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In Goffstown, New Hampshire, the local public, educational, and governmental cable access channel, Goffstown TV, went right to work once the pandemic hit. Overnight, the tiny staff (two full-time people with a little help) hooked up town council and board of education meetings to livestream and made sure cable viewers could see it too. And overnight, residents sought out the channels for the latest local information, in record numbers.
And as the pandemic stretched on, Goffstown TV also brought back some greatest-hits of high school sports. They even managed to feature a fantasy-sports version of the local girls’ basketball team.
Meanwhile, dotted all over the island of Maui, Hawaii, widely dispersed residents shared their pandemic news with Akakū Maui, their local community media. After quickie tutorials on how to use their smartphones to record news segments, their reports featured everything from favorite recipes to caregiving needs in the community. Soon, the Maui Daily was running three times a day on public access cable.
Public, educational and governmental (PEG) access media exist in perhaps 1,500 communities across the U.S. They exist wherever local governments have made them a condition of granting right-of-way access to cable companies. They hark back to the 1970s, when grassroots movements demanded access to mass media.
They don’t always get much respect; many viewers barely remember they have skipped past the often-dowdy looking programming. After all, how riveted are you, usually, by a board of education meeting? Indeed, some have argued that in an always-on Internet world, public-access basic cable is just yesterday’s media.
Well, a crisis is kind of a natural experiment. How did PEG access media respond to the crisis? Is it still important?
To find out, my colleagues and I issued a survey, distributed with the help of the PEG national association, the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA). About 20% of the PEG operations in the U.S., in later May and early June, answered our survey.
About a quarter of the respondents were located in small towns or rural areas. There, we saw many of the same patterns we saw in the larger group, and in much the same proportions.
Tech Support and Town Hall
PEG access media became both more valued and also more accessible, overall, in their communities. We saw PEG perform several core functions almost immediately:
Tech support and training: PEG staffers would take a break from rigging connections between broadband and cable to handhold a local town official who couldn’t figure out his Zoom feed, or to patiently explain to a baffled senior how to use a chat function. PEG ended up, in many places, being the technology strategist for the community. Teachers suddenly tossed the challenge of online teaching, needed instant training—and got it from some PEG access media. In other cases, PEG carried some educational programs.
Town hall: PEG access media hosted meetings of local governmental and educational officials, as they debated how to implement shelter-in-place orders, which public events to cancel, what public health measures would be required, and online schooling. Towns started making committees that had never been cablecast before available to the viewing public. Residents showed up in record numbers and used new interactive functions to participate in the proceedings.
Need to Know
News: Local news has taken a big hit in recent years in rural areas, with local newspapers going under and local radio stations become mere carriers of syndicated programming. (And meanwhile, of course, social media has become a busy purveyor of disinformation.) Pandemic necessity drove residents to seek out local public health and school news.
Their local PEG channels were there, aggregating the news from different agencies, carrying press conferences, hearings and committee meetings. Thousands of new viewers showed up. Local news shows expanded; some new ones started.
Community events: PEG access media became a virtual public square in a time of isolation. PEG hosted middle school and high school graduation ceremonies. It featured Memorial Day celebrations and flag-raising for Gay Pride days. Video contests and Covid community diary series allowed local residents to share coping strategies with each other. PEG offered contactless community and ways for people to feel connected.
The Rutland Herald, a local newspaper in rural Vermont, editorialized: “At a time when democracy feels broken, PEG has remained the glue holding it together for us.”
At a Cost
But PEG access media folks usually went into the pandemic under-resourced. Most rural-area PEGs have one or at most two staffers. They heavily depend on volunteers, many of whom could not pitch in during the pandemic. Staffers reported working around the clock, with demands only increasing.
Also, in the ongoing broadband crisis in rural America, staffers found their work impeded by differing broadband speeds, even among homebound staff in the same area. They rushed to deliver special equipment to officials who lacked the basics to get on a Zoom meeting. They helped countless seniors who were trying out apps for the first time.
Learning from Crisis
PEG access media has turned out to be a boon, both in terms of information and in terms of community connection, where it exists. Rural communities could build on this success. In rural New Hampshire, Salem Community TV’s executive director Thomas Giarrosso commented, “It’s an opportunity for PEGs to reinvent themselves, and prove they are relevant in a post cable TV world. You need to put the channels where the eyes are, and don’t be afraid to just stream on multiple platforms. Diversity and engaging the local audience make you the expert.”
To build on this success, though, localities need to prioritize PEG when they give cable companies franchises, and when they renew them. They need to build PEG expertise not only into crisis planning, but into the daily information flow of the community. And we all need broadband policies that treat broadband like the essential utility service it really is.
Got a story about your community and PEG access media? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patricia Aufderheide is University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.
Antoine Haywood is a PhD student in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked as community engagement director at PhillyCAM in Philadelphia from 2010-2018.
Mariana Sánchez Santos is a PhD student in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.