Guerrilla TV

by Michael W. Stowell

November 4, 2002


There was a time when the idea of ordinary people producing their own television programs was as far out as going to the moon. Then, with the development of lightweight camera equipment and accompanying technology, we watched televised trips to the moon while back on earth network television programming was seen by many to be a vast, gray wasteland. The arrival of cable TV and the promise of unlimited channels gave new life to the dream called "freedom of expression" and freed television to become a more democratic medium.

There are now more than 2,200 cities in America where local cable systems offer training, equipment and channel time for people to make and distribute their own TV programs. It is dedicated to free speech and it is called 'public access.'

In schools, libraries, storefronts and basements access studios have been cropping up for more than twenty years. Public access TV is about real people doing real things. It's about labor battles in San Francisco, homebirth in Detroit, grade school theater in Tampa, community recycling in Boulder; it's about city council meetings in hundreds of cities across this country. It's a place to speak out about the AIDS crisis, animal rights, prison reform, radioactive waste, violence against women, endangered species, organic gardening and farmers' markets; it's about local, national and international politics. Public access TV is the voice of real people speaking to real people about issues that concern us all; it knows no bounds.

At little or no cost to the users, public access is a bargain that's hard to beat. It's usually paid for by a small percentage of subscriber fees or by license fees paid to a city by a cable company. With more than half of the country wired for cable TV, a majority of Americans can view and use these channels.

Most of us read at least one newspaper each day, but how many of us are newspaper reporters? Many of us read magazines, but how many of us publish articles in magazines? Many people read books, but how many of us write books? How many of us can get our books and articles published and circulated? With public access TV we have opportunities to produce programs that represent our views to other people via the most popular medium available and to have fun doing it! It's not very difficult to do. I know, I've produced nearly 100 programs myself.

There is something about this audio/visual medium that stirs our imaginations to higher creativity than does the written word. People can become entranced by the television medium even if the substance of the program they are watching is little more than fodder for consumption. When the product they are sampling is a human one-to-one communication about an idea of shared interest it can become a very personal message that imprints upon the memory and motivates to committed action. I'm recalling those horrific images of the Vietnam war that impacted the American public far more than did all of the musings of the newspaper columnists.

People love to communicate, we are a very social species. When we express ourselves effectively we feel fulfilled. When our expression is successful through an otherwise oppressive medium, like television can be, we are encouraged to continue and to share our expressive opportunities with others.

I can do no less.

The cost of acquiring, maintaining and using a television broadcast transmitter is so prohibitive that public access TV has evolved through the cable TV networks and systems and has lived a precarious existence for more than twenty years. Public access stations owe their existence to people, ideas and technological advances that date back more than forty years.

The advent of cable TV in the 1940s was one key development. By some accounts, it all began with a group of unlikely revolutionaries living in the coal mining hills of Lansford, Pennsylvania. In the late 1940s, Summit Hill, a mile away on a mountaintop, already had television, but the signal went right over Lansford. What brought cable television to the people of Lansford was the concerns of a local tavern owner; he was losing business. So it was Kasmer Kosciolek who wondered if he could put an antenna up on the summit behind his bar and run a cable down to receive a television signal. It worked. The signal was weak so he got together with folks around the area who had expert knowledge of radio equipment and designed some rather crude boosters. The reception improved significantly and business in the bar, Kasmer's Place, took off. Soon, people were adding their names to a list of prospective cable users.

The development of coaxial cable and the dreams of the 1960s, of a 'wired' nation, brought cable television into reality. The signal reception of curtain rods on telephone poles could be augmented by microwave relays. In some towns, local coverage of community events was plugged into the system and cable companies then began offering more local programming and attracting new subscribers. What was deemed an almost endless potential for channels through a coaxial cable brought hope of more diverse programming and attracted more and more customers, but federal regulations and high cost delayed cable television's entry into most large and medium-sized cities.

1967 marked the arrival of a lightweight, easy-to-use, relatively affordable, battery-powered, black and white video portapack intended for home use. The most powerful medium of communication ever invented became available to many people and the video revolution was underway. During the antiwar movement of the late 1960s, the video portapack became an important tool for education and mobilization of the masses and cable TV held the potential for broad distribution. Out of that time came an awareness that in order to affect social change mass communication had to be implemented. The dramatic images of video had the greatest impact and cable TV could place that impact right where people sat. In those days, Canada's "Challenge for Change" was a pioneer movement to bridge the communication gap between the bureaucracy and the people.

In 1971, New York City became the first large American city to acquire cable television and soon the movement to create public access channels gathered momentum. This was where cable TV, video portapacks and people with dreams of public access came together. On July 1, 1971, the first public access TV channel became a reality and the first uncensored TV programs planted the seeds of free speech into the television medium. In 1972, the FCC adopted cable regulations that required access channels on most cable systems in this country.

Today, Public Access Television exists in these countries, perhaps others: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Ireland, Netherlands, New, Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, United, States, United, Kingdom, and Uruguay. To find a facility near you, check out the Global Village CAT.

I wish I could say the television medium is being used as much as possible by all our defenders of justice and peace. Communication is our weapon and "guerrilla warfare" through America's TV sets holds the greatest potential for defending our freedoms and expanding them, and for liberating others. The internet is a great tool for organizing and educating but, unfortunately, Mom and Pop America and all their kiddies are spending their time in front of the tube while you and I read about it.

Don't kill your TV, make it!

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Public Access TV

History of Public Access

History of Public Access

Alliance for Community Media

Free Speech TV

Guerrilla News Network

Independent Media Center

Democracy Now!


Michael W. Stowell is chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Arcata Library in Arcata, CA. He is the producer/editor/videographer of numerous public access television programs; he is a naturalist, a gardener, a bicyclist and a Swans' columnist.

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Published November 4, 2002
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