Access channel seeking funding

Community station hopes cable deal helps

March 26, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Free speech and American democracy, or a new snow blower?

That's the question of the moment and the future for Carroll Community Television -- public access Channel 19 -- whose offices are housed in a basement under a gymnasium, where basketballs and feet moving to disco aerobics pound over the studios, and where low ceilings and hot lights dictate shorts in the winter.

Director Marion E. Ware has been lobbying the county commissioners and the towns for more money for the station -- as much as $190,000, revenue that would come from a change in Carroll's contract with Prestige Cablevision -- to fund projects and improvements. The reaction, she said, has been "noncommittal."

"They want to see a completed plan," Ware said. "After all, they could buy a snow blower instead."

Ware often calls the 10-year-old station "the best-kept secret in Carroll County: We have no money, and we're hidden in a basement."

She also calls it democracy.

"I think that the history of public access does come out of a concern for public access rights and the affordability of media," she said.

The average person cannot buy television time.

But Channel 19 is open to anyone, and members of the public can borrow its equipment after taking a basic training course that's offered monthly, she said. If someone has an idea but not the skills, one of the station's 125 volunteers will usually do the job.

The station's 60 hours of weekly programming includes a lot of public-service announcements -- the dreaded talking heads, she said. "But people want to get information out. That's what community television is all about."

Other offerings include school music events, candidate forums, 4-H Club news, historical society talks, movie reviews, religious shows, a science-fiction talk show, parades, events at Western Maryland College, a gardening show that features centenarians, nature walks, poetry slams, and a history of Westminster that was two years in the making.

Another polished piece of tape from the archives is the two-hour "Vacuums for the Serious Collector," a deadpan tour of a private museum of old vacuum cleaners, packed with information.

It still gets requests, said Ware, adding, "If you have an interest, somebody else does, somewhere."

Aside from school programs that draw parents, the most popular show -- running four years now -- is "Starquest" -- karaoke taped at an area restaurant.

Ware wants a cooking show, a local antiques roadshow and a computer-literacy course with the library.

Patrick F. Flaherty, chairman of the Carroll County and Towns Cable TV Committee and the television production specialist for Carroll County schools, wants a local homework hot line for students, with a how-to-help-with-homework show for their parents.

But their main goal now is a PEG center: for Public, Educational and Government access channels.

"This new center will be a conduit for everything that goes on in the community. We will be a resource of tools and training that everyone can use to inform, entertain and educate the public," Ware said. "Communication is the foundation of a strong democracy."

"Some people like to see public meetings. You could do public meetings with PEG," she said. And Channel 19 could incorporate as a nonprofit entity and qualify for federal grant money.

"Public access does a lot of these things to fill the void where government access doesn't really exist: That's the concept of a PEG center," said Flaherty.

The station has been getting about $60,000 a year from Prestige, which would be increased to $75,000 in the new agreement, but receives only services such as copying from the county, Ware said. Housed in the Carroll Community College annex basement at 300 S. Center St., Channel 19 will move to temporary quarters in Westminster when the college moves into its new fine arts building this spring, she said. The gymnasium upstairs will be renovated, and the station and the county library's administrative offices will move back, a process expected to take three to five years.

Ware can be found in an office tucked behind a vending machine, part of a facility that's spread out through the painted cinderblock halls under the gym floor.

"These two editing labs should be insulated for sound," she said at one stop, "so when you do voice-overs you don't have the air-conditioner running and basketball overhead, and phones ringing and weights dropping and the treadmill running."

Prestige is putting up a one-time capital grant of $300,000 for the renovation and $500,000 for new equipment, said Ware, one of two full-time employees augmented by two part-timers.

The station has its eye on $190,000, revenue that would be from an increase in the franchise fee from 3 percent to 5 percent. As part of its current contract with Carroll, Prestige pays 3 percent of its gross revenue to the county and municipalities. Carroll and Prestige are negotiating the contract's renewal.

Ware has made her pitch to the county commissioners and the towns of Westminster, Taneytown, Mount Airy and Sykesville, and has dates with Union Bridge, New Windsor and Hampstead.

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