which might be part of the renovation of the Seaholm Power Plant. The incubator, which would serve musicians, as well as those who wanted to enter the business side of music, could possibly share space in Seaholm with the Texas Music Museum, a city-funded effort which the council approved in early March. The new Liberty Lunch site on Red River was also discussed as a possible home for the museum.
Can such civic-minded goals coexist with the demands of a commercial television station? The council's continued funding of AMN has given the station the mandate to continue as a sort of video music jackalope -- neither pure public service nor a lean, mean profit-generating operation. It will continue to sell commercials, yet it will also seek donations on the grounds that it's a great economic development and tourism resource for the city. (Melchior told the council he had counted on grants as well as advertising revenue to stay in the black; but despite having had a staff member working ongettinggrantssince December, the station had received none.)
Will Melchior be able to turn AMN around? Or will the journeyman cable station find permanence in yet another, still undefined incarnation? The future of AMN remains a murky one at best. A dialogue between Council Member Beverly Griffith and Melchior may sum up the problem best. "We have no numbers -- good or bad -- of who is watching [the station]. ...What's going to be fundamentally different this time?" Griffith asked. Melchior could only stammer in reply; he had no answer.
Said Griffith: "We may well be looking at subsidizing, at some level, for the life of the music network." Melchior agreed. "That may be the price of having a music network," he conceded. And though some may be for it, not all council members may be willing to make that commitment. Though he voted to support the item, Willie Lewis said if AMN came back with another request for an advance, "don't count on my support, and take me off your e-mail list."
Oh, and there's one more thing. The support of the music community for the network may not be as much a vote of confidence in Melchior as it is a vote to keep the network running at a high level of quality while other options are tried out. Since the news leaked out that the network was failing financially, a number of individuals of means (including one Austin-famous country musician), have approached the city about taking over the channel.
After all, at the rate AMN is spending, the $200,000 advanced by the council will only last three months. In the meantime, look for the music community to hold a public hearing on what's best for the channel, and possibly for the establishment of a task force. In his testimony before the council, Music Commission Chair Livingston mentioned other options for funding the station, including the city's bed tax fund, which is collected from visitors to Austin hotels. Though Livingston approves of the channel's look under Melchior, he's not sure the network will survive the way it's going: "I think Rick is a visionary," he says, "but he's not the best manager."
This Week in Council: Should be a big one. The police oversight focus group will be back on the agenda, as will the Brown & Root contract for building the Waller Creek Tunnel. The council will also consider where to move the "One Stop Labor Center" (that's Day Labor to you and me), and establish a day labor advisory board. They'll also consider the Traditional Neighborhood Development project mentioned in this space two weeks ago. And if that's not enough, public hearings are scheduled for 6pm on the land mitigation policy and the SOS/RECA/GACC agreement, as well as the East Austin Overlay.
See more AMN musings in this issue's "Dancing About Architecture."