Six months ago, Ric Landers tried to get on Baltimore cable TV. This is not so unusual, as Baltimore City, like every other American burg of any size, has an arrangement with its cable TV company (for Baltimore, it’s Comcast) to provide public, educational, and government access to the system. There is a cable channel—75—on which anyone, theoretically, can show his or her own videos.
But Landers, who says he produced shows in Cincinnati before moving here last year, did not get on Baltimore’s public access channel. He says no one even called him back for several months.
Landers also noticed that the web site for Community Media of Baltimore City (CMBC), the nonprofit that operates the city’s public access channel, had not updated its program listings. (The February schedule was available by Feb. 9.) He found the last board-meeting minutes available dated from the spring of 2008. (City Paper confirmed this on Feb 2; subsequently the web page was removed and replaced by a page saying “Access Denied” and prompting a user login.)
“Why is CMBC a phantom operation whose doors are always closed,” Landers wrote in a Feb. 1 e-mail sent to City Paper, “and whose link to the world is an answering machine no one ever bothers to return messages from?”
City Paper called the same number and got the same result. A followup call to City Councilmember Bill Henry (D-4th District), the council’s representative on CMBC’s board, brought word that the Feb. 2 board meeting had been postponed for six days—a fact also not apparent on the organization’s web site.
“We’ve been wrestling with keeping the channel open, and that was tough for a minute,” says Paul Taylor, the treasurer and one of five remaining board members, when asked about the seemingly dormant status of the organization. “Now we’re looking ahead.”
And yet CMBC has $950,000 in the bank.
As part of the city’s franchise deal with Comcast, the nonprofit receives more than $250,000 each year from the cable company. But only an additional amount of $40,000 can be used for operations (there is $13,000 in the operating fund currently). The rest is earmarked for “capital expenses” such as equipment, and has built up to nearly $1 million. Eight years ago, when the franchise deal was being negotiated by then Mayor Martin O’Malley, public access activists said that it would never work and demonstrated in front of City Hall to get the deal improved (“Please Stand By,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 20, 2004). The franchise agreement passed with little amendment or fanfare.
A Board of Incorporators convened to set up the process by which the money could be turned into a functioning public access cable station. Meetings ensued. According to a time line maintained by Baltimore Grassroots Media (the group that pushed hard eight years ago for a better franchise deal), six months passed before the original board decided on a name for the nonprofit that would operate the channel. It was nearly a year later before the board of directors of that organization—CMBC—first met. It was another year and a half before the operating agreement between CMBC and the city was set, and six more months—February 2009—before an office opened at 326 Saint Paul Place.
To put that five-year delay into perspective, consider what happened in Westminster, a town of 18,000 souls 35 miles west of Baltimore. According to the history page of the Community Media Center (CMC) in Carroll County, CMC incorporated as a nonprofit in 2003 and by 2004 had opened its own production studio and offices.
“They built a facility from the ground up,” CMBC Board President LaNette Davis said at CMBC’s Feb. 8 board meeting. “It’s a beautiful facility built next to a school.” CMBC’s board is slated to visit the Westminster organization next month.
Inside CMBC’s tiny three-room office on Saint Paul Place, there are six newish Apple computers in the main reception area, set up as a classroom. There is an 8-foot-by-10-foot storage area with more media equipment, some boxes, and a microwave oven. The third room, the size of a small bedroom and bathed in flickering fluorescent lights, hosts board meetings about once a month.
Although CMBC’s main problem is the funding bottleneck—Westminster’s public access channel has an annual operating budget of about $850,000, or more than 20 times Baltimore City’s—it is also clear that CMBC’s well-meaning volunteer board members are ill-equipped to establish the cable channel.
At the Feb. 8 meeting, Davis recounted a phone conversation with Landers, who had not been able to get through using the web site. He was rude and would not listen to her and refused to come to the meeting, she said.
“We have a contractor who we pay on a monthly basis to maintain that web site,” said Taylor, who keeps the meeting minutes. “When we get complaints that it’s not being updated, we need to look at that and see what the problem is.”
Davis replied that a previous secretary had been “PDF-ing” the minutes to the web site. “The new contractor mirrored the old site but we’re not doing the PDF minutes any more,” she says, “so if you want the minutes you have to contact us or come to the meeting.”
This particular meeting had been postponed from the week previous, with no notification on the web site.
Ric Landers says his main problem is the funding formula, which he calls “insane, arbitrary, and unbelievably stupid.”
“We should take his advice,” Henry says. “If Cincinnati and other cities all have a different balance in terms of operating versus capital funding, we should look at that and bring it back to the mayor. I think we have a really atrocious operating/capital formula.”
There was no motion made to that effect at the meeting. The board did decide on the provision of a new computer file server, to replace the current one, which board Vice President V. Lee Brady said is 15 years old. The board will call upon a couple of experts to examine the two bids received.
Henry took the opportunity to announce that this meeting would probably be his last. City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D) is expected to name a new board member this month. Board members spoke wistfully about the potential for the TV channel, given the talent in the city. (Currently the channel broadcasts a lot of prepackaged programming, from Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now to Islam in Focus.) Under the law, if there is enough programming, Comcast could have to give CMBC another channel to fill. “I would love to see more public interest programming,” Taylor said.
“Can we get any thoughts on how to handle volunteers,” Brady asked, “so they’re safe, we’re safe, and our equipment is safe?” Taylor replied that he had some material to share on that.
“I just want to make sure we all understand what our mission statement is,” Davis said a minute later, before reading it aloud: “Community Media of Baltimore City enables the diverse voices of Baltimore City to create messages, develop skills, and express opinions through the use of cable television and related media.”
She added: “We’re doing, I feel, a great job.”