The problem is crystal clear to Suzanne Blais, owner of Black Dog Productions and Executive Director of Center for New Media, “We don’t have any local television. Nothing is being produced that provides news and information and entertains people.”
She pauses, her warm infectious smile creeping back. “Television is the community campfire, you sit around and tell stories about what is going on. You tell ghost stories to each other or discuss the issues that your community is facing. Without that, we are giving up a part of who we are.”
With all the back and forth over reigniting a community television station here in Whatcom, I decided to sit down with the woman behind the plan, Suzanne Blais, and discuss what such a station would mean for our community.
The Woman Behind the Plan
Blais has been working in television a long time. From her start in a small television station in Eureka, California, where she worked as the master control engineer, to her time working for KOMO and KIRO down in Seattle, to landing her feet in Bellingham where she worked at KVOS for several years.
“One of the consequences of moving around a lot is never having a sense of community. When I got here to Bellingham, I fell in love with the idea of community and this place. There’s lots to love here.”
In 1993, she started her own business, Black Dog Productions, which employed anywhere from 2-7 people at any given time. As a business manager, she contracted with the City of Bellingham to provide video services for 10 years. “It went out to bid three times and we won the contract every time.”
But for Blais, her personal path took a detour. Health troubles that she had struggled with in the past suddenly struck her down and in 2005, she nearly died on the operating table. “It really clarified what I wanted. The things that I would do with the time given to me; the things that I would do that would actually make a difference.”
One of those things was “The Greenest House.” Her company, Black Dog Productions, produced a Bellingham-based reality show around sustainability. “I like to say that is the most I have ever done; the most terrifying, the most fun, the most challenging. It took two years from idea to PBS broadcast.”
Her vision for the show was different from much of the environmental media available. “Instead of doing talking head videos, I decided to pursue an option that people would want to watch, that would be successful because people would be connected with the idea in a different way.”
The Greenest House was a big success and was recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Since then, Blais has continued to produce local programming through her non-profit, the Center for New Media. Now, she wants to take that vision to a bigger platform.
Imagine a television station right in downtown Bellingham, where motivated people could come in, receive training on how to film and edit, and begin producing their own stories for broadcast and streaming. It seems like a radical idea, or at least an expensive one, but the tools are already there.
Comcast, in return for receiving a monopoly on television services in our area, has to set aside a certain percentage of money for PEG programing. PEG stands for Public, Educational and Government. Currently, our City Council meetings are broadcast on BTV10, fulfilling some of the government requirement but there is no conduit for public access. That is what Blais is looking to change.
“Any type of media source that is dependent on shareholders, that has got that kind of structure, will want to provide what is cheapest and easiest in order to make a profit, and what is cheapest and easiest is not what’s local.” Her proposal would set up a television station for the public using the funds already set aside. She has submitted this proposal and it is currently stalled at the city level. It would include a studio, training for anyone who wanted to learn and staff to produce professional level productions of public value, and the value extends beyond just a few television programs.
I would not be writing this blog if it weren’t for community television. When I was in high school, I began volunteering at Thurston Community Television (TCTV). I was involved in my local environmental club and we wanted to produce some Public Service Announcements about the evils of invasive English ivy.
TCTV provided training and equipment so that we could articulate that vision, but more importantly, gave us exposure to real, technical work experience. I fell in love with media.
Working with my friends and family, I spent my senior year of high school creating, writing and hosting a live television show, Trivia King. It was a call-in show featuring pre-filmed bits and local trivia.
The entire production was done by youth, from the comedy writers to the camera operators and control room switchers. It wasn’t some noble-minded pursuit but local people enjoying something we love. The show quickly became a local hit, drawing participants from all over the area.
Some of the cast went on to study theater, others became tech experts and I continue to share local trivia and humor through this blog. By showcasing the power of local television and putting the equipment in our hands, TCTV launched a cohort of public-minded communicators.
The effects of public access television are more than just providing local content, like a library or public market, they also provide a resource and testing ground for future entrepreneurs, experts and advocates.
For the Public Good
When local candidates campaign, they often spend more time explaining the issues than persuading people about their position. Blais sees this as a symptom of our limited media. “There is no way for people to share information with each other, for schools to tell their own stories, for the government to tell you why the water bill is going up on a large scale.”
She says this isn’t a slight against other media outlets in our community but rather a function of how they are organized. “We have other media that is doing a great job with the resources they have, but the old forms of support just aren’t holding up. That advertising driven model leaves a lot to be desired. Democracy is founded on the ability for us to know the facts to decide on the issue, any issue you care about.”
Sharing the Microphone
Blais is putting this rhetoric into action, assembling a team of professionals and continuing the process with the city. She wants to work with them, and the council, to build this community resource. “People who don’t tell their own stories, have their stories told about them. They lose the heart of who they are. This is the way we are going to hold onto that, the only way we will be able to grow in the ways we want to grow. By talking to each other. We are not slick like Seattle or metropolitan like Vancouver, we are Whatcom and we need to share our voice.”
I hope the city and our City Council will continue to work with Blais to turn this vision into a reality. It is time for Whatcom to have a turn at the microphone.