Losing the signal
For "SomaliTV" and other public access programs, the show won't go on
Every Saturday night at 6 p.m., Hawa Egal joins her sisters and their children at her mother’s White Center home to watch “SomaliTV,” the only show they know of in their native tongue.
“I watch it every week,” she said. “Everyone in the family knows when it’s time for ‘SomaliTV.’”
An estimated 20,000-25,000 Somalis live in King County, a population second only to the Minneapolis area, the show’s co-producer and host, Mustaphe Kaid, said. They depend on the program for news and a place to share their thoughts, he said.
Last week’s show on the arrest of a young Somali-American man who allegedly tried to blow up a Christmas tree lighting event in Portland drew tears of grief and frustration from viewers who called in.
Callers said they want to live in peace and expressed disbelief at the actions of 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who was arrested by the FBI for allegedly trying to detonate what he thought was a bomb.
“People who called in said they can’t figure it out,” Kaid said. “We have a life here, education ... What made him do this?”
The show urged viewers to call the police if they suspect illegal activity, even among their own children.
Every week, “SomaliTV” gives people information that’s vital to adapting to American life, Kaid said. Other shows have explained that domestic violence isn’t legal in the U.S., what role parents can play in their children’s education, how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and why filling out the census form is important.
An average of 40-50 people call in each week and Kaid said he knows many more watch it. After the program started listing local soccer matches, he says, attendance at the games shot up and people often recognize him on the street.
“This is the only resource we have in the state of Washington to connect to the [Somali] people and let them see what’s going on,” Kaid says.
This sole Somali resource may not be around much longer, now that the City of Seattle has pulled the plug on the public access station that produces it.
In September, Seattle’s Department of Information Technology (DOIT) cancelled its contract with Seattle Community Access Network (SCAN). City officials plan to get bids on a new, $100,000 contract that would start in June. That’s $550,000 less than what SCAN gets now. SCAN technical manager Aaron Jones said $100,000 wouldn’t even keep the station’s power on, let alone help produce shows.
On Nov. 16, a week before the Seattle City Council finalized the city’s 2011 budget, SCAN said it would stop broadcasting at month’s end if the city can’t come up with more funds. No more “SomaliTV” or other programs in Amharic, Chinese and Spanish that provide news and information to Seattle’s immigrant communities.
That doesn’t mean Channel 77 or Channel 23 will turn to snow on Jan. 1. The technology office is offering $30,000 in interim funding for some entity to keep the station open until June.
But that’s a mere $5,000 a month compared to $67,000 a month that SCAN operates with now, said Executive Director Dian Ferguson. SCAN is trying to negotiate for more, but the loss of funding means SCAN’s employees will lose their jobs when the contract ends Dec. 31.
Free Speech Television
Like roads and bridges, the channel that SCAN operates on is a public amenity, a conduit of free speech. The 1984 Cable Communications Act allowed cities to require cable companies to provide public access, educational and government channels, or PEGs, in exchange for letting the companies dig up public streets and sidewalks to lay cable.
Nearly 4,000 PEG channels still exist as part of city franchise agreements, but public access TV is in crisis. Since 2005, the cable industry has pushed 21 states to pass new, state-level franchise laws that override city deals, killing more than 200 public access stations, says Sue Buske, a California telecommunications consultant who follows the issue.
Like SCAN, others have lost all or part of their funding to city cutbacks. The Cable Act allows cities to tack a franchise fee of up to 5 percent on cable bills (Seattle’s fee is now 4.4 percent), but they don’t have to spend the money on their public access stations.
Seattle is one of the few cities that provides any funding whatsoever for public access TV, said Bill Schrier, the chief technology officer with the City of Seattle. The vast majority provide zero. Of the larger cities that do fund public access, Seattle’s new allocation of $100,000 is in line with Denver and San Francisco, he said.
The City of Seattle is not to blame for the shutdown of SCAN, Schrier said. Five years ago, the City Council warned SCAN that it needed to raise more of its own operating funds, he said.
