The Covid-19 pandemic has created a wide range of natural experiments. The experience of public, educational, and government (PEG) access channels suggests opportunities—particularly for rural, exurban, and “news desert” communities—to support local media, and in the process build public participation in community. But seizing those opportunities will take work.
Participatory and public“Governmental and educational access channels, at a minimum, program events such as city council and board of education meetings, and sometimes more—including local middle school and high school sports.”
For over 40 years, people in more than 3,000 US communities have made and watched hyperlocal, noncommercial programming via their cable services. Public access, educational access, and governmental access cable channels (PEG for short) exist in communities where local or state governments have granted cable companies franchises—in the process requiring them to offer community-based benefits, such as a basic-cable channel, production capacity, and operational and capital funds. Governmental and educational access channels, at a minimum, program events such as city council and board of education meetings, and sometimes more—including local middle school and high school sports. Public access channels are open to the public to make and show programs, and staffers offer training. How-to, foreign-language, and gardening programs are among the programming you might find your neighbor appear on.
Usually the impetus to get such services has been driven by activists pushing for local participatory media. Some such operations have developed into community media centers and have grown to include programming in low-power radio, online news, and streaming options. These services are markedly unglamorous; city council meetings, for instance, are rarely high-grade entertainment (at least, to anyone outside an inner circle). Public access was famously ridiculed in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World. Public officials can get irked by programming that triggers phone calls to their offices. Staffers tend to have that seasoned civil servant’s expectation of being widely underappreciated. But the services are designed to encourage freedom of speech and civic discourse.
How did PEG access media react to the onset of the Covid-19 public health crisis? Did those media serve their claimed public function? Did they, specifically, provide the capacity to allow publics to form? These kinds of functions include providing relevant information that shares common conditions and problems among affected people; providing sites for interchange of ideas; and providing places or platforms for people to join together.
Surveying the field
A survey we designed, distributed with the help of the PEG national association, the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), addressed those questions. About 15 percent of the PEG operations in the United States, in late May and early June, answered our survey (with 286 responses).
What we know is limited to what we heard from the PEG staffers themselves (we also interviewed 10 of those who had volunteered in the survey to talk to us about their pandemic adaptation), and it is also limited to the beginning months of the pandemic. The protests after the death of George Floyd were only beginning when the survey closed, so we didn’t get much information on activities related to that urgent local issue. But we did find out some interesting patterns, worth focusing on for their implications for local media more generally.
Town hall and public square
In most communities where staffers responded to the survey, PEG functioned both as virtual town halls and public squares. They became a crucial platform for residents to interact with their local elected representatives; Zoom meetings to discuss local Covid-19 response were cablecast and attracted record numbers—and questions for officials. For instance, a council meeting in Salem, Oregon, drew an unprecedented 10,000 viewers. Those viewers who could access meetings on Zoom or through the livestream carried by the local PEG media outlet seized on the chat functions to interact more with officials than had been ever seen in person.“When a nursing home could no longer host a local musician, the PEG channel showcased his performance, allowing residents to watch him with minimum disruption to the routine so important to eldercare.”
Residents could also participate in contactless community. When a nursing home could no longer host a local musician, the PEG channel showcased his performance, allowing residents to watch him with minimum disruption to the routine so important to eldercare. Some access media hosted summer video contests, with virtual training to show community members how to tell their own pandemic-coping stories on their smartphones. Religious services that turned virtual were cablecast. PEG became the go-to option for high-school graduation. In one community, the media center assembled an audio soundtrack in advance, with input from community members, then broadcast it on its low-power radio station. Families all tuned to that station and played the soundtrack in their cars as they joined in a drive-through graduation ceremony. Memorial Day services carried on PEG channels drew wide viewership.
Some also started hyperlocal news programs, with contributions from residents reporting on their own neighborhoods. The pandemic made local news excruciatingly relevant, and many localities are poorly served, or not at all, by daily local news. In Hawaii’s Akakū Maui Community Media, one of the admins became the host of a new daily program, largely filled with hyperlocal news from residents scattered throughout the island; the program continues today. The Lynn, Massachusetts, cable access center reported, “We became THE place to go to for information in the first month, leading to many reaching out to get us info to share and for remote interview opportunities.” In Torrance, California, cable-access channel has produced dozens of reports, which not only were cablecast but archived on YouTube. The Worcester, Massachusetts, cable-access channel now has a new daily news show, The Daily Breaking, which is cablecast and also available as a podcast. In other places, existing programs were expanded and focused on Covid-19. The longstanding Grand Rapids, Michigan, web-news site The Rapidian has turned to daily updates. In Philadelphia, community-access media’s program PhillyCAM Voices became a Covid-19 community narrative.“Staffers also worked with educators in some communities to set up free Wi-Fi points throughout the area, to help students without adequate home broadband.”
Finally, the access media centers were the tech support of last resort, as entire communities moved overnight to virtual services. In some small towns, officials had no experience with virtual platforms and needed training. In one case, a PEG staffer found out on Sunday night that a Monday morning meeting had to be cablecast, to conform with open-meeting laws. The staffer installed new hardware and software, trained local officials to ensure that they could connect with each other on GotoWebinar, and ensured their meeting could be carried on cable and streamed. In many places, senior citizens wanted and got individual support to access media on their computers. Producers for public access needed to install and learn new software to produce remotely. Schoolteachers had to master new technology, and they got virtual training from PEG operators. Staffers also worked with educators in some communities to set up free Wi-Fi points throughout the area, to help students without adequate home broadband.
