City officials told aldermen today that many nearby towns don’t spend cable franchise fee money to staff a public access cable channel.

Instead, said Joe McRae, an assistant to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, those towns share a regional public access facility staffed and paid for by the cable provider Comcast.

City officials told aldermen today that many nearby towns don’t spend cable franchise fee money to staff a public access cable channel.

Instead, said Joe McRae, an assistant to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, those towns share a regional public access facility staffed and paid for by the cable provider Comcast.

The closest such Comcast public access facility is at 9651 Gross Point Road in Skokie, just under three miles northwest of the Evanston Community Media Center’s offices at 1285 Hartrey Ave.

From that facility programs can be broadcast to 28 north and northwest suburban towns including Arlington Heights, Glenview, Schaumburg and Wilmette.

Images from Comcast’s website of the control room and studio at the Skokie facility.

Evanston residents currently don’t regularly receive most programming from the Skokie center because of the city’s exclusive agreement with the Evanston Community Media Center, but selected programs produced in Skokie are sometimes broadcast on the Evanston channel.

The other communities, McRae said, still get the full franchise fee that Evanston does and use it to cover general municipal expenses.

McRae also noted, as first reported Friday by Evanston Now, that neither the city’s franchise agreement with Comcast nor its service agreement with the media center obligate the City Council to provide any particular amount of funding to the center.

During today’s budget workshop some aldermen suggested a variety of approaches to end the media center’s dependence on city funding.

Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said a non-profit like the media center needs to “float on its own bottom” raising the funds to cover its costs. She suggested that board members should contribute funds back to the organization and said she wanted to see more information about how it could move forward without city funding.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said that in Washington, D.C., public access channels are funding through a separate charge on the cable bill. It wasn’t clear from her comments whether that charge is optional for cable subscribers, like an added tier of service, or a mandated payment regardless of whether customers want to see the access channels.

Rainey also suggested that the two school districts in Evanston might share a channel, or that the city might share its government access channel with the public access channel and that funds might be generated by leasing back the extra channels to Comcast for it to use for revenue-generating programming.

Rainey and Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, suggested exploring adding advertising to the public access channel as a way to generate revenue to pay for its operation.

And Jean-Baptiste, noting that the Comcast franchise is coming up for renewal next year, said the city staff should research trends in franchise renewal negotiations elsewhere.

Earlier in the budget workshop session more than a dozen ECMC supporters urged continued funding for the center.

Most of the speakers either produce shows at the center, have been interviewed on media center programs or lead non-profit groups whose activites have been featured in the center’s programming.

Dickelle Fonda, 1220 Darrow Ave., said “non-corporate, independent community media is a cornerstone of democracy.”

ECMC Board Chairman Cindy Cort of 925 Wesley Ave. said the center has tried to raise funds by seeking grant support, but has had little success.

Stel Valavanes of 1823 Grant St., an ECMC board member, said it’s not true that the internet age reduces the need for the community media center, which he compared to a library because it educates people in how to produce content.

ECMC Executive Director Steve Bartlebaugh, after having children distribute cookies decorated with the ECMC logo to the aldermen, said he would offer to take a 5 percent salary cut — like the one the city manager is taking.

And Joan Ducayet of 2226 Noyes St., a leader of the group that organizes Evanston’s 4th of July celebration, said ECMC coverage of the parade provides promotional opportunities for the organizations marching.

The city now provides about $440,000 in financial support to the media center annually, nearly 90 percent of its budget. The city manager’s budget proposal would cut that support by $200,000.

Related links

Slides from McRae’s presentation on ECMC

FY 2010-11 Budget presentation 1/9/10

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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