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Channel Austin Celebrates Four Decades of Public Access TV

courtesy Channel Austin

It’s been 40 years now for Channel Austin, the city’s only nonprofit that runs an independent television channel. And like people turning the big 4-0, Channel Austin is reflecting on its past and looking to the future.

Over the years, Channel Austin has had its brushes with fame.

It's the platform that nurtured conspiracy-theorist talk show host Alex Jones and acclaimed film directors like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez.

But Paul Smolen, one of the channel’s founding fathers, says neither fame nor fortune was ever the intention. The idea just came from him and a group of friends — longhaired kids wearing bell-bottom pants.

“We basically laid down the gauntlet with the cable company and said, ‘We want public access,’” Smolen said. “And, lo and behold, the cable company came back — Lady Bird said, ‘Fine, how much do you want?’”

After challenging the status quo and winning, the next challenge became filling all that airtime.

“We figured that individuals would gravitate toward two types of programming,” Smolen said. “One of them would be vanity programming, like we all succumb to sometimes. People would make programming about how pretty they were or how well they could sing. And the other part of it would be like a lot of people have done, is pick the topic that they are very passionate about and do programming on that topic.”

People in both groups embraced that approach, as described in a new documentary called Access This that looks at 40 years of programming on Channel Austin.

The shows hardly seem innovative now. But in the days before YouTube, when only the rich and powerful had access to mass media, public access television filled a void, and the community rallied behind it.

Stefan Wray, Channel Austin’s online communications director, says that as the 40th anniversary approaches, the staff is reflecting how to face the channel’s challenges today. 

"Funding challenges, challenges with keeping up with new technologies, dealing with how different users of media change their use patterns and move into different things,” he said.

One idea they’ve been working on is offering classes to show people how to create sophisticated content with their smartphones and a couple of accessories. That could bring new blood into the facilities, and hopefully people would not only use their content for YouTube or online channels but for Channel Austin as well. 

Everything changes and the longhaired kids who founded public access TV here have changed too. Paul Smolen is now a telecommunications and electricity consultant.

“Now I have shorter hair and longer pants, I guess,” he said.

He believes Channel Austin’s greater challenge is that it still is a small fish swimming upstream, only now there are thousands of big-fish providers.

“The key is, how do you get your programming seen?” he said.

A challenge shared by many media organizations, from TV to radio and, these days, even the Web.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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