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.

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