It's a Thursday afternoon and underneath bright TV studio lights, Five on 20 anchors Ty Besh and Rich Aguirre are bantering back and forth as they rehearse before they go live with their evening newscast.
As he reads over a story about the latest congressional outrage—GOP lawmakers reversed an Obama administration regulation that banned the shooting of bear cubs as they hibernate in their dens—Aguirre is wrestling with the pronunciation of "refuges" as Besh amiably chides him.
"You having trouble with your inflection again?" Besh teases.
The two run through more material, much of it mocking President Donald Trump—"Trump slam!" Aguirre yells after one punchline—and then, on cue, both of them are ready as they go live for the 5 p.m. broadcast. Their targets for the day include the GOP's immigration policies, the city of Tucson's recent ban on texting while driving and the cost of protecting Trump and his family. "Yes, that's right," Besh says. "We're going to take money away from cyber crime at a time when we're being preyed upon by Russian hackers so that our president can wear puffy white pants and play golf. Sounds like a fair tradeoff."
Five on 20 is citizen journalism crossed with Comedy Central's Daily Show. The show airs five days a week, originating from Brink Creative, a brick-walled building on South Sixth Avenue just north of 22nd Street that once was home to the KY Market. Today, it serves as both Brink's HQ and the the TV studio for Creative Tucson, Tucson's new community media center.
Creative Tucson is a partnership between Brink, community radio station KXCI and Wavelab Studios. The three organizations won the chance to create the community media center after the city of Tucson decided to combine the long-running public access TV operation with Tucson 12, the city-run channel. Creative Tucson is taking over the job once done by Access Tucson, the nonprofit that missed the deadline to bid on the contract, but it has other missions as well. Besides running the city's public access channel, Channel 20 on the Cox cable system (and Channel 74 on the county's Comcast system), the team also provides training for video and audio production. Yet another job is airing the Tucson's City Council meetings, a job formerly managed by city staffers working for Tucson 12. And they also produce short videos to market Tucson.
It was Craig Schumacher, the owner of Wavelab Studios, who came up with the idea of teaming up with Brink and KXCI to make a bid for the gig—or, as he puts, "It's my fault." Over the last quarter-century, Schumacher has been making recordings with a long list of indie bands and other artists, including Calexico, Neko Case, DeVotchKa and Tom Russell.
He'd been watching what Access Tucson, which was housed in a building next door to Wavelab, was doing with the idea of community broadcasting. When the city issued a Request for Proposals, Schumacher thought a collaboration might work. He turned to Brink's Danny Vinik and KXCI's Cathy Rivers to see if they wanted to team up.
"I figured, why not give it a shot? What do we have to lose?" he says. "I could do some of this, Danny seemed like he could take on a big chunk of it, and KXCI seemed like a good partner. I always thought that with the creative community, which musicians are a big part of, it's easy to create content when you have musicians and bands and gear and so on."
Rivers was excited by the idea of offering an educational opportunity to learn about the ins and outs of working with video and audio equipment.
"I'm very passionate about that because a lot of that is leaving the school system so I think it's important for the community to come together and offer those kinds of opportunities to students who may not be doing well in other subjects but may flourish in learning how to make film or learning how to make film or learning how to make podcasts," Rivers says. "I was fortunate enough to go to a high school that offered lots of different classes. We actually had a radio broadcasting class and that sparked my creative interest so I could go on to college and explore those interests and then have a career in them."
Vinik's Brink Creative is a marketing agency that specializes in doing websites and video for various clients. His offices here and in Washington, D.C., have worked for different departments at the UA (including the asteroid-hunting OSIRIS-REx space mission), government agencies, politicians on both sides of the aisle, advocacy groups and private-sector companies. He was intrigued by the idea of creating an opportunity for Tucsonans to tell their stories.
"We thought, if we got it going, it would be good for the community," Vinik says. "A city this size should have a television station where people can voice their community-minded stuff."
Full disclosure: I've been collaborating with Vinik, Schumacher and Rivers since 2014, when we launched Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel, a public-affairs show that aired a televised edition on ABC affiliate KGUN-9 and a radio version on KXCI. On April 13, the televised version of Zona Politics will relaunch under the Creative Tucson banner.
The team behind Creative Tucson wants to figure out a 21st-century approach to public access television.
As part of Cox Communication's franchise agreement with the city, Cox provides two channels to the city of Tucson: Tucson 12 airs the city council meetings and other feel-good pieces created by city staff about the community. Meanwhile, Channel 20 is the city's public-access channel.
First launched in the mid-'80s, Access Tucson was once one of the most vibrant public access stations in the country. Run by a nonprofit, Access Tucson allowed all manner of Tucsonans to create programming. Fans of the station will remember seeing local politicians talking public affairs, performances by musicians and stand-up comedians, conspiracy theorists who sought to blow the lid off various topics the mainstream media didn't dare touch, aspiring televangelists such as the Rev. Bill Bowler, and notorious characters such as Yshua Lord of Host 666Israel and Lou Perfidio (aka The Great Satan at Large). Another full disclosure: During my college years, I worked with a crew to produce various programming—sci-fi comedies about space pirates, game shows and other nonsense, though I'm hopeful the tapes are long lost at this point. In 2008 and 2012, I worked with Access Tucson to produce presidential debates with lesser-known presidential candidates on Arizona's primary ballot.
