Loud and clear
Fans call for a return of ‘Citybeat’ as local TV station flourishes amid a changing public access landscape
By André Coleman 11/15/2012
As big corporations like Tribune Media, ClearChannel and Time Warner buy up newspapers, radio and television stations, destroying independent voices with cookie- cutter programming and shared reporting, more and more people have turned to public access television to acquire information and get out their seldom-heard messages.
But now, new state franchise laws no longer requiring big cable companies to carry public access stations have led to the demise of public access TV across the state, leaving activists, local politicians and average people wanting for a place to be seen and heard.
That has not been the case locally. While numerous stations across Los Angeles County have gone dark, Pasadena’s Community Access Corp. (PCAC) has continued operating, primarily because it functions as a city-funded operating company that is not reliant on money from a cable franchise.
But while PCAC has flourished, some residents are worried that the station is moving away from political and possibly controversial content. In July, city and station officials placed the “Citybeat” public affairs program, one of PCAC’s oldest shows, on hiatus as they decided whether to change its format. Some of “Citybeat’s” numerous known fans are clamoring for the return of the show, which allowed residents to hear and see elected officials comment and opine on issues ranging from redevelopment, police shootings and local elections to school happenings and budget deficits.
“The show is temporarily on hiatus, which is not uncommon for shows that have been on TV for a long time,” said Pasadena PIO William Boyer. In the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter has been a frequent unpaid guest on the show.
“This is part of efforts to look at its content, review the format as part of our efforts to provide the best product for our residents,” Boyer said.
Produced by Boyer, the show’s previous format involved two reporters interviewing a local community leader — usually Mayor Bill Bogaard. A 2002 contract between the city and PCAC mandates that the station tape the show two times a month and rebroadcast it a number of times more to be determined by the assistant city manager.
That contract also mandates the broadcasting of all council meetings and the mayor’s annual State of the City address. The contract was signed by former City Manager Cynthia Kurtz and Boyer’s predecessor, Ann Erdman. The council meetings and the State of the City address are still being broadcast.
PCAC Executive Director and Station Manager Keri Stokstad told the Weekly that “Citybeat” could be back on the air by the beginning of the year, with a broader panel rotation and a wider selection of local officials as the guests.
“We’d like to have something in place at the first of the year for the elections in March,” Stokstad said. “At this point, the interest is in having a list of more substantive guests, like bloggers and online commentators.”
Bogaard said he was surprised when he heard the show would be placed on hiatus, but said he could understand why the new management would want to reexamine the format.
“One of the most important responsibilities is to inform the public and to answer questions that are raised,” Bogaard told the Weekly. “’Citybeat’ is an opportunity for informing our community about current issues. I hope that it will continue to play that role.”
“Citybeat” began in the mid-1980s with veteran broadcast newsman Larry Mantle, current host of “AirTalk” on KPCC FM, at the helm. Since then, the show has become must-see TV for people interested in finding out about local politics and important issues. Over the years, nearly every elected official in town has been a guest on the show at one time or another, but no one is sure how many people actually watch it, primarily because public and government access stations have no method of measuring viewership.
“The idea was typically the mayor would be on the panel and other journalists,” Mantle said, recalling the show’s early days. “The idea was to kick around the top stories to get different stories and provide analysis of them. I’d have people come up to me on the street and talk about the show and the subjects. I think it serves an engaged part of the community. It is a service to people paying attention to local issues. As good a job as local print media can do, there is something added by having a spontaneous conversation, and I thought there was value in that. We had really good panelists.”
The show also provided information to residents of Northwest Pasadena and other minority groups that did not regularly attend City Council meetings.
“It’s the only place elected officials went off-script and went into detail on the topics,” said community activist Ishmael Trone. “That is something you don’t read in newspaper articles or see at council meetings. There was the opportunity to dig and probe into the issues, so the community could see how they were as individuals and their thought process.”
According to UCLA Philosophy of Education Chair Douglas Kellner, author of “Public Access Television and the Struggle for Democracy,” accountability is one thing the public looks for in public access television.
“Democratic media require media that further democracy and that allow individuals access to their fellow citizens,” Kellner said. “Genuine democracy requires individuals who, minimally, are informed concerning the political issues and processes in their country and, maximally, who participate in public debate and decision-making.”
Like many community access stations, PCAC was born in the 1970s, after the Federal Communications Commission required all cable systems after 1977 to set aside stations for government, education and, more importantly, the public — governed only by libel and obscenity laws.
The ruling gave the rise to minorities, gays and atheists broadcasting their respective messages across the country — issues rarely mentioned on mainstream television programming.
Under its umbrella authority, PCAC, located in Hen’s Teeth Square at the corner of North Los Robles Avenue and Woodbury Road, operates the city’s community access station KPAS, the city’s government station, the Arroyo Channel and the Pasadena Unified School District’s station, KLRN-TV. Local residents can produce shows on all of the channels after taking a round of training courses.
“We are bursting at the seams with what we can do in production,” said Stokstad, adding the stations studios are running out of space to meet demand. “We know we are going to have to figure something out.”
Because the station is flourishing, even in changing and uncertain times, “Citybeat” host Barry Gordon says the station has to get the show back on the air.
“We need that type of show here,” Gordon said. “This was one of the few places where local viewers could hear local politicians speak on hard issues. We need a local show where we can hold our local and elected officials accountable, with no holds barred discussion.
“Community Access has a responsibility to independent voices, and we are unique in that our station has a program that holds elected officials accountable,” he said.