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Community Television surfs for funding.

Byline: Joe Mosley The Register-Guard

Their voices are still out there - from evangelical Christians to devout anarchists - but their messages are no longer backed by government funding.

Community Television - now on Cable Channel 29 in the Eugene-Springfield area - is preparing to go it alone, following decisions by Eugene and Lane County officials earlier this year to eliminate as much as $7,500 each in funding.

"We're optimistic; we're not devastated," says Larry Doberstein, president of the board of directors for Community Television of Lane County, the nonprofit and all-volunteer organization that provides the video-broadcast soapbox for local CTV producers.

"We're going to keep doing this and keep the door open for free speech as long as we can," Doberstein says.

Community television has been alive in the Eugene area for at least 20 years, a result of agreements that spun out of federal deregulation in the cable television industry. Cable franchises around the country were required to pay fees to local governments, and to make channels available for public access, educational and government broadcasts.

In Eugene-Springfield, Community Television fills the public access slot at Comcast Channel 29, while Channel 23 is education and Channel 21 is the local government-oriented Metrovision.

Metrovision continues to receive money from both Eugene and Lane County - and the channel airs City Council and county board of commissioners meetings - but Community Television was cut from both city and county budgets after proponents scraped for several years to keep the funding.

"We're just shifting our reliance on funds to another area," says Doberstein, who plans a fund-raising campaign similar to those that have kept local public radio stations afloat.

But the funding cut has raised eyebrows among Community Television advocates, and even among Eugene city councilors.

Some of the independently produced shows that air on Community Television - in particular, the anarchist-oriented "Cascadia Alive" - have periodically raised the ire of some public officials. And that history of criticism has led to questions about whether budget mechanisms were used to put pressure on those expressing dissenting points of view.

"Ever since 'Cascadia Alive' came on the air in '96, we've been under pressure from the city," says Tim Lewis, one of the show's producers.

John Zerzan, an author and leading voice in America's anarchist circles, says it's "an open secret" some city officials have hoped for years to shut down the show - which most recently drew attention from the Secret Service after showing a music video depicting President Bush with a gun to his head.

"Where do you go for any kind of independent voice?" says Zerzan, who maintains the city's budget action was an attempt to stifle free speech - even though it didn't shut down Community Television.

Ironically, the city's decision to pull its money out of Community Television came in a year when it appeared to be a non-issue. After heated debates for several years running, city councilors agreed a year ago to subsidize Community Television on an ongoing basis - and the $7,500 was included in the city's base budget for the fiscal year that began in July.

Community Television's backers were told they didn't need to attend the city's Budget Committee sessions in which fiscal details for the year were hammered out, or the June 23 council meeting at which the final budget was adopted.

"(Councilor) David Kelly even assured me we didn't need to be there," says Doberstein, the Community Television president. "In fact, he told me we shouldn't, because we might remind (critics) that we exist and then they might bring it up again."

But the matter was brought to the table without notice at the council's June 23 meeting when Councilor Scott Meisner made a motion to restore $7,500 for community arts grants by deleting the Community Television allocation.

After yet another debate, the council voted 4-4 on Meisner's motion and Mayor Jim Torrey broke the tie by voting to shift the money to community arts.

Neither Meisner nor Torrey could be reached for comment on Friday, but minutes of the meeting indicate that Meisner characterized the change as a means of getting the most for the city's money.

"Councilor Meisner said he had been looking for possibilities to get the most benefit to the public out of the budgeted funding spent," according to the meeting minutes. "He said he had been impressed by the community arts grants and their ability to reach great numbers of people."

Voting with Meisner and the mayor were councilors Nancy Nathanson, Jennifer Solomon and Gary Pape.

Kelly - who voted with councilors Gary Poling, Betty Taylor and Bonny Bettman against the change - says the whole thing "felt rather out of left field." He says he had not been notified prior to the meeting that Meisner intended to introduce such a motion, though Kelly acknowledged it may have been a spontaneous action.

But Kelly also says he considers the city's previous payments to Community Television a bargain that have helped bring access to a broad variety of programming to thousands of potential viewers.

"I hadn't been that aware of CTV until a couple years ago, when it became a controversial budget item," Kelly says. "But that was a very, very small amount of city money that served a variety of interests."

Among Community Television's current programs are several religious shows, several politically driven shows, satirical talk shows, local stock car racing and even a locally produced teen soap opera. The channel is on the air 24 hours a day, with 80 percent local programming.

"The reason CTV lost its funding is because (city officials) are afraid of the issues raised by 'Cascadia Alive' and other independent producers," says Amy Pincus Merwin, producer of Informed TV, a progressive community affairs and news show.

She says every other public access television channel in the state is well-funded by their local governments.

Merwin, who serves on Community Television's advisory board, says she wishes the board of directors well in its plan to rely on private fund-raising. But she also cautions about a rough road ahead for an organization that remains obscure.

"It's admirable, and it may well work once this city realizes CTV is a diamond in the rough," Merwin says. "But the community doesn't really know yet about CTV."
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Title Annotation:Cable Channel 29 will try to replace lost public monies with private donations in order to stay on the air; Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 2, 2003
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