Public Access, Democracy on Demand and the Amherst Media Contract Dispute

By Carson McGrath

“I think in a world in which a lot of our media outlets are owned by a very small handful of huge multinational conglomerates, we need local voices,” Erica Scharrer, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said recently about the Amherst Media contract dispute. “The things that citizens create and care about need to have a space … and those spaces are very few and far between in the modern world.”

For 41 years Amherst Media, Amherst’s public access center, has been under contract with the town to provide PEG (Public, Educational and Government) television services, video and audio equipment as well as training for community members to help them create their own programming. Through a system of staff, members, interns and volunteers, it provides hundreds of hours of local programming to it’s three channels, going far beyond its contractual obligation. Last year on the government channel alone, Amherst Media provided 306 hours of government coverage — a third of it being non-contractual.

A laudable performance by any measure and in the six months of 2016, non-contractual programming productivity has increased even further at no extra cost. And yet Amherst Media faces the prospect of losing its contract with the town and potentially closing its doors. Why?

On October 26, 2016, the town renewed its ten-year contract with Comcast, which effectively ended the town’s ten-year contract with Amherst Media. Normally the town would begin negotiating a new contract, but town manager Paul Bockelman said Amherst would issue a Request For Proposals, or RFP, requiring companies to bid to provide media services to the town.

Bockelman has said the RFP process was required by changes in state law and that the town will begin advertising the RFP on February 28 with proposals due March 17. He said Amherst Media will continue to receive funding for services until the RFP process is complete, which is expected in mid April.

“The request for proposals is just the standard process to say, let’s revise , let’s review what we are doing and how we are doing it,” said Martha Fuentes-Bautista, a Professor of Communications at UMass Amherst. “Of course the municipalities have the right to renegotiate their contract.

“[But] for me it has not been clear what is the goal of the request for proposals,” Fuentes-Bautista said, stressing that the RFP process must be more transparent. “I think the local government has not made that clear. It is not even clear how [the proposals] will be evaluated then because we do not know the goal,” she said.

Demetria Shabazz, Amherst Media Board Vice President, said since 2006 public access centers across the country, starting on the west coast, closed down once RFPs and enterprise funds were introduced. Why? Because RFPs tend to go to lowest bidders and not necessarily to those who understand the mission and goals of public access stations.

There has been disagreement between the town and Amherst Media over whether an RFP is even called for under new Massachusetts Department of Revenue guidelines: While Bockelman has stressed that the law requires public access services to be bid out, Amherst Media Director Jim Lescault insisted that bidding out services is only a recommendation and only one of various alternatives the town could use.

During a Select Board meeting in early February, Lescault said the RFP process was a first step in bringing the independent media services into town government as a department, which would effectively end the independent media non-profit’s watchdog function of ensuring government transparency.

“The town manager told Amherst Media personnel at a meeting that he had asked one of the Select Board members to see if the town could run the PEG channels,” Lescault told the Select Board in early February. “He was told that, yes, there was enough money for two people to run it for the town. But the town manager stated that he didn’t feel that the town was ready yet. Perhaps the time will be right for the Town Manager and the town of Amherst when in three years the RFP must go out to bid again.”

This trend is not new, Fuentes-Bautista said, pointing out that public access stations across the country have been closing down since 2007 because of the “false perception that Youtube would replace everything a whole organization actually does for local media production,” as well as the “economic pressure of governments.”

She said since the 2008 financial crisis, local governments have diverted the money from public access stations to different government projects because of their economic need.

“Now we are in an environment in which many projects have been closing down because their communities have ceased to support them and their communities are betraying their commitment to local community based production and distribution of information,” said Fuentes-Bautista.

Since their inception in the 1970s, public access, educational, and government channels, or PEG channels, have produced their own hyper-local content, providing information on local issues and helping insure local government transparency.

PEG channels are funded by subscribers to local cable providers. Community members cover local issues and events such as government meetings and provide educational and technological tools for citizens to create their own multimedia content.

Whalen said the money collected from the cable companies through a fee on local citizens’ cable bills is meant to go back into the community for public access services, and must remain doing so.​

Fuentes-Bautista said this type of public access media was a result of the hyper commercialism of the broadcasting systems in the United States during the 1960s. PEG channels, she said, were created with the goal of bringing educational and alternative programming to local communities.

“It was an attempt to diversify ideas and voices in our society,” Fuentes-Bautista said.

Even though technology has evolved, she said the need of access to public media remains.

Demetria Shabazz, Amherst Media Board Vice President, said since 2006 public access centers across the country, starting on the west coast, closed down once RFPs and enterprise funds were introduced. Why? Because RFPs tend to go to lowest bidders and not necessarily to those who understand the mission and goals of public access stations.

In a Select Board meeting in February, Shabazz pointed to the Austin, Texas, public access station as an example of what happens when RFPs are issued to run public media operations. She said Austin Access, previously one of the most successful public access stations, was taken over by a film group once the town advertised for RFPs. And the original intent of the public access center was lost.

