Free Speech at a Local Level

Submitted 2 months ago
Created by
Ruth Sylvester

Community Access TV is “a conduit that fosters community connectedness,” says executive director Donna Girot. “Its mission is to let all people find a voice. We provide training and equipment to all, for free. When there’s a problem in the community, we help solve it by helping people explain their points of view.” Donna has been at CATV for about a year. “The job seemed compelling,” she says, “because there are lots of challenges,” including that it’s the only community access station that contractually supports towns in two states.

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CATV routinely records and posts the selectboard and school board meetings of the five towns it serves: Hartford, Hartland, Norwich, Lebanon, and Hanover. This task is more complicated than sticking a camera on a tripod and going out for coffee until the meeting is done. Videographers use multiple cameras so they can cover speakers from the audience as well as board members. After the meeting, the recording is digitally compressed and uploaded to the internet as quickly as possible. Minute-takers and reporters use them to check facts. “The videos provide a record of who said what when,” says Donna. CATV makes available selectboard and school board meetings, concerts, and other informational and entertainment programming. 

Quechee’s Gesine Prado, self-taught baker of elaborate cakes and other goodies, has used CATV’s studios to perfect voiceovers for her Baked in Vermont show. “CATV is an invaluable community resource,” she says enthusiastically. “Donna, Chico, and the entire CATV team are helpful, friendly, and foster an unfettered creative environment.” Anyone who’s seen one of her elaborate, impressive cakes knows that she’s an expert on unfettered creativity!

CATV teaches. They give away training and air time to anyone who asks – for free. Some people catch the bug and produce shows about local events, history, entertainment, and issues that are relevant to the Upper Valley community.

CATV builds an independent filmmaking community. The station inspires middle-schoolers in summer video camps, then encourages the kids to create short films in CATV’s two annual film competitions, open to middle school, high school, and adults. CATV provides free one-on-one training to shore up audio and video production skills, and lends equipment. CATV also offers high school internships and a club that introduces media professions to middle and high school girls. 

“Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

The business model of this remarkable organization is unusual – and endangered. For years, public-access TV has been supported by fees that cable companies have paid for using the ‘public good’ of the cable network. But as more and more users ‘cut the cord’ from cable service, CATV is seeing its supply stream start to suffer a drought.

Donna is highly resistant to charging users for the classes and equipment CATV provides, seeing such fees as barriers to parts of the community. “People take us for granted,” says Donna, “but it’s important because filming local government meetings compels ethical government. It’s the bedrock of free speech.” 


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