This set of roles for PEG has always been present or at least possible. But officials, cable management and even residents have rarely considered them essential—until the pandemic forced community, governmental, and educational services to become virtual. Since then, there has been an outpouring of gratitude.
Engagement through universal design
The way this hyperlocal media responded to the crisis is exactly what many proponents of “strong” (or at least “stronger”) democracy advocate. This participatory media facilitated more direct civic engagement than traditional mass media, offering citizens interactivity with their officials, a venue to host their activities, and a chance to make their own programs. The service, maintained by staffers to conform to basic community standards, offered more filters than the firehose of social media.
Furthermore, PEG’s quick transition to virtual services for government and education, as well as creating opportunities for residents to share both information and experiences, demonstrated the power of universal design. When public access media transitioned to virtual from in-person training for its producers, suddenly people who had found it either difficult or impossible to appear in person signed up. Attendance at town meetings broke records. Chat and Q&A functions resulted in more people interacting with their government officials than ever before.
This example could easily become a model for how to address the challenge of local news and engagement with civic life, with local media. Particularly with the national crisis in journalism and the dismaying growth of “news deserts,” these cable-based services offer real possibilities. These are public services, with the overwhelming proportion of activity provided by the public itself.
But PEG access media also encountered obstacles, which stand in the way both of sustained success and for the replication of this model more generally.
- Broadband access is an essential backbone to coordinated technical services when everyone is working remotely, even when you are providing programming on cable. But the federal standard for what constitutes broadband is set lower than any other developed country, and universal service is a goal ineffectively waved at. So, unequal and unstable broadband has plagued PEG efforts. Staffers have different levels of broadband from home, at different times, and find it difficult to synch up transmission. Council members conducting business from home (and depending on PEG staffers to get their Zoom meetings onto cable) find their screens freezing. Seniors and lower-income residents often do not have enough broadband to participate electronically in town meetings or to record or upload programming they may want to produce.
- PEG is chronically underresourced, and at times often reluctantly provided under duress of municipal contract, by cable companies. Local governments, already facing harsh financial pressures, have seen budgets get even tighter during the pandemic. Underfunded PEG staffers worked around the clock in the early days of the pandemic, and continue to find themselves harried and overwhelmed, even as they both give and face new opportunities. PEG staffers believe their services should be recognized as essential, and they worry that their budgets will get even smaller.
- PEG exists only in communities where residents have advocated for it and supported it over time, and many communities—particularly in rural areas—do not have it. It is no longer, and has not been since the 1970s, a national requirement. In communities hard hit by this public health crisis, where PEG does not exist, it may be hard to develop support for such media. Furthermore, currently PEG is tied to the terms of cable franchises, even though the services themselves have often expanded to radio, the web, and social media. As cord-cutting increases, depending on cable to fund community-access media may shortchange communities.
The role of government
These limitations demonstrate the ways in which infrastructural and sometimes near-invisible regulation shapes the public experience of public media. They could all be addressed at different levels of government.
Federal government has a possible role. For instance, the majority in the current Federal Communications Commission, dominated by Republicans, favors cable companies—which only reluctantly pay these franchise fees—over cable access. Current rulemaking lets cable pay less and claim it’s doing more for cable access, and the FCC also wants to enforce a rule requiring all fees that cable companies pay the municipality above 5 percent be used for capital expenses only, rather than PEG operations.
More generally, the FCC could establish internationally recognized high-speed broadband standards and universal service requirements. It could also, in a related area, develop functional net-neutrality regulation, which would also contribute to more consistent broadband access.
Congress could clarify support for PEG in ways that could block current FCC efforts to reduce and limit the use of cable fees. Furthermore, it could create common, PEG-level standards for use of local rights-of-way by both cable and broadband services, so that local authorities can garner resources from both. It could even reinstitute national standards for PEG access on all cable systems, rather than the current situation where local rights-of-way permissions from localities permit local governments to act. (In 1969, the FCC created the obligation for cable companies to create and fund PEG channels; after it was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in 1979, Congress worked out new terms, but cable companies severely limited them, because it increases their costs.)“Currently, where there is a statewide franchise, localities can’t demand standards; and too often, states have been uninterested in achieving consistent standards for this hyperlocal public media.”
State governments could support the provision of information about statewide and national issues relevant to local communities in the way that has happened at the pandemic’s outset. For instance, many states are forming regulations on over-the-top services transmitted via broadband. The revenues collected could be allocated, in some part, to local communities for hyperlocal public media like PEG. As well, states should set state-wide standards, such as HD (now the basic and often only option on consumer equipment), for transmission on PEG access channels. Currently, where there is a statewide franchise, localities can’t demand standards; and too often, states have been uninterested in achieving consistent standards for this hyperlocal public media. So today, cable companies freely downgrade the signal, and even keep PEG access media from using channel information and other metadata that is completely accessible technically.
Local governments can also support the provision of community-engaged local and hyperlocal media through PEG. They can prioritize PEG in franchise negotiations; encourage partnerships across local media; and develop with PEG plans for action in emergencies and disasters.
Public media, public life
PEG’s performance in crisis demonstrated the value of reliable, hyperlocal information, community events, and technological expertise in a public health crisis. It also revealed the need to invest more ubiquitously in local community access media, with regulatory structures that recognize the link between public media and public life in an open society.
This essay is based on research conducted by the authors in PEG Access Media: Local Communication Hubs in A Pandemic. You can read the full report here.
Banner image: Michelle Clark and PhillyCAM.