The future of public-access TV in Berkeley is under threat, according to supporters of Berkeley Community Media (BCM), who have requested city councilmembers to call a public hearing on Berkeley Unified School District’s plans to convert the nonprofit’s studio space into a daytime classroom in June.
The group, made up of BCM members and local directors and producers, is circulating a petition that asks the Berkeley Board of Education not to reconfigure the studio—the second largest in the East Bay—in a way that would hinder its use.
At a hastily scheduled meeting Friday, BCM’s new Executive Director David Jolliffe informed community members about Berkeley Unified’s plans to share the studio space with BCM due to a severe space crunch at Berkeley High School.
George Coates, director and producer of the political satire “Better Bad News” on BETV’s Channel 28, said a public hearing should be held before the district goes ahead with reconfiguring the studio.
BCM, which has operated out of Berkeley High School since 1996, was established to create and manage a public access center as well as several channels for public, educational and governmental access.
BCM’s contract with Berkeley Unified, which allowed the organization access to Berkeley High School space in exchange for taping school board meetings and providing media literacy to high school students, expired a few years ago.
Since then, BCM has been using the location on a month-to-month basis, Jolliffe, who came on board about four weeks ago, said.
BCM Board of Directors Chair Mark Coplan, who is also the district’s public information officer, said BCM’s contract with the district wasn’t renewed since the district was figuring out the right use of the space.
“The district doesn’t have a responsibility to guarantee BCM long-term space,” Coplan told the Planet Monday.
The district also gives BCM $5,000 annually to cover costs for taping and other material.
Most of BCM’s $300,000 budget is funded by money local cable monopoly Comcast pays to the city. In return, BCM airs City Council, Zoning Adjustments Board and Rent Board meetings on CTV or Channel 33.
In a letter to BCM’s then-Executive Director Brian Ferris in October 2007, former Berkeley Unified Superintendent Michele Lawrence stated the district’s intention to reclaim its space. Lawrence added that although the district valued BCM’s contribution to the district immensely, students would have to be relocated to the facility due to a severe space crunch.
However, after touring the facility, Lawrence quickly realized the problems and immense costs that came with relocating a television studio, and reached a compromise which allowed BCM to continue its operations from the school building while sharing its studio space with a classroom.
“Since then, after I’ve come here and read the letter, I asked my board and the other people what exactly was to happen and when,” Jolliffe told the Planet Friday. “Everybody had a different answer. And the person who had the right answer [the district’s facilities director Lew Jones] was out of the country. Then Lew wrote me a letter, but what this letter didn’t give me was what was going to happen to the studio. Today Lew showed me the plans, where I learned about their plans to share the studio. What has not been established is what will happen to the ceiling portion of the studio. We want to make sure that the light grid remains the same.”
On Wednesday, The Planet received an e-mail from Jolliffe which stated that Jones had agreed to keep the lighting grid at the studio.
“Its prime function is going to be a classroom,” Jones said. “They can use it whenever they want when class is over but they have to set it back to a classroom once they are done. We are working with BCM now to accommodate a studio as best as we can.”
In a letter to Jolliffe on May 28, 2008, Jones said BCM would have access to the studio after 4 p.m., and that it would be responsible for cleaning and reconfiguring the space into a classroom before school started every morning.
“The school district is not saying it will restore the studio for us,” Coates said. “We already have a very limited amount of paid technical support. To push aside all those lights and cables is a lot of work ... a studio has to have certain things left on the floor. There’s a house technician who maintains everything, but producers don’t have their own maintenance crew.”
Coates agrees that Berkeley High needs more classrooms, but adds, “It’s not the role of Public Access to solve the problem.”
“BCM is a three-legged stool serving the needs of the government, education and community access,” he said. “One leg of this stool (education) is attempting to pull resources away from another leg (public access) and it is being done under the radar and without the City Council first conducting an Information and Public hearing as required by law whenever a public facility is proposed for a major physical reconfiguration that would drastically affect Berkeley citizens. None of the local producers has been informed of this situation until after the fact while construction plans were drawn. They need classrooms here, fine, but where do we go?”
Victoria Fong, who has worked at BCM for a year and a half, said among the challenges BCM faces is the lack of cable TV subscribers.
“Berkeley has one of the lowest cable subscribers in the nation, only 19,000,” Fong, who calls herself a big supporter of community TV, said.
Other participants at Friday’s meeting spoke about the space crunch at the high school.
Local videographer LA Wood, who canceled his membership four years ago, said BCM’s relationship with the school district was in danger.
“It’s no longer about shared property and equipment; it’s about landlord and tenant,” Wood said. “What happened to education access? The failure of City Council to adequately fund the program and the BUSD contract’s stifling impact on the growth of Berkeley’s public access facility finally caused me to withdraw my membership. Over the last 12 years, I have watched Berkeley’s public access television be reduced to little more than a government broadcast of council meetings and imported programming.”
Coplan said BCM was grateful for the compromise.
“The fact is we might have had to look for a new place, but now we can stay on,” he said. “I am familiar with the discussions from both sides of the table, though I have stayed out of this one to avoid any conflict between my two roles.”
Thirteen people have signed the petition, according to a post on the betv.org website Monday.
“A little-known demand for using this space by the administration of Berkeley High School threatens to deny your use of the studio,” a message to site visitors says. “Plans to retrofit this valuable space have been confusing and offer no solution on how BCM will continue to offer this resource.”
Jolliffe said BCM’s members, and not BCM itself, were behind the petition.
“BCM’s occupation here has been a long-standing agreement,” he told the Planet Monday. “We have been here for a number of years and we have a good relationship with them. We would like to share the space.”