November 25, 2015: Belmont Media Center: Stepping into the Future

November 25, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

The Belmont Media Center has served Belmont well for ten years. However, in an era when people can post YouTube videos to the Web, taken by phones they carry in their pocket, one might well question whether BMC remains a valid future model for public media access. If provided with appropriate resources, BMC can and should remain a critical part of Belmont’s community information network.

Now is a good time to question what the future might hold for BMC. BMC is largely supported by contracts which Belmont negotiates with Comcast and Verizon, the two cable companies serving our town. The Verizon agreement is up for renewal in 2016. The Board of Selectmen’s negotiations with Verizon could profoundly affect BMC’s future role in the community.

One of the key attributes of public access is that it isn’t just about broadcasting, it’s about education as well. MediaShift, a national publication following digital media, explains that while YouTube and Google Video will host your videos, they will not teach you how to do the video programming in the first place. The training a local access center such as BMC provides in media production, MediaShift notes, is something you can’t get by sitting at home alone, uploading videos to YouTube.

Today, BMC teaches primarily how to use broadcast equipment. Tomorrow will involve teaching about computers as well. Through BMC, community residents should be able to gain access to the Internet, and learn to use on-line video and audio equipment. One fundamental objective of public access is to give community members a forum in which to speak. In the 1990s, one media analyst observes, cable TV was the best way to do that; today, it’s only one way of many. A new Verizon contract should provide BMC with adequate computer capacity to teach all types of media access.

If there has been one criticism of public access TV nationally, it’s been that they have become too tethered to their studios. That’s a criticism that is difficult to apply to BMC. Belmont residents routinely watch coverage of meetings from various schools and municipal buildings, in addition to watching a host of local athletic events.

Nonetheless, looking forward, BMC would benefit from an increased capacity to broadcast wirelessly to facilitate remote broadcasts. In contrast to events such as Town Meeting or Selectmen’s meetings, now broadcast from the High School and Town Hall, a future broadcast of community activities such as the children’s reading hour from the Benton Library is now limited by technology, not by BMC programming policy or priorities. The new Verizon contract should provide BMC with adequate wireless technology.

Given the recent explosion in high definition TVs, BMC needs the capacity not only to produce, but also to broadcast, programs using the same technology as viewers use to receive. BMC cannot do that today. An exclusive focus on high definition TV, however, falls into the trap of using a ten-year contract to look only at the “now.” The Verizon contract should not force BMC to constantly play from behind. As people increasingly move to video-on-demand and 3-D broadcasts, for example, BMC should be allowed to update its capacity to stay current with viewer technology. The new Verizon contract should enable BMC to broadcast in the manner that people will be watching tomorrow.

Concededly, particularly in terms of technology, it’s difficult to look ahead ten years. To do its job, however, BMC needs certain essential resources: an expanded education staff, sufficient computer technology, and up-to-date broadcasting technology. The new Verizon contract is the place for Belmont to begin not only to ensure BMC’s “today,” but also to step into BMC’s “tomorrow.”

November 19, 2015: Belmont Media Center: Modern Day Soapbox

November 19, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Just as the Belmont Media Center was celebrating its 10th birthday recently, the Board of Selectmen was being called upon to negotiate a new contract with Verizon to support the Center in years to come. Since the new Verizon contract will extend for ten years, now is the time both to assess what BMC means to the Belmont community today, and to imagine what BMC’s future might hold. The changes in media technology that have occurred in the past decade will likely pale when considering what the future will bring.

BMC grew out of a movement begun in the late 1960s, when George Stoney, widely viewed as the father of public access TV, founded the Alternate Media Center at New York University to train “interns” to establish “local community access centers” in their own neighborhoods around the country. Stoney’s vision took hold and public access TV grew.

Local media centers like BMC are now often viewed as the modern day equivalent of the public soap box. According to the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, today, public access TV stations annually produce more hours of original, non-repeated programs than do the NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox networks combined.

The objective of BMC, however, extends beyond simply producing programs. One additional objective is to promote public engagement. To further that purpose, BMC provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of local government meetings, as well as talk shows produced by local residents, allowing for viewer call-ins. BMC, in other words, not only regularly gives State Senator Will Brownsberger the opportunity to reach into Belmont homes, but gives the residents of those homes the opportunity to reach back. According to media analyst Rob McCausland, this interactivity moves the local access TV station beyond merely disseminating information. It allows community residents to participate.