One of the central ideas behind public access in the early days of cable TV sprang from the notion that television was a powerful communication medium and the masses should control at least a little bit of the means of production. So advocates wanted to give ordinary folks a chance to use professional camera equipment, which in the mid-'80s meant ¾-inch tape decks, heavy cameras and specialized editing bays.
But as technology advanced and costs dropped, all of that equipment became more and more accessible; these days, your camera and editing rig can be carried in your pocket and you can post your video on YouTube, where it has the potential to reach a global audience.
At the same time, the city of Tucson has been facing much tighter budgets, so funding for public access fell from more than a million dollars a year to $150,000. While the station continued to serve aspiring television producers, the staff steadily shrank and the gear became outdated.
Last year, the city tried a new approach: It asked for proposals to create a new community media center that would take over several jobs: Recording the mayor and council meetings, creating short videos promoting Tucson and running the access channel.
Creative Tucson's proposal came out on top. The organization is getting about $235,000 a year over three years to develop the community media center. It's taken some time for Creative Tucson to get the logistics locked down—there were servers involved, and websites and cables and bandwidth, and all manner of stuff that flew over my head as Vinik tried to explain it to me. But now, Creative Tucson is open for business, although the team has given up Access Tucson's downtown HQ, which is now for sale.
So how do you go about getting your TV show on the air? A basic Creative Tucson membership is free and allows you to take courses that range in cost from $10 to $60. A $49-a-year membership buys you the opportunity to upload programming to Creative Tucson by creating your own online channel and pitching your show for a spot on the cable channel. If Creative Tucson's board of advisors gives it the thumbs up, it will end up being carried on Channel 20; if not, it will remain exclusively online on creativetucson.org, where all the programs can be seen on demand. Vinik says the aim is to have a higher quality of programming than public access stations have sometimes aired. If a show is going to make the cut, it should have a decent set and other solid production values.
"Any idea has a chance of seeing the light of day, but just because you exist and you can breathe air doesn't mean you have something to say," Vinik says.
"We're trying to create formats and structures to help people frame their ideas a little. Not telling them what to say, but giving them a vehicle."
So far, about one-fourth of what Creative Tucson airs is coming from original programming, including broadcasts of local and touring bands who perform live in KXCI's Studio 2B, which has been outfitted with cameras and the technology necessary to allow a live feed. The rest is a mix of public domain movies, documentaries, shorts, BrinkMedia films, Three Stooges episodes, documentaries and whatever else Creative Tucson has at its disposal.
But now that much of the groundwork for Creative Tucson is done, the team expects to see more original programming on the channel. To that end, alongside the television studio at KXCI, Wavelab has been outfitted with cameras so that musicians can tape performances and interviews.
"We have a little bigger space than KXCI, so we can have an audience component to it," Schumacher says. "Like little miniature Austin City Limits productions. We can have a friends-and-family component to it and give it more a feel of a live act."
The third membership tier at Creative Tucson—$99 annually—allows members to check out video and audio equipment. Creative Tucson has an array of Black Magic cameras, lenses, light kits, audio mixers and other gear that members can noodle around with to create their own television programs.
To teach members how to use the gear, Brink is offering classes in television production, Schumacher is teaching about digital audio and KXCI is offering DJ and podcasting courses.
"Our style of teaching is to pretty quickly throw people into the firepit and get them learning things," Vinik says.
That's where Five on 20 comes in. The largely volunteer operation has some rough edges, but it covers local, national and international news each day. Besides the live broadcasting, the team is also experimenting with new technologies; with a remote truck that Creative Tucson inherited, the news show can broadcast live from protests such as the post-inaugural Women's March by inserting a Facebook Live stream into the show. The Five on 20 script is developed by a team each day, with most of it penned by Joel Foster, a former teacher who now works in copywriting and occasionally does standup comedy.
"I love it," he says. "It kind of gives me an outlet for what's going on in the world. I feel like I'd be kind of losing my mind, if I didn't have it, because of the whole Trump thing."
Ty Besh, who has worked both behind and in front of the camera, got involved after he stumbled across a flyer in a downtown cafe encouraging people to get involved in Creative Tucson last August. He'd studied journalism at the UA and had worked at Arizona Public Media before he left to visit Germany to work on a journalism project.
"I wanted to keep the storytelling going but I got used to personal storytelling without the rules and deadlines," he says. "I started doing Five on 20 because there was that freedom to just go tell whatever story you want, however you want. I love that about Five on 20."
Besh has been learning a lot since signing on; he's had training in how to direct, set up lights and do other behind-the-scenes work as well as appearing on the air. And after several months of working on the news show, Besh landed a full-time gig at Brink Creative, although he still helps out with Creative Tucson programming.
The news program is also attracting UA students. Journalism senior Madison Brodsky, who is interning for TMZ in Los Angeles, signed up to be an anchor of the news show last fall. She says it was "a really cool experience. The people there are great. They really listen to what you want to do and they'll adapt to it and try to make it happen."
"It's always a good idea to get as much experience as you can," she adds. "I've always been the kind of person who has been dedicated to my career and I would always put that first. And by putting that first, I would take any opportunity to get in front of the camera."
Brodsky would recommend a gig at Creative Tucson to her fellow journalism students, "especially if you want to be on camera. It is such a competitive industry and you need to get as much practice as you can."
That's the sort of thing the Creative Tucson team hopes to see more of in the future.
"We'll just continue to expand and offer more," Rivers says. "More content for the public on the television station and more opportunities for people to really learn how to tell their own stories."
Creative Tucson holds orientation meetings every Saturday morning. For more information, visit creativetucson.org.