Back in January of 2004, I did an interview with Tony about his work with denverevolution.org and the then just developing Deproduction. In the midst of transcribing the interview, Tony sent me one of the best answers to my "what advice would you give an 18 year old" question. In lieu of finishing the transcription, I just published his letter. If you haven't yet read it, I suggest you do it now. Right here. And check out that beard!
Well now, not only has he shaven, but he and his crew have taken on the tremendous task of revamping Denver's Public Access TV stations and getting them back on the air. Here we backtrack a little into the beginnings of Deproduction and then jump forward and discuss the nuts and bolts of starting and operating a public access television station.
The many angles of Tony Shawcross.
The last time that I talked with you, you were doing mostly denverevolution.org, and you were just moving into doing Deproduction. We didn't get too much into it then and actually, what's online is just you talking about following your dreams. So, can you explain a little bit about how deproduction works and how it came about?
There's a whole written thing on our website about the history of how it happened that's pretty interesting. It is pretty much what I referred to in the first "interview." So, the real way that it got started is just before this current Iraq war, I had done a non-violence training with one of the other denverevolution founders who is still really, deeply involved, Chris Harris, we did a non-violence consensus training up at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and they had been doing protests about the looming Iraq war and they were really upset about the media attention they were getting, and so..
The media attention that the..
That the protests were getting. Like, if anything, they got like a three second blurb on the news hat just was like, "look at these crazies doing theater out in front of Haliburton." So, we talked to them about what kind of video they wanted...you know, I had been doing video with Free Speech TV and with Little Voice and with Denver Community Television, and so we worked with them to shoot a documentary of the training that led up to it and the motivation behind it and just try to get a deeper look at this protest that they did where they did a civil disobedience action in front of the Haliburton offices in downtown Denver. And so we got free equipment from DC TV and Free Speech TV and we edited it on borrowed equipment from Little Voice and KBDI and different friends that I had. That was the first project that we did and it was fifteen minutes long and it was really well recieved. I was shown at some progressive film festivals and got aired on Free Speech TV.
After that we just did more of the same. We started shooting Cafe Nuba... We were doing more of that beg, borrowing and stealing from all of our friends and eventually, in Spring of 2003, I wrote a grant to Free Speech TV saying that we needed our own editing systems. They gave us our first $5,000 grant to buy an editing system. Little Voice donated an office to us to house it and we called it the Denverevolution Production Group. By the end of 2003, I was working more there than I was working at Little Voice. My friend Kevin Price moved down from Fort Collins and so we started doing the work to incorporate as Deproduction, The Denverevolution Production Group.
Little Voice actually ran into some harder financial times and gave us the boot at the end of 2003. After a short stint in my living room, we eventually moved into PS1 Charter School. We had been talking to them about doing a class for their students, teaching them how to use video. The principal heard that we were homeless and wanted us to move in. We moved in there early 2004, formed a board of directors, and started working on our bylaws and all the shit you have to go through to be a 501C3.
What's a 501C3?
It's a tax exempt charitable corporation.
So how did it change.. basically it started with you and Chris Harris and your group working on your projects and basically needing equipment to do YOUR projects, and then it evolved into opening that up to the community. How did that happen or was that the way it always was?
Well, it was kind of the way it always was. When we got that first grant from Free Speech TV, it was to make that system available to people. There was no broadcast quality editing systems available in town. We needed that and we wanted to make it available to everyone. That was part of the deal with Little Voice, too, is they'd let anyone come in as long as they were accompanied by us to use the system.
And yeah, when we were forming the bylaws, the mission and the organization came about, it was to put the power of the media into the hands of the community. So, it was always about making the equipment available to them. We've never had our OWN system. All of our systems we share with anyone who comes in off the street.
What kind of people are coming in and using the resources and do you feel like they're being utilized in the way that you intended?
I don't know. When we first started, the people that were using it most were either students at PS1 that knew about us and people who were working at DC TV who were doing production, but couldn't access the Final Cut Pro or other high quality systems through Public Access and they would come to us for post production. But then within like six or seven months or a year or so of us getting our system, DC TV got those same kinds of systems, so then it became an even weirder mix of people that were working with us instead of working with Public Access.
