While the daily newspapers that serve Durham are losing reporters, some of the city’s residents are making their own media. Teenagers are making documentary films. Pastors are broadcasting services to their parishioners. Social activists are documenting street protests. Latino actors are dramatizing immigrants’ day-to-day struggles in a telenovela.
Now, those media-makers are putting their heads together to figure out how to help each other and invite more people to tell Durham’s story.
About 60 people participated in a brainstorming and planning session for a proposed Durham community media center on Oct. 4. The meeting invited the public to share ideas about the programming and training such a center could offerand how to fund it.
“Durham is the first major city in North Carolina to take advantage of the new legislative promise to invest and support local media and community technology access and training,” event co-organizer Solomon Burnette told the gathering at the Durham Arts Council. “Now we have the opportunity to bring broad and diverse voices together for a participatory process […] to create the kind of community-driven media center that will augment and showcase the work and art of the community of Durham.”
Participants came up with ideas for a TV channel and much more: Training in video blogging and podcasting; alliances with traditional journalists and graphic designers who can share their skills; a media literacy curriculum for young people; animation, music videos and other entertainment-oriented programming; a vocational program in multimedia production; and outreach to the community to ensure diversity and access.
The group also discussed how to fund such a facility, which organizers estimate will cost at least $150,000 annually.
Saturday’s meeting was organized by the Durham Committee for Public Access and Community Media, a group that formed in response to changes in state law that threaten to end public access television in Durham.
Ambitious plans to expand beyond public access TV to embrace Internet and multimedia platforms and to create a community center mean there’s that much more work to do before Dec. 31, when an agreement between the city and Time Warner Cable will expire. Community media organizers will need to submit a nonprofit business plan to city and county leaders if they hope to secure any public money to subsidize the center.
At Saturday’s gathering, however, there was a sign that the short-term pressure might be off. The Rev. James Vaughan represents the Durham Cable Access Association, a group of current public access TV producers that include 69 faith-based groups. At the meeting, Vaughan said those faith groups are willing to offer financial support for public access during the transition to a community nonprofit model. He also said he had found an old TV studio that can serve public access TV producers while a larger media center is being planned.
Civil rights activist Ann Atwater, whom organizers invited to speak at the event, said she was excited by the idea of a community media center. “I think this is a good opportunity right now for Durham to do something for Durham, something that’s ours,” she said. “I might want to come and make me a movie.”
Chad Johnston, director of Chapel Hill public access nonprofit The People’s Channel and a board member of the National Alliance for Community Media, gave a brief explanation of the history of public access TV. It began with a federal law passed in 1984 that guaranteed the rights of the public to channel space in exchange for allowing for-profit companies to lay cable in the public’s right-of-way.
Until recently, local governments negotiated agreements directly with the cable companies and could ask for specific channel space, studio access and funding. But in 2006, North Carolina passed a law that overhauled that system and stripped local governments of their bargaining power.
Initially, the cable and telecommunications companies that pushed for the bill tried to get out of their obligations to provide public channels. “Many of us fought back and we were able to get many concessions in this bill,” Johnston said. The law says local governments can ask for up to five channels for public access, government and educational channels, and provides some public funding of those channels.
Durham was among the first places in North Carolina to be affected by the new law when its franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable expired at the end of 2007.
The company initially decided to stop providing technical support and studio access to public access TV producers. Thanks to public pressure organized by the producers, Durham’s government stepped in to negotiate an extension agreement with Time Warner.
For now, both public access and government programming airs on Channel 8, and public access producers can use Time Warner’s Durham studio. Next year, however, Channel 8 will become solely a government channel, and public access will go dark unless producers can reach another agreement with the company.
Time Warner offered to place public access on the digital service tier, but state law specifies that public channel space must be offered on the most basic tier of service, so the maximum number of people can view it. Durham County is suing Time Warner for a basic-tier channel access on behalf of public access TV producers.
City councilman Mike Woodard told Saturday’s gathering, “I’m confident we’re going to be able to find a solution” that will keep public access on the air. He expressed excitement about the potential for a media center’s potential. “We can tell Durham’s story in a way that so many of the media do not.”
The Rev. Vaughan, who chairs the city’s cable advisory board, assured the group that despite the recent changes, “Public access is functioning well” in Durham. “As we forge greater opportunities, let’s not push out the old,” he said.
A broader media center model excited many of the young people at the meeting. Nia Wilson presented part of a documentary produced by her group, Spirit House, which works with young people in Durham. “We talk about youth, we talk around youth, but we don’t talk to youth,” Wilson said. She showed a video teenagers had made about how the closing of a city housing project affected them.
Wilson introduced Mya Hunter, a high school senior who has been involved for six years with Youth Noise Network, which produces audio documentaries that air on WXDU 88.7 Mondays at 7 p.m. Hunter spoke about the impact that having access to media has had on her life. “We came in with this whole idea of, we can be on the radio,” Hunter said. “That was mind-blowing. I had something to say, and I had the forum to do it.”
The crowd also saw clips from Nuestro Barrio, a Spanish-language soap opera that teaches its audience about financial issues, and Independent Voices, a half-hour news program produced by a grassroots media collective.
For about an hour, small groups of about 10 people brainstormed around issues of diversity, multimedia technology, youth, faith and community journalism. The ideas they presented echoed common themes speakers had addressed that day. Event organizers plan to compile the specifics for a follow-up meeting scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, at Blue Coffee Company.
Meanwhile, the group is working on a business plan with the Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina and The People’s Channel. Co-organizer Elena Everett said a draft of the business will be available for public feedback at the upcoming meeting.
For more information about the Durham community media center, visit www.durhammediacenter.org.
(Editor’s note: The Independent Weekly was a co-sponsor of the meeting, and Lisa Sorg, editor of the Independent, took part in the event.)