Austin @ Large: Music Minus Wynn

In front of screaming fans, the mayor smashes a guitar over his own head

Austin At Large
Well, isn't it wonderful that our city is in such good shape – prosperous and at peace, free of social inequity and ideological strife – that we can afford to spend our civic time fussing over the Austin Music Network? We should be proud. But wait, you say, there are more important issues facing the city? Lots of them, and grave ones, too? Then why has Mayor Will Wynn allowed himself to spend more than a week of valuable news-cycle time as the poster boy for this nonsense?

That's about the only valid response I can see sensible people having to AMN's latest brush with oblivion, which I assume it will have survived by the time you read this. As of press time, Wynn's resolution asking city staff to cancel the AMN management contract was not guaranteed to even appear, as posted, on the Thursday council agenda. It is almost certain that such a resolution would not pass – especially given that Brewster McCracken, Wynn's most public ally on this issue, would rather be with his first child (born Tuesday night) than be at LCRA headquarters discussing this non-news.

Both Wynn and McCracken have been anti-AMN since before they were elected, Wynn as a statement of his fiscal priorities, McCracken because he thinks Austin can do different and better things to help the local entertainment industry. Neither is thrilled, they say, over the fact that the latest battle has spun into content-based territory: AMN's cheap, silly "get out the vote" public service announcement pairing Wynn and McCracken with George Bush and Rick Perry and the various lewd videos that apparently aren't supposed to run on AMN even though they run on other video channels. Both of these AMN misdeeds, Wynn charges, are in clear violation of the channel's management contract, although the possible penalties for such violations are unclear and don't appear to include termination.

Dancing as Fast as They Can

It's "contract compliance," and not the content itself, that's at issue for Wynn, who (whatever you may think of his political instincts) knows better than to go anywhere near the smell of free-speech rights being "violated." The network's "recent programmatic exploits," the mayor says, "are symbolic of a 'sacred cow' government program that has no real oversight and believes [it doesn't] have to abide by performance measures, let alone ethics."

McCracken has likewise gone way out of his way to disclaim giving a rip about the programming at issue. The network's "real failing," he says, "is that it does virtually nothing to improve opportunities for Austin musicians. The opportunities Austin musicians could reap from an intelligent, progressive city music program are immense." To underscore whose side he wants to be on here, McCracken adds, "The City Council could also immediately help the Austin music scene by eliminating the misconceived noise ordinance."

So there. But when AMN partisans went public with their long-held complaint that the mayor's out to get them, Wynn responded in the affirmative, and here we are. Despite the mayor's assertion that "I have a lot more pressing issues to deal with, not the least of which is staring down the barrel of an upcoming $45 million budget shortfall," the kill-AMN-now effort did not find its way onto Thursday's agenda, or into the pages of the daily, by magic.

Just Add Honey

Unfortunately for the mayor, the rest of the council – including Wynn's usual ally Betty Dunkerley, who helped create AMN when she was a city staffer and feels some loyalty and ownership here – has no desire, at all, not even a little bit, to kill off the Austin Music Network now, after having five times in 10 years given it One Last Chance with the taxpayers' money. (Or, this time around, with the tourists' tax money; AMN's current $150,000 pittance, which station management says isn't enough to live on, is coming from the hotel/motel bed tax.)

The fact that AMN is doomed in its current form, come budget time, probably goes without saying; the pooh-bahs of the city's hotel industry – most of whom aren't cable subscribers and don't air AMN in their own hotel rooms – are loath to see any more of their customers' money directed AMN's way. And the chances of it getting any sugar from the city General Fund are even more remote. The sense of the council on this issue is probably best expressed by another item on Thursday's agenda, by AMN's best friend Jackie Goodman, directing city staff to craft a proposal for an Austin arts-and-entertainment channel unfunded by the taxpayers. Supposedly, this is what City Hall was already doing – it's certainly what was discussed at budget time last year. But it appears that the left hands at City Hall are out of synch with the right hands.

So what's the incentive to have a big, messy, squalid debate – complete with "sexual situations and honey" – over AMN now? This question seems finally to have occurred to Wynn himself, but not before damage has been done, and not just to internal relations within City Hall, and not just over a few sleazy videos and a stupid political joke. This whole mess broke last week when AMN tipped the daily to the fact that – as both Wynn and McCracken have long suggested – the city was talking with Time Warner about the possibility of the latter taking over AMN and turning it into an arts-and-entertainment version of News 8 Austin.

Unfortunately, others at City Hall found, to their dismay, that they knew less than they would have preferred about the scope, nature, and content of these discussions. This made it easy for the anti-Wynn spin – mayor, in jihad mode over petty personal slights, launches back-channel effort to kill AMN by delivering it to evil cable giant – to take up more ink and airtime than the facts seem to warrant. But avoiding such snafus – or at least avoiding making them worse – can fairly be viewed as part of the mayor's job description.

Broken Record

Whatever one thinks of AMN, one should be leery of any sentence that includes "giving up," "access channel," and "Time Warner." By all reports, the cable company's first proposal was such a laughably bad deal for the city that the whole exercise nearly imploded on the spot – it involved giving back not only Channel 15 but also Channel 6, which is highly valuable television real estate, and consolidating the city's programming onto the remaining access channels, as fair compensation for the great favor Time Warner would do by taking AMN off the city's hands.

Even people who don't like AMN – and who especially don't like that it's publicly funded – acknowledge that a well-produced Austin music-and-film channel has vast potential as a tourism generator and a benefit (like News 8) for cable subscribers. But after 10 years the city has frittered away almost all of its political credibility on the subject of AMN, and the faux pas of the last week have only made the city's position weaker. (It doesn't help that the city has never done very much to realize the potential of the other access channels.) The LBJ School can probably get decades' worth of case-study service out of the misbegotten music network.

Sadder, though, will be the damage done in the eyes of citizens who have long seen AMN as, in Wynn's words, "symbolic of a budget process that seemingly refuses to face up to its limitations." In the past, when all that was at stake was a little bit of money in a great big city budget, it was easier to argue that AMN's impassioned foes were overreacting. But now, in the teeth of a "crisis" almost entirely of City Hall's own making, and with far, far more important challenges facing Austin, it's natural for citizens of all colors and political persuasions, all over town, to wonder how much more time our leaders plan to waste on this subject. end story

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Austin Music Network, Will Wynn, Brewster McCracken, Jackie Goodman, Time Warner, arts-and-entertainment channel

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