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The case for the media center

With the city manager proposing to pull a city subsidy equivalent to 40 percent of its budget from the Evanston Community Media Center, we asked center treasurer and program host Jeannie Sanke to answer some questions about the center’s role in a changing media landscape.

With the city manager proposing to pull a city subsidy equivalent to 40 percent of its budget from the Evanston Community Media Center, we asked center treasurer and program host Jeannie Sanke to answer some questions about the center’s role in a changing media landscape.

Jeannie Sanke hosting the monthly Evanston 30 interview program.

Question: Why — when it is now possible for anyone to produce video using inexpensive mass-market cameras and distribute a video production online at no cost — should the city continue to subsidize video production for cable? The original rationale for subsidizing cable access was that there was no other video outlet available for citizens and that the cost of production equipment was extremely high.

Answer: There is a difference between your run-of-the-mill online video or home video, and video that really gets a message across; they are rarely the same thing. Learning how to use that relatively inexpensive mass-market camera is not something one easily learns from a book, and the Media Center provides a lot of excellent training for just that: learning to get your message across effectively. Furthermore, television has a much difference audience than YouTube does. From my own experience as the host of "Evanston 30", I know a lot of Evanston organizations who never would have gotten attendance at their events, donations to their causes, and other measures of success that they have enjoyed simply by appearing on my program. We get this feedback from guests frequently. A YouTube channel does not achieve the same effect.

Question: Why should those who use the media center’s facilities pay next to nothing to use them when users of other recreation facilities in the city — like the Crown ice rink, for example — pay something approaching the cost of the facility’s operation? Similar comparison for people using facilities at the YMCA or other non-profits. I see that only about one percent of the media center’s budget comes from membership fees.

Answer: We have recently raised our membership fees, but we try to keep them low so that anyone can participate and get their message out. Since cable subscribers do indeed pay a franchise fee which by contract is to support public access, it is very well contradictory to raise membership prices and production costs to a level akin to a Y membership which does not rely on a city right-of-way (the basis for franchise fees).

Question: Why, if the media center is as valuable to the community as its supporters claim, has it only managed to raise about one percent of its budget from donations and fund-raising?

Answer: Again, subscribers for the most part already feel that they are paying for the Media Center by paying their Comcast bill which includes a 5% franchise fee.

Question: At a time when the city faces a $9.5 million gap in its $90 million general fund budget — what programs do you think the city should cut instead so that the media center’s budget can remain untouched?

Answer: I would not say that our budget can remain untouched; the CIty of Evanston is in a serious hole but I also think it is key to understand that we did not put the City in that hole, nor have we asked for any increases or special considerations.

Note that the portion of the Franchise Fee that we receive only comprises 2/3 of our budget. We may not do a lot of fundraising, but we do a lot of production work for the City, for District 65 and for the non-profit sector in Evanston at rates they would never be able to match anywhere else.

We are willing to discuss possible cost-cutting measures, but so far this option has not been open to us. We were simply informed that our subsidy was being proposed for decimation.

Where this goes remains to be seen. But if it is cut as discussed, we will not be able to meet our contractual obligation to provide public, governmental and educational access services per our agreement with the City and we will not have sufficient staff to continue to produce media product for anyone, further cutting our income.

Question: Given the general austerity level in the city — what budget reduction could the media center endure and still function — and what do you believe the media center can do to make itself less dependent on city funds and refashion itself for the 21st century media landscape?

Answer: Great question. Back in 2002, the subject of moving ECMC onto City property was first broached, and the cost in 2002 dollars for such a move was then estimated at $500-800K, just to move the Center and set up on City property. There is no really suitable space in the Civic Center (and the building is not structurally suited for such a use).

When talk of building a new Civic Center got serious a few years back, the idea of moving ECMC into the old Recycling Center was dropped, though that facility could structurally accommodate us. Obviously, housing the Center in City property would be an enormous cost saving over time, but would involve enormous upfront expense.

ECMC has been looking toward the future for some time, working to anticipate equipment and technology needs which despite the availability of mass-market videocameras continues to grow. HD technology, digital signal, and other factors come into play.

But our primary mission of providing Evanston residents, organizations, schools and government with viable means of expression will remain and in fact becomes more crucial. The City and District 65 recognize this fact as well; both have relied on ECMC to provide them not just with coverage of their meetings and hearings, but of numerous other events and to help them produce media products to publicize various issues and offerings.

As anyone who has used our services will tell you, we have provided an outlet and an opportunity for the community that is unparalleled at a level of cost effectiveness that cannot be found anywhere else. We have produced an outstanding level of product on a really bare-bones budget, and have passed those savings onto the City, District 65 and many non-profits througout Evanston.

Again, though, we are not taking "city funds" to do it but rather a share of cable franchise payments. The City is actually taking from cable funds, not the other way around. The Cable Commission and the City set up the ECMC contract based on this premise; ECMC was established to do just this, and we continue to do it, even though our costs have skyrocketed and our share of the franchise fees have been static.

With a $200K reduction, we will no longer be able to afford to complete the production work necessary to match what we have raised in the past. We will effectively have no staff remaining, no one to train and coordinate volunteers — the cut as proposed is quite simply a death knell.

What we could sustain would depend on what we might possibly negotiate with the City to reallocate in various ways, but I cannot hazard a guess as to what that might be until we have had a chance to discuss this with the City. What will be key to this effort will be a commitment to the necessity of preserving the Media Center as a vital and necessary outlet for community expression, using not just the internet and not just cable television but all media.

As media continue to change, new media forms and formats have yet to be established. When the internet came into its own, you established EvanstonNow to meet a need for information in the community, but if God forbid you died tomorrow, there’s no guarantee someone would take it over, especially if they cannot guarantee a sufficient monetary profit from offering that outlet.

This is the key manner in which PEG access remains relevant and necessary; that channel is still available. ECMC has demonstrated so far that we can adapt to new technologies, and that we can provide this service affordably.

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