‘Lights! Camera! Community Action!’ Midpen Media Center celebrates 25 years of community broadcasting

by Sue Dremann / Palo Alto Weekly

TD Daniell, center, operates the switcher as fellow Midpen Media Center volunteers Sean George, front left, and Ken Dickman, back left, watch as “Other Voices”, a monthly live talk show hosted by the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center is filmed in the studio on Sept. 8. Photo by Veronica Weber.

In the recesses of a blocky building at 900 San Antonio Road, banks of lights and monitors illuminate the faces of those in the television control room. In an adjacent space, the program’s hosts and presenters take their places in the studio in front of a green screen, a blank background that will allow any number of settings and images to be dropped in digitally for each show.

Cameras on booms — called jibs — sweep into position like mechanized megafauna, focusing in on close-ups, medium-range shots, and panning from left to right.

The Midpen Media Center, celebrating its 25th anniversary this Sunday, has come a long way since it began with one camera in a rental space on Park Boulevard. It has a new, $400,000 high-definition digital studio and more than 200 crew members from camera persons to producers and technicians. But as big as it has grown, the Media Center still adheres to one basic tenet: producing media that is for the people and by the people. Through community programming, video and film, it has been at the forefront of creating the kind of “community engagement” that city leaders talk about but have rarely been able to achieve.

At its Sunday celebration from 2-5 p.m., “Mosaic — Telling your story brings the whole picture of our community together,” the community can sample some of the programs the center offers, such as sports broadcasting, storytelling techniques, sharing opinions in an interview for the regional Bay Voice channel, touring the new studio and learning inside tips on successful field production, to name a few.

John C. Hollar, president of the Computer History Museum, will give a keynote speech on the future of community media. The event will be broadcast live on cable television.

Since its early days in 1990, the Media Center has grown to create 1,283 productions in 2014 alone, including 837 that were produced by the community. It broadcasted 322 government meetings to inform the public in its service area, which includes Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Stanford, and unincorporated portions of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Its initiatives include youth media and video corps for students to create their own programming; live sports broadcasting by students; a video project, “Made in America,” capturing the stories of local immigrants; Alive and Free Youth Media for East Palo Alto youth to tell their experiences and the Greenlight Film Festival of short works.

Its eclectic cable programming ranges from “Ask ‘Dr.’ Business” and “Talking with Henrietta” (which focuses on local current events) to “Cosmic Cafe” (a talk show dedicated to the paranormal, aliens and crop circles), “God’s Woman” (which features a local pastor), music of local bands and songwriters, environmental action, faith, dance and arts.

Today, the Media Center has five live channels and five online channels. As of Dec. 31, 2014, the center had more than $9.1 million in net assets, thanks largely to conservative investment of its endowment by the former Cable Co-op.

“It was, for the most part, an empty studio,” recalled “Talking with Henrietta” host Henrietta Burroughs, a resident who has been a part of the center since 1995. “Maybe they had one camera. I had a video production company and I brought in my own equipment.”

Back in 1990, the Co-op provided the cable system and the Media Center, which was then called Mid-Peninsula Access Corporation (MPAC), community programming for the Co-op channel.

Media Center Executive Director Annie Folger, who was at the forefront of the community-access idea in 1985, recalled its impetus.

“Community-access organizations could be at arm’s length from the deep pockets of government. … At the very base level, public-access channels enable ordinary citizens to express their First Amendment right to free speech on television,” she said.

Under the 1985 Cable Act, cable companies had to include public-access television as part of their programming, since the companies, which were often private, were using the public airways, she said. Palo Alto’s early effort was largely volunteer-based, with people meeting in Folger’s dining room, she recalled.

Burroughs was a journalist who started broadcasting there in 1995 while on the City of Palo Alto’s Human Relations Commission on a show called “Peninsula Currents.” The importance of community media can’t be underestimated, she said.

“I just think it gives the community a voice that the community would not have in mainstream media,” she said.

The Media Center has been at the forefront of community programming, early on producing shows with senior-related content and going into communities of color to allow people to tell their stories. The center has dedicated projects related to East Palo Alto youth and Palo Alto teens. Burroughs’ current show since 2002 has focused on local events and personalities in East Palo Alto.

When Cable Co-op sold the system for $17 million to AT&T Broadband & Internet Services in 2001, MPAC merged with Silicon Valley Community Communications. The name changed to Midpeninsula Community Media Center, and the endowment ensured the community-access network would remain on solid financial footing in perpetuity. Burroughs said that foresight has enabled the Media Center to have a deep and lasting impact through robust programs, broadcasting and video classes and for-hire services to help members of the community get their message out.

“They have been phenomenally successful. They have survived when many others in public media have not. I am just in awe of the services they produce for the community,” she said.

Folger echoed the importance the endowment has made to allow community voices to remain heard.

“A number of organizations had to fold because they didn’t have the big cushion we do,” she said.

Looking forward, the Media Center is focusing on ways to attract millennials through social media, live streaming and interactive platforms for community dialogue, Folger said. Now after 10 years of planning, the new $400,000 high-definition system is moving the Media Center into its next phase of growth. The organization recently launched Bay Voice channel, which provides programming to address regional issues that aren’t usually covered by local programming.

Along with its new, lightning-fast broadcasting, the center recently took on the new moniker, Midpen Media Center, to create a better “mouth feel,” board member Sue Purdy-Pelosi said.

But dropping the word “community” from its name doesn’t change the center’s dedication to its by-the-people-for-the-people programming.

“At the heart of our organization, we enable anyone, regardless of there station in life, to come in and express themselves and to express their concerns about what is happening in the community. We don’t want there to be any barriers, and we never turn anyone away,” Folger said.

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