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Fewer Voices

Access Tucson prepares to go from three channels to just one

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July 1 brings the latest chapter in Access Tucson's recent struggle to stay alive in the midst of funding uncertainties. On that day, the city of Tucson and AT will enter a new licensing agreement that forces the local cable-access station to reduce its output from three channels to one.

The deal also all but guarantees that the city will take in less money from cable licensee Cox Communications—which doesn't help the prospects for Access Tucson, an organization that has faced the city's chopping block in the recent past.

Access Tucson will have to shoehorn 209 hours of programming per week that is spread across three channels into 168 programming hours on one channel—all while transitioning from a largely city-funded organization to one that relies on community support and fundraisers.

The good news is that local producers, by way of a lottery, will still be able to get their time slots. "It's our job to ensure that there's appropriate access for every community member," said Lisa Horner, Access Tucson's executive director. "... It's not just 3 in the morning when you'll be seen—though your replay might be there."

The bad news is that syndicated programs such as Democracy Now! will air only once a day, down from three daily airings. "We're pretty sure we're going to hear about that," said programming coordinator Vikki Dempsey. "We're trying to create a balance between producers, our nonprofit organizations in Tucson, viewers and underwriters."

The cause of the squeeze is House Bill 2812, a product of the 2006 Arizona Legislature. It established a limit on how much municipalities may charge for new cable-television licenses and reduces the number of public, educational and government channels that cable providers must maintain.

Tucson's last agreement with Cox was finalized in May 2007, a month before HB 2812 took effect. As a result, the city was able to secure a fixed fee of more than $5.25 million per year from Cox. At the time, Access Tucson was drawing more than a fifth of that funding for its budget—$1.09 million in 2008.

But under the new law, the city may charge cable providers no more than 5 percent of their annual gross revenues. So the city expects to make only $3.5 million this year from its agreement with Cox.

"Cox supported this legislation on behalf of our customers in Arizona," Cox spokesperson Andrea Katsenes said in an email. "With the passage of this legislation ... Cox customers today pay lower fees and taxes and are not required to pay extra subscriber fees for channels that have very low viewership. Cox support of this legislation was to help relieve the tax burden that cable customers have shouldered for more than 30 years."

Today, Access Tucson's annual funding from the city sits at $303,500. That's just enough to keep studios open to the public two days a week and maintain three full-time staffers.

Yet it wouldn't necessarily have to be that way if the Tucson City Council hadn't passed a resolution in early 2001. At the time, Access Tucson's funding came directly from cable-licensing fees—specifically, the PEG (public, educational and government channels) fee that cable subscribers find in each month's bill. As the subscriber base grew, so did Access Tucson, with a budget that was growing at a rate disproportionate to that of the city.

In February 2001, then-City Manager James Keene recommended that a new agreement be made between the city and its public-access station to alter the way Access Tucson received its funding. Under the council's resolution, the money went straight to Tucson's general fund, where it was doled out to Access Tucson and other "outside agencies."

When the recession hit, the cuts loomed. Yet Sam Behrend, Access Tucson's executive director at the time, doesn't hold a grudge. "You can't really look at what happened and say it's surprising, or blame the city," he said. "(They) were broke, and they were laying off people, so they were going to grab any pile of money they could get their hands on. It's just unfortunate, as this is money that cable subscribers are paying, ostensibly, for a particular purpose."

Even with the current difficulties, Access Tucson producers remain hopeful.

"Any time you make a change, you're inviting pros and cons," said Access Tucson board member Clarence Scotton. "I'm very confident in the team that runs this place."

A veteran of the Iraq war, Scotton made his way to Tucson to recover from head trauma suffered while in the service. After a period of homelessness and bouncing between jobs, he turned an aptitude for auto repair into Cars 4 Vets, a charity that fixes cars and donates them to veterans. His break came after appearing on Access Tucson producer Dan Dougherty's Up and Coming.

"The very next day, I was nationally known and getting calls from all over the country," Scotton said. "In two months, I had opened up two shops in two other states, all the way out to Massachusetts and all the way up to Wyoming."

Though Scotton has grown Cars 4 Vets nationally and worked on other organizations, he's spent much of the past year raising money for Access Tucson.

Fundraising is crucial for keeping Access Tucson alive in its current form. During the last year, the organization raised more than $40,000 with art auctions, media-education classes and April's Celebration of Free Speech event.

"That's not the budget that we need to run on, but that's not bad for getting out of the gates in these efforts," Horner said.

Access Tucson would love to be able to raise enough money to extend studio hours and provide better equipment, Horner said. But even with the recent focus on fundraising, Access Tucson has not lost sight of its ultimate goal: enriching Tucson through community media.

"We got a letter from a woman in a nursing home, saying, 'This is how I see my community, and I don't get to get out and see my community in a real and in-depth way,'" Horner said. "Those are the moments when it is important. It doesn't matter who's doing it; it just matters that somebody is dedicated to hanging on to that very important and really intangible bandwidth for community discourse."

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