Moreover, McCausland notes, public engagement naturally flows from local access telecasts, whether of the School Committee, Board of Selectmen or other public bodies. “An important but little-noted benefit of government meetings coverage,” McCausland says, “comes from the showing of citizens’ involvement in the meetings’ business – just their mere attendance, not to mention any comments they may make. . .[E]ngaged behavior is being modeled– and it’s a highly-prized type of engagement: civil and respectful community problem-solving. . .Such coverage helps establish an expectation that this is indeed the public’s business.”

BMC is not just a telecaster, it’s an educator as well. Not too long ago, the Federal Communications Commission released its final report on “The Information Needs of Communities.” The FCC noted that, in many cases, the nonprofit group operating a local access TV station “not only runs the distribution channel itself, but also a community media or access center that trains local citizens in media production.” In so doing, the FCC said, “they provide groups and individuals who generally have not had access to the electronic media with the opportunity to become sources of information in the electronic marketplace of ideas.”

Centers such as BMC, the FCC said, “help a community develop its ability to communicate. . .[through] media production and literacy training.” This occurs not only through studio broadcasting, but also through teaching local residents how to deliver on-site broadcasts of shows produced in the field (such as local sporting events).

BMC is a sterling example of the local community access centers Stoney contemplated fifty years ago. But, does that model still hold when we look forward ten years? Can BMC remain not only relevant, but vibrant, in an era of self-produced YouTube videos and events that can be filmed by a phone you carry in your pocket? It is precisely that question which I will address next week.

November 5, 2015: Belmont’s milk pour-off program: everything worked

November 5, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Reading, writing and arithmetic are not the only skills taught in Belmont’s public schools today.  Wise waste disposal is yet another.  From its elementary schools through the Chenery Middle School, Belmont is entering a new year of its wildly successful milk “pour-off” program. The initiative encourages kids who do not finish their lunchtime milk to pour the excess into large “buckets” and to recycle their empty cartons before disposing of the rest of their lunchtime waste.

According to Mary Beth Calnan, Belmont’s recycling coordinator, one benefit of the pour-off program involves a reduction in the town’s waste disposal costs.  The liquid remaining in milk cartons is extraordinarily heavy, Calnan recently said.  Since Belmont pays for waste disposal based on weight, every pound that can be diverted from the waste disposal stream represents dollars of savings to the town’s budget.  In fact, Calnan points out, the pour-off system diverts not simply pounds, but tons on which Belmont need not pay disposal costs.  The Butler school alone diverts nearly three tons in poured-off milk each year.

The empty cartons can then be recycled providing significant additional environmental benefits.  Belmont’s Winn Brook school diverts about 34,000 milk cartons each year.  Since 85% of those cartons are made up of paper, by recycling the cartons, Winn Brook’s kids, alone, will save about 30 trees over the next five years.

The program also makes life easier on school staff, Calnan says.  Previously, when unused milk was thrown away with the trash, the bags would often leak, creating a “constant mess to keep cleaned up” at our schools.  Now the liquids go down the drain and not into plastic trash bags.

Belmont’s pour-off program began at the Butler elementary school where concerned parents, along with an enterprising custodian, figured out a system that would work in the crowded cafeteria. The pour-off program is now “old hat,” Calnan says, and is “embedded in the operation of all [five] schools.”

The goal of the program is more than to teach the kids that the process of pouring off unused liquid before recycling the container is the “right thing to do.”  “We don’t want the kids to [pour off and recycle] because they think about it as a good thing,” Calnan says. Rather “we want to teach it as a life-long habit, something you do automatically.” Some things you simply do, without thinking each time about whether you “should.”  Look both ways before crossing a street.  Buckle your seat belts.

Nationwide, school pour-off programs are supported by the Carton Council, the industry association of companies that make the small square “gabled” milk cartons. According to the Council, recycled carton paper fibers are a valuable resource for making new products. The discarded milk cartons from Belmont’s schools can end up as tissue paper and office paper, or even as material for wall board manufacturing. The outside layer on a milk carton that many people think of as wax is actually a thin layer of plastic that can also be recycled and reused in other materials.

There is much to admire about the Belmont pour-off program, well beyond the program’s positive fiscal and environmental impacts. A group of parents not only had a specific idea, but undertook the much harder job of translating that idea into an actionable proposal; those parents then worked even more to develop an implementation plan. A school janitor stepped beyond his typical day-to-day tasks to help make that plan happen. Administrators at other Belmont schools were willing to expand it to their schools when the program proved successful. The pour-off program, an instance where the entire process worked.