High-tech playground: Amherst's public access outlet changes its name, game By Bonnie Wells Amherst Bulletin, March 3rd and 4th 2011

On a chill December day a little over a year ago, the large studio at Amherst Media was filled with the aroma of Cambodian food and the lilt of the Cambodian language Khmai. About 20 members of the non-English-speaking Cambodian community in Amherst had gathered to participate in a health conference on diabetes in their native language with 18 other sites around the country, via Skype. The Amherst health department brought in literature. The Cambodian participants brought in food. And Amherst Media's studio and Skype connection -- a software which enables free video conferencing -- allowed the participants not only to see and hear the proceedings, but to ask questions and join the discussion.
"It was incredible to be able to connect members of the community with 18 other sites, in their native language," said Wendy Bloomenthal, Amherst Media's community outreach coordinator. "And out of it came a partnership with the health department and discussions leading to connections with other town departments as well."
The event is an example of the commitment of the Amherst public access outlet formerly known as ACTV to provide the community with access to a wide range of media services, reflecting 21st-century technology. Now, in addition to Skype, the organization offers podcasting, training on state-of-the-art digital video editing equipment and blogging, as well as an interactive website with live streaming and digital archives of ACTV programming.
It's the reason for the organization's recent name change from Amherst Community Television to Amherst Media.
Leaping forward
The organization has been giving a voice to the local community for 35 years, starting in the mid-1970s with one channel available for broadcasting videotaped local government and educational meetings. It's still doing that. But over the years, with several changes of name and location, the station's role has expanded to include three channels -- one for local government; one focusing on local school committee and school board meetings as well as other educational programming; and a third to share a broad range of voices and programs created by community producers who get their training, gear and studio time from ACTV. In return, producers pay a nominal annual membership fee -- currently $25 -- and agree to make their content available to the station for broadcast.
Now the organization is poised for another relocation. And the name change signals another leap forward in its mission. Jim Lescault joined the station in 2007 as executive director, armed with a vision of bringing the organization into the digital media age. ACTV is now one facet of a broad spectrum of media services available under the Amherst Media umbrella.
"It's not changing, it's growing," said Lescault. "This organization has always been about free speech, about providing free equipment so that people can have their voices heard in the community. But what we want to do is keep up with the technology, offering other forms of media."
New projects, services
One new project, making audio programming available by podcast -- downloadable to any of the new audio receivers, such as MP3 players, smart phones, computers, iPads and the like -- broadens the reach of locally produced programming. Take the long-standing and popular League of Women Voters interview program "Through the League Lens," for example. The show, hosted by Elisa Campbell and co-produced by Alice Swift and Mary Jane Laus, is now available as a podcast; that means fans can subscribe to it for free and have it turn up in their players each week.
"[The show] is a way for the League to reach out to the wider community with information," said Swift. "And with podcasts we can reach anybody in the world."
The new streaming of live ACTV programming on the Internet likewise casts a wider net. And the facility has had a face-lift to support the new technology. A newly revamped soundproof studio -- about 7 feet by 10 feet -- is podcast- and Skype-equipped. The booth can accommodate projects such as the poetry podcasts created by Teatro V!da, a youth group in Springfield, and voice-over recording by Maynard Seider of Amherst, who stopped off last week to work on audio tracks for a documentary he is creating about the history of North Adams. He is a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts there.
"This place has been wonderful in welcoming us here," said Seider, "having the equipment and having the staff to help us if we run into problems, and to upgrade our skills."
"Welcoming" is an extreme sport at Amherst Media -- more about that in due course. But for now, back to the high-tech toys and projects.
On a recent morning, Amherst Town Manager John Musante taped a public service announcement in the large studio, which is equipped with three cameras, a new teleprompter, a "green screen" for adding background images, and other high-tech toys. Down the hall in the editing suite, community producer Collin Woodard was working on his third installment of "The Creation Show," and newly trained producer Keith McCormick, a Belchertown chiropractor, was practicing his editing skills on the new 21.5-inch, 3.2GHz iMacs -- for the uninitiated, that's large and powerful, respectively -- with Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software.
Incubator, trainer
Another project of Amherst Media is giving startup companies a place to try out their technical products, said Craig Sinclair, the organization's director of media technologies.
