The erosion of democracy over decades has been accompanied by transfer of wealth and power upward, and increased corporate dominance in every area, including media. Community public access media remains a rare vestige of democracy, even as its existence is threatened.

Current proposed FCC policy would defund thousands of community media stations nationwide by redefining, to benefit the corporate bottom line, the formula for public, education, government (PEG) fees that are assessed through cable providers including Comcast and CenturyLink.

Proposed FCC policies would further reduce both local government regulatory authority and municipal revenues, as well as eliminate a city or state’s legal ability to enact net neutrality rules.

Michele Swenson

Posted online by Portland Open Signal community: “This policy could eliminate the free access that community media centers provide citizens to create their own media and broadcast it over the cable system. One of our most powerful, most democratic local resources could be lost.”

The contrast could not be greater between responses by the leaders of Portland, Oregon, and Denver regarding efforts to preserve public access media. Portland Open Media is organizing with elected officials, the local Cable Regulatory Commission and other cities to fight the proposed FCC policy changes.

Even as Portland’s mayor notes that proposed FCC policy would eliminate “approximately $9.5 million dollars from the city’s general fund each year,” Portland’s City Council has authorized the City Attorney’s office to sue or join lawsuits to fight implementation of FCC policy, in order to preserve community media.

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Conversely, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock is preparing to close down the primary provider of public access media services in Denver.

To its 350 members, and many more in the wider Denver community of diverse cultures, religions, ages and experiences, Denver Open Media has for over a decade provided a unique opportunity to learn every aspect of audio, video, animation, field and studio production, editing and other software, while creating programming for three Comcast TV stations. 

Open media represents a small oasis of democratic participation in an environment of corporate dominance that often drowns out voices of the people.

Even as the city has promised a “seamless transition” for public access media to the Buell Public Media Center at 21st and Arapahoe streets, scheduled for completion in 2020 to house Rocky Mountain PBS, Emily Griffith Technical College and other public access media, the city has produced no transition plan.

On Oct. 26 the city canceled the request for proposals for a media access coordinator after Denver Open Media submitted a proposal by the Oct. 19 deadline.

Nor has the city sought to ensure continuity prior to the move to the Buell Public Media Center by renewing the contract for provision of equipment between the City and County of Denver and the Open Media Foundation, set to expire Dec. 19.

Instead, the mayor’s office has reiterated the intent to remove all of the equipment funded through the PEG fees that are reserved for “capital expenses” — i.e., equipment, software, and maintenance. 

In a recent letter to Mayor Hancock expressing concern about the city’s RFP process in its search for a community media access coordinator, Mike Wassenaar, president and CEO of the national Alliance for Community Media, noted that, unlike any other city in the U.S., the City of Denver has provided no operating dollars for Denver Open Media/Open Media Foundation over its 12-year contract with the nonprofit. And yet, he wrote, DOM/OMF has generated a “remarkable…level of output and creativity,” given Denver’s “meager investment for a city of your size,” resulting in a remarkable return on investment. 

Wassenaar observes, “The purpose of contracting with independent, nonprofit entities to perform community media services is two-fold: It holds the city at arm’s-length from any First Amendment claims of government interference in public or religious speech supported by the facility; and it allows for the generation of alternative revenues by the organization – and thus multiplies the impact of the city’s investment.”

Indeed, as a nonprofit, DOM’s parent organization, the Open Media Foundation, for 12 years has covered its own operating costs, including rent, staff, and utilities, while amplifying PEG equipment funding with $1 million to $2 million in grants, donations and other earned income. It has also leveraged tens of thousands of volunteer hours through its internship and Americorps VISTA programs.

Many different communities have appealed to the city to maintain continuity of services at DOM’s 700 Kalamath St. address.

Response from the mayor’s office has been a kind of doublespeak, professing to “modernize the public access model,” while denying the certain disruption of services, including access to training, youth classes and editing facilities currently available at DOM, plus ease of access to two stages often utilized by community members for serial productions. 

The city recently announced a pared-down RFQ process, due Dec. 16, to identify a single vendor to provide all services from a city building, replacing four paid staff and auxiliary unpaid staff at DOM.

The city’s efforts to remove “public” from public access media in order to control media and content seems yet another takedown of democracy. Instead of vying with the FCC to be the first to shut down public access media, Denver should join Portland in its defense.

Former nurse Michele Swenson wrote the 2005 book “Democracy Under Assault: TheoPolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right,” followed by online issue pieces for Huffington Post, Truthout, Common Dreams and others. A member for over three years, she has produced local videos and audio commentaries through Denver Open Media.

Michele Swenson

Special to The Colorado Sun