“The public part and the government part of Austin Access went away,” Shabazz told the Select Board. “That is not an access center. That is not a center that invites the public in to have their own shows, to have their own voice, really, to be shared with others in the community,” she said.

According to the Pew Research Center, those civically engaged in their local communities use and value local news more. The research also found that citizens who are “highly attached” to their communities and those who “always vote” follow local news closely at higher rates.

The question is what will happen to communities if access to the hyper-local news and information provided by access centers ceases to exist?

Jeromie Whalen, vice president of Northampton Access Television, said the Northampton and Amherst public access stations provide a service to the communities that citizens not only need, but want and pay for through their subscriptions to cable providers.

“In a lot of communities around here there isn’t any interest or incentive for rallying behind community media centers simply because they do not offer the education or offer the access to resources to their communities,” Whalen said. “This is not true in Amherst. In Amherst, the community knows full well how important public access is.”

Whalen said the money collected from the cable companies through a fee on local citizens’ cable bills is meant to go back into the community for public access services, and must remain doing so.

“It is important to use that money efficiently because essentially that money is coming from your community and is reinvested into your community,” said Whalen.

Amherst Media has not only partnered with other local access centers, but Scharrer of UMass said it has developed an important relationship with UMass.

She said Amherst Media “enriches the department and the people in it” through a variety of collaborations. Over the years, she said, many students studying at the public university have partnered with Amherst Media for internships.

Two area college students and former Amherst Media interns have garnered national attention: Akil Gibbons, a recent graduate of Hampshire College, was on a team that won a Sundance documentary award, and Alex Kamb, a recent graduate of UMass, won a prestigious Sundance Ignite Fellowship for young filmmakers.

“There is a really wonderful kind of symbiotic relationship between [Amherst Media], the department and its students, where students can get valuable experiences, resume builders, and maybe even professional opportunities from helping out there,” said Scharrer.

Scharrer also said that Amherst Media partners with UMass to do studio interviews with visiting lecturers.

“That was just a great opportunity to enhance the impact of having a scholar or some other guest visitor in our area,” she said. “And having an opportunity to have them reach an even larger audience and in some cases a different audience with the message that they are talking about through Amherst Media’s facilities and role in bringing content to local audiences.”

As to who might bid. Bockelman, according to the Hampshire Gazette, said besides Amherst Media responding to the RFP, “maybe [UMass] could pull together a proposal or something.”

Fuentes-Bautista said the goals of the RFP must be “publicly defined and consulted” in order for the community to move forward in understanding who can provide what services.

“Given the public statement of the town manager and so forth, it just makes me think they aspire to certain larger institutions like Umass. They think that larger institutions will come and save the day,” she said.

“The idea is that someone who already has financial autonomy, and expertise and resources of other sorts, not just financially but knowledge, will leverage that into an operation that will be wonderfully run and cheaper,” she said. “The truth is that institutions come with institutional agendas.”

Carson McGrath is a Journalism and English major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her work has appeared in Her Campus and the Amherst Wire and she has also worked for Vox: Students for Reproductive Justice. This is her first story for Amherst Media.

News

Mar 22, 2017

Amherst Media is elated to announce that Amherst’s Town Manager and Select Board have reversed their decision to post a Request for Proposal (RFP) and instead is heeding the recent findings from the MA Inspector General’s Office and Department of Revenue.

This excerpt from the Town Manger’s report to the Select Board on Monday, March 20, stated the following:

What does this mean? In short, we are moving back to the way we have accounted for funds and contracted for services as we have in the past.

Next Steps: 

Mar 16, 2017

At the Monday, March 13, 2017 Select Board meeting, Jim Lescault, Executive Director of Amherst Media, spoke during public comment, presenting to the Select Board a very real alternative to the path of Request for Proposal the Town was on.  The Office of Inspector General had written their opinion regarding PEG services and 30B procurement totally redefining how the Town of Amherst’s government had interpreted the regulations.

Mar 6, 2017

There unfortunately continues to be many unanswered questions circulating around the Amherst community regarding the recent decision by the Town Manager and Select Board regarding the proposed changes in how the Town contracts Amherst Media for the Cable Access Public, Education & Government (PEG) services.

While the Town will be providing an on-line opportunity for the community to give input to the RFP, we feel there exists a real need for a community dialogue on such a monumental change in policy.

Feb 24, 2017

In an age of mass media consolidation, access to public information to insure government transparency is more vital than ever. Amherst Media, one of the oldest community access centers in the country providing that kind of transparency to its community, is in a contract dispute with the Town of Amherst. And as with many other such centers across the country over the last ten years, its future is far from certain.

Feb 24, 2017

Dear Friends of Amherst Media,

Our contract saga continues, but now, with legal counsel, we are ready to mount an exertive effort to bring the Town and Amherst Media to the table for negotiations.

A letter was submitted to the Select Board requesting that Amherst Media be placed on the Feb. 27 evening’s agenda. The letter stated that Amherst Media had obtained legal counsel as of February 20 and that our counsel would like to discuss the Town Manager’s February 3 offer to extend Amherst Media’s expired contract through June 30, 2017.