"We try to work as a facilitator and incubator for interesting ideas in the community," he said in the cadence of his native Winchester, England. "If people have hardware or software that we can apply, we'll test it out as a 'proof of concept,' " he said, which is to say demonstrate its feasibility.
He said Amherst Media is also setting up a "citizen journalism program," to teach blogging and provide space and equipment for it.
And there's more. Amherst Media is now an Apple-authorized training center for Final Cut Pro, a state-of-the-art video-and-film editing software popular with the film industry.
"We're the first [center] in western Massachusetts," Sinclair said, "and the only community media center on the planet to be one."
The three-day fee-based training equips and certifies participants for jobs in the industry.
The center also offers a series of classes in Photoshop, Lightroom and Photoshop Rx software, taught by Adobe-certified instructor Thomas Prutisto.
The website
Sinclair's major project, the new Amherst Media website, can be accessed now at amherstmedia.org, but visitors will see the notation "Public Beta" written in red on the home page, which is cyberspeak for "this site under construction."
Amherst Media was selected as one of seven sites in the country by the Denver-based Open Media Project, which is sponsored by the Knight Foundation in Miami, to try out what is called "open media" website-building software, Drupal. Sinclair hopes to complete the project by April, though "complete" may not be the right word.
"[The website] is called 'open source,' " said Sinclair, "which means that it's free in several senses: Anyone can use it; anyone can adjust it; and the community together organically grows it."
In addition to heralding upcoming classes and other events, the website offers archived ACTV programs and also provides visitors with a way to connect with others to, for example, put together a film or video crew for a project.
Bottom line for Sinclair? "In a world that is increasingly controlled by corporations, it's important to look to the margins for innovation and diversity," he said, "and the voices of the masses rather than the moneyed few."
The welcome mat
To entice the masses to serve up their innovation and diversity, outreach is important. Amherst Media is poised to gather together some community focus groups to collect feedback on how the center is serving them and what they might like to see in the future.
The popularity of the ACTV lineup was evidenced recently when a scheduled show turned up two minutes late due to the overrun of a previous program -- and the phones began ringing at the one-minute mark, said Program Director James O'Connor. But the new services available are less well known.
For example, the center offers a club on "civic journalism" at the Amherst Regional Middle School, and provides internships to 30 students from area colleges. Among other tasks, the interns shoot all the government meetings under the supervision of the woman Bloomenthal describes as "the indispensable," Kayla Creamer, part-time government access coordinator.
"[The interns] are our lifeblood," says Bloomenthal. "We wouldn't be able to do it without them. And they also get a tremendous amount of experience."
Nonprofit organizations can become members for a $100 annual fee and, among other benefits, gain free use of the facility and equipment like overhead projectors for their meetings. Last week Learning in Retirement, a group that gets together to share members' special areas of knowledge, held its regular presentation there.
The center has recently resurrected two-month rotating exhibits of art in its corridor gallery and welcomes artist inquiries. Opening receptions are held during the First Thursday Amherst Artwalk and walkers are invited into the large studio to participate in an interview with the artist(s), which is cablecast on Channel 12.
Another project designed with an eye to introducing more people to the center is the new ACTV interview show "Neighbor to Neighbor," with rotating hosts Cynthia Brubaker, Adrienne Terizzi and Tony Maroulis. The idea is to bring in guests who may be known in their professional capacities and spotlight their personal sides.
"It's having a wonderful snowball effect," Bloomenthal said, "bringing new audiences and new participation to the station."
Bloomenthal says the opportunities for getting involved are limited only by the imagination and needs of the community. She pulled the Cambodian conference together in a matter of two days. She is now talking with the Amherst health department about the possibility of airing one- to three-minute sound bites on health, and is hoping to present them in several languages. Currently the station is running public service announcements for the fire department in English and Spanish, getting the word out about the department's free home fire-safety assessments.
In fact, Bloomenthal pretty much buttonholes everyone who walks in the door. Last week an Amherst Garden Club member dropped by to look into spreading the word about the club's annual sale -- and left considering the possibility of using the space for the club's regular meetings.
"It's all about empowerment," Bloomenthal says, "and reaching out and engaging people whose voices haven't been heard."
More information is available by calling Amherst Media at 256-0038. The station is located at 246 College St. in Amherst.
Photo Credit: Kevin Gutting, Amherst Bulletin