“We spent a couple years in Purgatory,” admits Joseph Lynch, PEG (Public, Education and Government) Access Coordinator for the City of Albuquerque. He’s referring to the city’s occasionally infamous Public Access Television system. Back in 2011, after 30 years of running Albuquerque’s public access channel 27 and Encantada channel 26, the nonprofit organization Quote … Unquote lost its contract with the City. A contentious fight was kicked off, which eventually saw the Quote … Unquote staff evicted from their offices by armed police officers. A five-year contract was soon awarded to an upstart company called uPublic. By the time their contract was up in 2016, uPublic had managed to produce only about 10 TV shows at a cost of $30,000 per month to the city. An audit of the company’s contractual lapses and lack of compliance with PEG programming requirements saw the contract quietly terminated. Since then, Albuquerque’s public access system has been in that limbo Lynch describes. But recently, the city took enormous strides to bring the system back to its glory days with the opening of Downtown Albuquerque’s Studio 519.
Media For the Masses
Public Access Television was created throughout the United States between 1969 and 1971 by the Federal Communications Commission. The idea was that cable companies wishing to gain access to a city’s business had to cough up a small cut of profits and set aside a certain percentage of airwaves to PEG programming, ensuring ordinary people access to a non-commercial form of mass media. Funded locally by Comcast Cable, Albuquerque’s Community Access stations had their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, when local cult figures like Don Schrader and Geraldine Amato produced popular no-budget talk shows.
The rise of the internet and the democratization of media through outlets like YouTube more or less bypassed the need for Public Access Television by the early 2000s. But the rapid expansion of broadband communication has suddenly made broadcast wavelengths a hot commodity, with everyone from cell phone companies to wifi providers battling over every single hertz on the radiofrequency spectrum. Rather than allow Comcast to reclaim those frequencies, the City of Albuquerque doubled down and committed to rebuilding our city’s Public Access system.
A Changing Channel
Renamed Studio 519 (after its address on Central Ave.), Albuquerque’s Community Access Television studio has spent the last couple years being completely rebuilt and technologically updated. Would-be media creators can now get their hands on brand new HD cameras, light kits, tripods, editing computers and more. “The great thing about this place,” says Lynch, “is that it’s free. We’ll help you in any way we can, then we get [to air] the content. That’s the trade-off.”
A recent visit to Studio 519 found the space buzzing with activity. The building’s updated computer editing bays were filled with students participating in an 8-week internship through Southwest Organizing Project. The students were putting the finishing touches on short documentaries they made focusing on the topic of climate justice. Documentary filmmaker and educator John Acosta was leading the class and remarked, “We’ve only been here a few weeks, but it feels like home.”
Next door in the TV studio, in front of a green screen, Chuck Parker and Sam Alvarado were prepping for something very different—their weekly comedy “rant” show, “Mostly Complaining.” Alvarado and Parker discussed their choice of hot topics while Studio 519 staff hustled to set up cameras.
Studio 519 is now home to four different channels: Education (Comcast Channel 96), Public Access (Comcast Channel 27), Government (Comcast Channel 16) and Local Origination (Comcast Channel 26). And if you don’t have access to cable, you can watch them live via the website (studio519abq.com).
Katharsis Comes In
Starting in early July, New Mexico Educational Access Channel 96 is now being run in partnership with Katharsis Media, a local nonprofit organization founded by Executive Director Candice Neu. “We’re excited to have her and her media company come in and take it to a whole other level,” says Lynch of the new collaboration.
Years ago Neu was working as high school theater teacher. She watched as students applied for big performing arts schools, only to receive small scholarships. She concluded that many local students simply didn’t have the training of their East and West Coast counterparts. So, she decided to “retire” from teaching and start Katharsis Media as a place to offer professional level training in the performing arts at an affordable rate. During the pandemic, Katharis partnered with APS to produce a series where they brought in over a dozen artists to teach fine and performing arts to students from their television or computer through 20- to 40-minute video lessons. They ended up producing 44 episodes of the series over the last couple years. It was this history of education and access that made Katharis the perfect partner to help relaunch Albuquerque’s Educational Access channel.
“The goal of the NMED channel under Katharsis Media’s leadership is to collaborate with local producers and educational institutions to provide: access to television broadcast and a platform for free speech; resources and equipment for local filmmakers; and to create film career pathways through training and internships for local residents,” explains Neu.
While the internet has lessened the need for a non-commercial form of mass media, the explosion of streaming video has been a boon to the film and television industry—particularly here in New Mexico. That means well-trained film and TV crews are in great demand these days. Neu says the goal for previous incarnations of Public Access Television “was mostly focused on procuring and generating educational content. While we maintain that goal, we also are very focused on providing opportunities for training and creating career pathways into the film industry in New Mexico. In addition, we are working very closely with local filmmakers to elevate their projects and New Mexico film as a whole, rather than just focusing on the content needed for the channel. We are much more of a community resource and support than ‘just’ a broadcast channel.”
Katharsis Media’s Director of Funding and Development Lara Dale says Katharsis is actively working to provide training opportunities to disadvantaged students, “particularly Indigenous, so they can get their story told.” Getting students behind and in front of the camera, working a variety of jobs, is key to giving them a leg up in our state’s growing entertainment industry. According to Dale, both she and Neu are “looking forward to creating alliances with underserved youth in the school system to eventually start a training partnership for media that will lead to them being granted scholarships to the upcoming Next Generation Film Academy. This is sponsored by the State and spearheaded by Amber Dodson at the NM Film Office. I have known her for years and have been in positive dialogue with her about the station. She wants to continue to keep our connection going regarding this vision for our youth in the community as the facility nears completion.”
In addition to working for Katharsis and serving as a film industry sound professional, Dale has had a long relationship with Albuquerque’s Public Access. “Members of my family and I have been involved in Public Access since probably the early ’80s, originally as content providers.”
Around 2008 Dale started volunteering to archive community footage for Quote … Unquote. And in the process, she “fell in love with true Public Access and what it means in terms of inclusive community engagement and Free Speech.” However, she says, “By 2009-10 the Berry Administration shifted from supportive to hostile and began moving the station from location to location and holding off on meeting contractual and equipment requirements. A stalwart group of local activists, myself included, began digging into IPRA [Inspection of Public Records Act] records, and we discovered that members of City Legal, in the guise of the elusive IPEG Committee, had begun negotiating to sell off much of the PEG bandwidth to Comcast outside of public view and Council oversight.”
But with the creation of Studio 519 all that has finally been settled and our city’s Public Access system is in the process of building itself back better than ever. “We finally have an amicable relationship with Comcast and the Keller Administration, and the Channels are back in the hands of true community-based content providers,” says Dale.
According to Neu, the City is “very excited about the educational opportunities that Katharsis Media has proposed in conjunction with the channel, and some of the funding from the City is going directly towards those educational opportunities. In addition, we have begun conversations with key educational institutions within the City to further support filmmaking programs that are already in place or to help grow additional programs at the K-12 as well as post secondary levels.”
In the meantime, Katharsis is hungry for content. They are on the hunt for locally made educational programming that is ready to air. Educational content is anything that: a) teaches, trains, or builds awareness; b) showcases student work; or c) is produced by a student. “Those are our greatest needs right now—and we need to fill 120 hour per week with content, so send us your content!” says Neu. Filmmakers can submit content directly on the website at KatharsisMedia.org/submit. And anyone interested in producing a film, documentary or television show for any one of the public access channels is advised to contact Studio 519 and schedule a tour of the facility (studio519abq.com).