SCAN supporters say the city has the money to operate the station, and they point to the Seattle Channel as proof. DOIT takes in roughly $7.5 million a year from cable customers through a special fee created, in part, to fund public access, educational and government channels.
While the office has allocated $100,000 to public access TV next year, Jones said DOIT is funding the city’s government station, the Seattle Channel, to the tune of $2.7 million. City officials plan to use $400,000 of the money it will save on SCAN’s contract to fund salaries in the city’s IT department and buy more email software licenses from Microsoft.
The other YouTube
Public access TV is still necessary, but it’s very costly and there are other alternatives, Schrier said. Video cameras cost much less today than 10 years ago, when the city first contracted with SCAN, and he says the Internet offers many more places to post video, like YouTube, Google TV, Apple TV and blogs.
Jones says the Internet isn’t the same as a production house with studios; it’s merely a “video jukebox.” What the city will get next year for its $100,000 is nothing more than that—a small office and video playback service.
Right now, SCAN’s three full-time and 12 part-time employees train people how to use cameras and editing software and loan them cameras and microphones to record community events.
YouTube can’t broadcast live call-in programs like “SomaliTV” that reach immigrants and other people of color who can’t afford Internet access. “SomaliTV” has a website, but most of the people who call the show tell him they can’t use it, Kaid said. Their communication tools are still the TV and a phone.
“Your audience can’t call in to YouTube,” Jones says. “That’s a very big one because we’re one of the only sources of non-English-speaking programming on television.”
YouTube is great for reaching the whole rest of the world in the weeks after you produce something, Jones said.
“Public access television is good for reaching a specific area, like the people in Seattle, and reaching them immediately,” he said.
Even in high-tech Seattle, many low-income and minority households still don’t have an Internet connection. The city’s 2009 Community Technology Indicators Report, a survey of more than 1,000 Seattle households taken every four years, shows that more than a quarter of all households, or 26 percent, do not have a high-speed Internet connection. Sixteen percent of all Seattle households have no Internet at all.
The Internet have-nots fall largely among the poor and people of color. More than 40 percent of the households with annual incomes of less than $20,000 have no Internet access at home. More than half of Hispanics do not and 33 percent of African-Americans do not.
“Often those who need [public access TV] the most are the poorest and most marginalized communities that are not automatically the folks who have the most political power,” says Jonathan Lawson, executive director of the Seattle nonprofit Reclaim the Media.
Even if they do pay for Internet access, SCAN’s Aaron Jones says, they’re not paying the extra $40-$60 a month for the high-speed service it takes to watch videos on YouTube. The tube is their YouTube.
Schrier insists public access isn’t going away when SCAN does. The city’s next public access manager should be able to make studio space, equipment and editing software available to the public because the city owns the building that SCAN occupies on North 98th Street off Aurora Avenue North, he said.
SCAN’s Dian Ferguson said SCAN, not the city, owns the building. The station’s last cable operator, TCI, deeded the building to SCAN by name, she said.
Between the dispute and the funding cut, Schrier acknowledges that, at least over the next six months until the new public access contract starts, SCAN’s 150 producers won’t be able to make any new shows.
“We don’t have the money in the transition period to run the studio,” he said. “There’ll be a reduced set of programming.”
In a word: reruns.
Cutting the public from public access?
Some of SCAN’s content lives on in infamy: the pornography of “Mike Hunt TV” and the nudity of performer Goddess Kring.
“Mike Hunt” hasn’t been on in seven years and Kring no longer takes her clothes off on the air, but they still cast a shadow on SCAN, which these days ought to be known for its local programming. According to a study by Reclaim the Media, SCAN broadcasts more public affairs programs than all of Seattle’s other broadcast stations combined.
That fact hasn’t helped at contract renewal time. In 2005, City Councilmembers told SCAN that the city couldn’t continue to provide the bulk of its budget and that the group would have to raise more money on its own.
Ferguson said SCAN has done that. This year, in addition to receiving $650,000 from the city, the group projects it will bring in $252,000 in grants and revenue from its classes and for-hire production work.
That’s a quarter of SCAN’s total budget of $902,000.
