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WTV Eye

Santa Rosa Media Access focuses on the local scene

By Paula Harris

LAURIE CIRIVELLO wears a dream catcher necklace and her footsteps echo as she guides visitors through the construction site that this spring will blossom into Santa Rosa's new public-access TV station. The building is still just a wooden-beamed skeleton, but Cirivello, new executive director of the Santa Rosa Community Media Access Center (the non-profit group set up to oversee the station's operation), already envisions the facility in full swing. "Here is the Green Room; here is the built-in storage for tape archives; and this is the hot-line studio," she says, pointing to each room like a proud new homeowner with dinner guests in tow.

The 6,000-square-foot facility will boast offices, a control room (with windows to the hall, for studio tours), a live hot-line studio (which Cirivello describes as "talk radio for TV"), editing suites, and a spacious, three-camera studio.

Public access essentially provides equipment and studio facilities to anyone who wishes to produce and air a TV show, and Cirivello, 36, an amiable woman with long black hair, is hoping the dream that has brought her and her family to Santa Rosa from Ohio will pan out into substantial community involvement.

A former executive director of an established public-access center in Columbus, Cirivello says she wouldn't have moved her family 2,500 miles across the country if Santa Rosa's diverse and outspoken community didn't present one of the best chances for public-access TV success.

"People here are working harder [to get the project under way] than any other community I've seen," she says. "There's great promise, enthusiasm, and anticipation."

The facility is situated on the south corner of the Santa Rosa High School campus. The high school district contributed the site in exchange for 18 hours a week of services (such as equipment use) provided to local high school students.

The media center, which is part of the extension of Post-Newsweek Cable's franchise, has been planned for about four years. The 15-year franchise was renegotiated last February. The center has an annual operating budget of $465,000, comprised of a $150,000 yearly grant from Post-Newsweek and $315,000 from the city. Start-up costs for the non-profit project are $1.2 million.

Cirivello, who works with three other paid employees, has a 5-year contract with the city. She says 80 percent of the annual operating budget goes toward salaries. Eventually, there will be 10 full-time and four part-time employees, with a heavy reliance on interns and volunteers.

An 11-member board of directors (expanding soon to 12) is in place. Three seats are designated for representatives of Santa Rosa Junior College, the city of Santa Rosa, and the Santa Rosa High School District, respectively. Construction on the Santa Rosa facility should be complete in April, and the new channels, devoted to non-commercial educational, government, and public-access programming, are shooting for a May 1 on-air debut. There will be two channels initially, eventually expanding to seven.

"This is a community building tool, and my job is to remove as many barriers to media access as possible," says Cirivello, whose duties include training and scheduling and promoting programming. "The media can be such an inaccessible tool to folks, yet it's the way we receive most of our information. Our aim is to reflect the local community, and we're using TV to do that."

In neighboring Petaluma, local residents got a sneak preview on Feb. 19 of a similar new TV studio, run by Petaluma Community Access on the campus of Casa Grande High School. Its grand opening will be held April 12, from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Many of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa community TV advocates worked closely together to win the right to increase public access in their respective cable franchises.

In the past, Post-Newsweek has offered only a minimal public-access service as part of the original franchise agreement. Programs made by community members shared airtime on Channel 3 with such local programming as commercially sponsored local sports. But the service garnered a poor response.

Alex Torres, public-access coordinator for Post-Newsweek Cable, says limited publicity and antiquated equipment resulted in little interest by members of the public to produce community TV shows. "There was a three-hour class in which people had to deal with a mess of wires and equipment, with quirks and problems, that was tricky to learn. That discouraged all but the most serious people," he explains. "Only about one in every five who'd come in actually put their program on the air."

Torres adds that Post-Newsweek has had to broadcast infomercials on Channel 3 just to fill the empty airspace. Another hindrance has been substandard production values, such as audio and lighting, which made for painful viewing. "The audience so often consisted of just the people who made the show," Torres says. "And a lot of people actually programmed the channel out of their remote controls."

According to Torres, the new TV station--with its up-to-date, user-friendly equipment, training on how to polish productions, and general encouragement--will herald a new era of local public access. "I hope people embrace it and use it," he says.

Once persons are in equipment use, instruction is free, and they can check out video equipment and reserve an editing suite or use the studio. Trainers will be on hand to supervise and troubleshoot. The public-access organization won't censor programming, and producers who submit shows will sign an agreement claiming full legal responsibility for the content.

"We are a conduit, not a gatekeeper," says Cirivello. "I'm not going to hold anyone's hand if someone calls the DA and they're arrested for putting on something they shouldn't have."

Producers will be encouraged to schedule their program for the most appropriate audience. Cirivello adds that she hopes some shows will foster community debate and critics will tape rebuttals."

The media center will also provide coverage of local community meetings, SRJC telecourses, and election results.

John Gosch, general manager at Post-Newsweek, says the cable company will retain Channel 3, and the new community-access programs will be broadcast on Channel 54 and another as yet undecided channel.

High-tech fiber-optic links for all channels are expected to be in place within the next 18 months.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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