Citizen Wausau

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Further Public Access Discussion

by on January 8th, 2010

John Jordan has a plan. A plan that gets Public Access out of the City, off the books, and over to the University. Times are tough, and as such the University cannot fund it. So, he must raise the $40,000 to do that very thing.  But it might be just the solution this problem calls for.

On December 21st, Mayor Jim Tipple announced that the City of Wausau would stop funding Public Access television.  This elimination of Public Access, and the staff housed there, would save the city roughly $90,000.  The Mayor said that the City had to make this cut based on the fiscal needs of the city, and that Public Access would cease operation on January 31, 2010 — roughly 40 days later.

The timing of this action by the Mayor could not have been worse given the proximity to Christmas and by connection the amount of available funders in their offices, and as more than one city council member stated, the action was totally unilateral, since it appears in no committee minutes, or agenda items.  But, this issue is incredibly complex, and some of it is very much in dispute.

I spoke to John Jordan, and he seemed positively hopeful about a plan and a tentative budget that he has put together, and the future of his station.  Clearly community media can bring out the best in people, and, in fact, build community.

Jordan, who appeared on Glenn Moberg’s Wisconsin Public Radio show “Route 51” on January 7, said that he has spoken to UWMC in regards to creating a home for the station at UWMC.  This moves it out of the City, and Jordan thinks he needs to raise about $40,000 to get the station moved and keep it operational for six months.  During this time he would even move himself to a part-time employee to save funds.  He seems in high spirits about this challenge.

There is an ongoing court case between the City of Wausau and Charter.  The scope of the case is in regards to what are called “PEG funds” and “franchise fees”.  The source of the lawsuit is the refusal of Charter to pay PEG fees, and instead pay franchise fees.  It is all very confusing. There are federally mandated dollars called PEG funds.  PEG stands for Public, Education, and Government.  These are federally mandated dollars that are used specifically to fund Public Access programming and operations with the intent of making those types of programs available.

These funds that are in dispute are not directly related to the franchise fees that are being discussed by Barbara Morgan later in this article — they are PEG fees.  These fees are specifically allocated by the state from companies like Charter for the support of public access television stations and programming.  This money is from a previous agreement that Charter says it no longer needs to pay, since a new franchise agreement was made.

This conflicts with the city’s position, which seems to be that this money was agreed upon for three years, and Charter should pay it.  The current franchise agreement states that Charter has to pay a percentage of its billing to the municipality, but this number should not exceed a specific percentage.  Charter believes that the franchise fee, combined with the PEG fee, would exceed the maximum percentage, and as such Charter has chosen not to pay the PEG money.

Jordan said that this matter did not help the budget process in regards to the Public Access station.  Maryann Groat said that while the disputed money has not been paid to the city; the City has paid for Public Access out of franchise fees.  But, with a tight budget, and rising costs of Public Access, the Office of the Mayor had to make a choice.

Along the way there has been talk about streaming the meetings online, or like the Village of Weston, creating a podcast that is available for download. Obviously we believe more transparency is better, and city government should be as open as possible.  Consider Internet usage in our town.  Sure, you’re a reader of Citizen Wausau, so you are an Internet person, but studies have shown that the rate of broadband penetration in rural areas (most of the area) has diminished from a 40 percent growth in 2005/2006, to a dismal 12% in the last year.  So fewer people get the Internet, and fewer people have broadband than we thought.  Streaming is out.

Creating podcasts, while part of most of our daily lives, is also something that is technologically forward.  My mother does not subscribe to any podcast (not even the two that I am a part of).  So that is the standard I apply.  It would be hard to convince me that the elderly population who have spoken out about seeing church services, or city meetings, are going to be the first to download iTunes, and find the RSS link to the city podcast (the city makes things so easy on their website), and then download and listen.  I mean, I can do that, but not sure that my mom can.

Clearly, the importance of community media cannot be overstated.  These are voices of our community, voicing, often times, issues that are not covered by other media outlets.  With our daily newspaper being owned by Gannett, and our talk/news radio station being owned by Midwest Communications, we are losing local media.  And as such, a resource such as Public Access television is important and something that should be saved.

Wausau is developing itself into a progressive media city in some regards.  The existence of the only Hmong-operated radio station in America in WNRB-LP FM is part of this story.  As are the municipalities that use things like podcasting to communicate the business of their municipality with their residents.

In the Wausau Daily Herald Barbara Morgan wrote a passionate column about how Public Access is the one utility in this area that pays for itself.  She makes this point, “Every month there is $2.60 on the Charter cable bill for “franchise fees.” This totals $330,000 per year collected from cable subscribers and paid to the city.

That lump sum goes toward some additional city expenses. When I spoke to Maryann Groat she said that the dollars are for various things like utility pole right-of-way, licensing, underground cabling, etc.  But, at the same time, it all ends up in the general fund, so I am not exactly sure how this works.

Morgan goes onto write: “[Groat] goes on to say that the money will now go toward general expenses in the tight budget. So now the cable TV subscriber is getting nothing for the $330,000 collected each year and given to the city? This is a very generous donation to the general fund by cable TV subscribers, wouldn’t you say?”

Groat confirmed that the money does in fact all end up in the general fund.  This fund is used for the run of the mill operations of the city.  One of them being Public Access of course.  But, like I stated before, this is not as simple as it seems.  These are two agreements, and one of them seems to cancel the other out. At least that is Charter’s position.

Morgan further states: “Another disappointing aspect of the demise of public access is that it was done under a cloak of secrecy. Not one word of discussion, not one opportunity for Charter subscribers, who fund the channels, to state their case.”

Clearly, this is an issue that this administration has struggled with; the perception that transparency is not very high on the list of operating principals.  No one is entirely sure as to the way the cut was made by the Office of the Mayor.  Clearly there are differing accounts, and lots of people are assigning blame.  The timing though, is not in dispute.

For more information about Jordan and his attempt to save Public Access television, go to Glenn Mobergs radio show and listen to what John Jordan had to say about his plan to save Public Access.

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