What kind of projects have come out of this?
It's over a hundred or two hundred projects that have.. I mean because we've been doing it now for over two years. We have three systems that have, on average, three or four people a week that come in.
So, they're getting used regularly.
Yeah. We've listed some of the projects on our website, but it hasn't been updated for a while. It's everything, from independent films and comedies, to documentaries about the FTAA or the WTO. There's a group that went down to Cancun that edited their stuff on our systems. It's just that whole gamut from independent films to progressive films, and now there's just a lot of like Public Access type content, like city council meetings and stuff like that.
Speaking of Public Access, that's the next big thing that's happening for you. What is going on with that and how did it come about?
So, like a year after we incorporated (early 2005) we started expanding our education programs where we were teaching people how to make media and edit media, to take over, to supplement the educations programs that were available at the city's public access station, Denver Community Television. They were loosing funding and having trouble supporting their education program because it's not very affordable to teach those kinds of skills aimed at communities who can't afford to pay market rates for those kinds of classes. So, they ended up being pretty happy to hand over their education programs entirely to us, to Deproduction. So, we ended up taking over all of their classes. That started in early 2005 and by the end of the summer, 2005, there was a lot of buzz, that city council was going to shut Denver Community Television down.
Why did they want to do that?
Do you want the brief answer?.. They weren't good with their money. Most public access stations in big cities like this are used to getting like $500,000 to a million dollars a year in administrative support. At some point the law changed to where the city didn't have to put that [money collected from cable companies] just into public access education and government (P.E.G.), it can go into the general fund, it can go into paying for more cops or more fire stations. When that happened, they made an agreement with the public access station that it needed to be self-sufficient by 2004, I think. So, they were planning on reducing the amount of money they were giving them for general operating expenses and only providing money for capitol equipment expenses. But as the money kept dwindling, the station really didn't do anything to become self-sufficient. The main reason is it was being run at the time by a guy who really believed that this was something that the cable companies and the city should be paying for and if he just did what he was supposed to be doing, then the community would rally and help keep them around, and that just didn't really happen.
So, that went away.
Yeah, they got shut down in September. They issued an R.F.P., a Request For Proposal for non-profits to resume public access in Denver. We put together the proposal that ended up getting selected in December and then starting in January we started working on what our new station was going to be like.
Are you going to be getting funding from the government then?
It might change back, there's federal legislation going through right now that we wouldn't actually be in support of, but that might actually end up increasing our funding. It's hard to say.. but they're trying to federalize what's called the franchising process where the cable companies get franchises with each city. Right now they have to negotiate with every little market and make deals with them and the federal government is trying to make it to where they just get one federal license, and there's flat rules where every city has to give 1% of their revenue from each municipal organization to that city's government to pass through to P.E.G. channels.
But the short story right now is that's not changing. The city will only give up capital equipment, so we kind of designed our business model around that and trying to make a way more automated system where we take those funds that are available to build more automation. I kind of like it better that way because if we do it right, then the system that we create will just be a support structure that will allow the community and the people and the members and the users, to control the station.
How exactly is it going to work?
The simple answer to that is that we want to put every aspect of the station into the hands of the community. The most revolutionary piece of that is the programming model. At DCTV, there were two full time people whose entire job was to look through tapes and load tapes into the machine and schedule when they were going to play, and then it took probably another full time person just to deal with the complaints. Our model is going to be all hard-drive based, so no more tapes to load.
How do people submit their work, then?
People will show up with their tape which they'll have to put into a little kiosk which will code it into our hard drives and tag it with all kinds of information.
The old public access station once, when those guys were reviewing the tapes, they saw that it had simulated sex and was like a soft-core porn movie..
That was going to be my next question!
Well, they wouldn't air it and they got sued. In general public access stations, you have to air it if it doesn't break an FCC law. It's supposed to be a public resource. So they ended up getting sued and going to court, and they lost. The court said they had the play the stuff; this is what public access is for.