The group’s efforts are uneven, Schrier said: In 2009, SCAN only raised 14 percent of its budget.
Ferguson said that’s quite a bit compared to what the Seattle Channel raises for itself, which is zero. If Schrier really thought TV was antiquated, she said, his office would cut the budget of the city’s channel as well.
Schrier said his office laid off three employees from the city channel last year and cut its budget from $3.3 million in 2009 to $2.7 million in 2011.
At the same time, however, the Seattle Channel has expanded from broadcasting City Council meetings to producing arts and public affairs programs. At the time the City Council cut the budget for public access TV, it raised the franchise fee that cable customers pay on their bills from 4.2 to 4.4 percent. The new manager of Seattle’s public access channel may get to use up to $200,000 of the new money generated, Council President Richard Conlin has said.
That’s not the same as evenly allocating the franchise money to public access, school and government channels, as is done in Sacramento, said Buske, the telecom consultant.
Schrier said the city needed SCAN’s cable funds to help fill the city’s $67 million budget hole. Other cities are doing the same, said Barbara Popovic, executive director of CAN TV, Chicago’s public access station, but it’s not what members of Congress had in mind when they passed the 1984 Cable Act.
Diverting cable franchise funding from PEG channels to city operations signals a change in which cities are no longer the protector of public access TV but a competitor for their dollars.
The change is “a travesty,” Popovic said.
“People can parse or argue over what the [cable] law actually says, but at the end of the day, it’s pretty apparent the public is being cut out.”
What a well-written article that really gets to the crux of this phenonmenal loss to Seattle’s diverse cultural media landscape.
This move by the City to, essentially, ‘pull the plug’ on the ONLY real community and public access avenue in order to fill their deficient budget gaps by sending the money to enhance their email system - is A TRAVESTY! Did you see the news? The city announced recently that they were increasing Seattle cable customers’ access fees to pay for their improvements to their email system because they ‘have the right’ to use that money any way that they see fit. No, they don’t.
Cable Access Fees are a seperate funding source than the city’s general fund. They didn’t ask Seattle’s cable customers if it’s o.k. to tax them even more so that the city’s employees can have a better way to communicate among them. This is hogwash - right in front of your eyes.
Come spring - let’s vote OUT all these fence-sitting, no backbone-having, double-talking, backroom dealing - City Councilmembers, AND this poor-communicative, unept Mayor - and let’s get our city back on a progressive track again. These folks are just drawing a paycheck and can’t make a definitive decision if their lives depended on it. Please pay attention to all the monies’ appropriation. There’s political payback and pandering happening in Seattle City Govt. Paul Allen shouldn’t get a darn more concessions around here.
OUT! Out! A few council seats are up for re-election - and the scuttlebutt is - folks are mad as hell - and looking to seriously unseat them, permanently. Enough with their special interests and scratching their own backs. Vote to keep COMPREHENSIVE and well-funded Public Access Channel entity alive in Seattle (SCAN-TV) - or VOTE NO to the incumbents! These long-sitting City Council members have paralyzed this city from its natural progression and have sat TOO long - drawing fat paychecks and NOT delivering nothing as promised for years.
As Somali living in Seattle, I believe SCAN is a waste of tax Dollar, and it should be shut down sooner that DEC 31. SomaliTv is run by group of people who are not taking care of the community’s issues, but their self interest, and many of us are happy to see it is gone.
Thank you for this excellent article on one of the most critical issues, namely public access to media and the importance of local news. The best way to control a society is to control the media. With the systematic consolidation of corporate media, elimination of public tv and an internet that is rapidly moving towards privatization and censorship citizens are loosing the battle.
So, whether or not you like a particular program is irrelevant when the real question is access and democracy.
Please, keep publishing great articles about what really matters.
why cant we use thier studios with volunteers… i want to broadcast how we replenish the property taxes by renegotiating the cruise line rates from 7 dollars to 150 per passenger.. just need the u.s. senate to write legislation to place an injunction on 6 major cruiselines throughout n.a.f.t.a untiil they pay up front based on
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.