This is the story of community television station KOCT and the fate of the public good in a bad economy. It could be the story of any number of similar community organizations across the country, as city councils try to close budget gaps by gouging big holes in public services.
In Oceanside, California, where I grew up, the city manager has just advised that “27 city jobs be eliminated, including those of five police officers, that library hours be reduced, and that a city swimming pool be closed for nine months of the year, “ in addition to eliminating $500,000 in annual funding to KOCT, effectively eliminating this community-run station. (Please click the hyperlink in the opening sentence to read the full story.)
Is the money saved through these measures really worth the loss of services?
I’m no economist, but I can recognize a pattern. We balance the budget at the expense of community resources: schools, parks, meeting centers, shelters, communications. The little guys– the non-profit organizations that already do so much with so little– get squeezed out in the name of saving face politically and bailing out the bigwigs.
I’ve seen this result in community brainstorming sessions and meetings, where neighbors get together to build what is missing– from cooperative childcare and carpooling, to bartering carpentry for haircuts and creating community gardens. I’ve also seen this result in the overburdening of certain public services because they’re the last remaining. In both cases, people find creative solutions to government failure.
But perhaps now is the time to put pressure back onto government. Perhaps now is the time to challenge our local governments to support the services we want and need. Perhaps now is the time to question the effectiveness of the non-profit paradigm, when we depend on them to do the work our government does not do, when our elected officials are so easily persuaded to dispense with them when times get tough.
You know the value of independent media. (That’s why you’re reading my blog, right?)
Community media– radio and television, alternative weeklies, locally oriented blogs and websites– represent a kind of über-independence. These forms of media are what we make of them: they’re not owned by a parent company or controlled by corporations with vested interests. Their support comes from local businesses and/or local government funding– our tax dollars. They’re receptive and responsive. They’re virtually the 21st century soapbox, in an age bereft of public squares and bloated with commerce.
Community television traditionally provides a reliable way to broadcast information during emergencies, as well as a forum for local politicians during election campaigns. KOCT in particular goes above and beyond the scope of most community stations, providing more coverage of local elections than any station in all of San Diego county. Not everyone might watch public access, but those who do are likely to be the ones most active in creating positive change close to home. Commercial news corporations have no impetus to focus on community news and events in the way that community news channels do. They inform us on the events that most affect our daily lives, and where in turn we can be most effective. In an increasingly disconnected, socially isolated culture, community-run programming connects us to the people next door that we might not know– local activists, artists, musicians, writers, and journalists.
I should stop here and acknowledge my unabashed bias toward KOCT, and a lifelong appreciation of public media I was more or less born with.
My father started working for KOCT when I was very young. In 1984, KOCT was a fledgling non-profit whose headquarters fit into a 300 square foot garage in Bob Bowditch’s home in Oceanside, California. Largely run by volunteers, the organization initially began as a way to broadcast city council meetings, so that those who couldn’t attend could still be involved and aware of local government proceedings.
When Bob passed away in 1989, my dad took on the challenge of managing the station, learning to take full advantage of the rapid changes in technology occurring throughout the 90s in order to bring relevancy and currency to public access television. Through his work in the community, he has fostered relationships with people of all walks of life, and helped create a sustainable organization staffed by creative, hard-working people with a wide range of skills and interests.
The station now encompasses two channels, and occupies a 6,000 square foot space in an industrial part of Oceanside. With a staff of nine full-time employees, and the help of student interns from local community colleges and high schools, KOCT produces 320 programs and public service announcements every year. Over the years, KOCT has amassed an impressive list of awards, including an Emmy.
Recent pressure from the city under economic stress has already forced the non-profit to cut its staff and programming, and yet it has continued in its efforts to improve its outreach to the community. Just this year, KOCT launched its website, with programming from both channels streaming live online, as well as public discussion forums and archived shows. It’s even on Facebook.
It’s unfortunate that at this crucial point, at the crossroads of a new media era, the city would choose not to subsidize one of the most powerful platforms for local engagement. The council members who stand to pull the plug on KOCT are the very people whose campaigns received huge benefit from KOCT election coverage. Continued funding would enable the organization to continue growing and improving, especially online. Such a drastic cut would force KOCT back to its starting point: basic coverage of council meetings and little more.
It’s hard to look objectively at the prospective end of something that has been such a big part of my life, and my family’s life. I know it wouldn’t mean the end of my dad’s creative work, nor the end of his engagement with the North County community he loves. I know he will continue to have a positive impact on the city where he’s made his home for over thirty years now, whether or not that means continuing with KOCT.
But it’s hard to imagine what our lives would have been like without it. My sister’s interest in television and acting found encouragement in my dad’s work: his interest in making short films and documentaries about the people around him. I think his work demystified television for us, bringing it home to the scale of our lives. Our girl scout troop toured the KOCT studio and helped with some small part of its programming, as school groups and scout troops continue to do. We participated in sandcastle contests, soapbox derbies, cup-stacking contests, dance shows, parades, demonstrations, and more– all free community events KOCT publicized and covered. His interviews with local activists and coverage of council meetings made a big impact on me, giving me a sense of what individuals can do to protect the places they love from over-development– rampant where I grew up in southern California.
I moved away from North County in 2001, but I continue to rely on community radio stations and weeklies, and to seek out independent sources for local and global news. That is a bias I celebrate, because I think democracy lives and thrives in the local media. There might be typos, the singer might sing a little off-key. The new girl’s camera might be a little shaky, and maybe the radio host’s voice is unusual. But you’re more likely to sit down next to him at the pub or the high school soccer game, and get into a conversation about what he was talking about. You might even be invited on the air to share your own perspective.
That’s the kind of media we cannot afford to give up.
That’s the kind of balance I’d like our local governments to value.