So, our model is to take ourselves out of that anyway. There's no reason for us to review it. If we wanted to take it off, we probably couldn't.
Well, how do you tell if they are breaking an FCC rule?
First we have to make sure that they have read the FCC regulations. We have to post them every time they submit a show and they say, no it's not breaking any laws. We'll have them tag it if it's got any adult content, so it needs to air late at night; that's an FCC rule. So, we'll follow all of those rules and we will make sure that the producers are informed and take responsibility for that. And then their show gets on.
The whole programming model.. well, if we just let everything on, we're never going to get any viewership, nobodies going to watch it. It's hard to get viewership when you have just a hodgepodge of content, which is what the old station had. So what we want to have is programming blocks; thematic blocks, like all of the faith-based stuff will go with similar blocks. Then we will have the community vote on the shows so they can log into the website or we will make it so that they can use their cell phones to SMS or text votes, and just vote on the content of the shows and how much they like them. We're going to have the channels tiered, where one is more hodgepodge and one is more premium programming. We're also going to have the prime time hierarchy tiers, so the shows that get the best votes get the most prime time slots. And most shows on public access get repeated dozens and dozens of times.
The most genius thing about that model is that, well let's say that there's this young girl who wants to do her first video and she goes and because she has a low producer rating because she doesn't have a big history of making shows, her show would probably show up at 3am on the crappy channel. If she wants it to get aired at a time when she can watch it with her family and friends, really, the only solution for her is to go out to her friends and the community and tell them to go vote. Then they learn more about the station and it really mobilizes the producer base as a marketing tool to get people on to the web site and involved. Hopefully it will empower them and make it feel like it's their channel.
And then kind of everywhere, we're looking for that same kind of thing.. for fundraising, we're trying to do an underwriting model that lets producers go and get underwriting for their show. We've developed a little packet that's got a bare bones template that they can use. And then the underwriting goes through us, we get a percentage of it that covers any of the producer's costs and again it's mobilizing the community to do our fundraising and underwriting.
Other than the money from the city to cover the technology and some money from underwriting, is there any other money coming into this to fund..
We're going to charge membership fees for people who use the equipment. We'll have a different kind of tiered structure, so the people who use the most stuff will end up paying the most. We're going to have organizational memberships as well. We charge for our classes; the same revenue streams that Deproduction's had the last two plus years we're going to continue having. All of the classes that we teach in the certification workshops and all that stuff will be revenue generating. And then our production department has always made money producing videos for non-profits. We expect that all of that will increase. But the way our financials are looking now, we are depending on almost as much money coming from grants and donations.
Will Deproduction continue to exist as it is or will it be absorbed by your new project with Public Access?
It's actually the other way around. Even though Public Access will be bigger, Deproduction will be absorbing it because Deproduction is incorporated 501C3. That process took us almost a year, so we don't want to go through the incorporation and the 501C3 process again. But we plan to have the station have a new name and not be called Deproduction. Deproduction will probably just be the production arm of the organization. So, Denverevolution will still have its brand and Deproduction will still have its brand and the Public Access station will probably be called Denver Open Media.
And this all starts in September?
Yes, it's supposed to start September 1st and that's a tight deadline. We're just now finishing our construction plans. We're building studios and edit suites and everything. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that that's still a possibility, but.. well, our lease states that if we have to delay, we can't delay more than a month. So, we're just telling everyone it's going to happen in September.
"Happening" meaning the channels will flicker on..
The doors will open, the channels will flicker on..
What kind of call to action do you give to the public now. For anybody who wants to participate in this, what do they need to do?
I don't know which order this should go in, but the first thing that comes to mind is that we need more money. Second, we want people to join. We want people to start realizing that making media now is becoming as simple as.. well, you used to have to hire people to make a pamphlet or a flyer and it's just as easy. I mean, you still get better quality if you hire someone, but all that stuff is so within your grasp. Cameras are wacky cheap.
So then they realize that they can make some movies..
And then they can come sign up. Right now our membership system is, if they're going to use their own equipment and they just want to air it on our station, they can get a subscription for $75 for a year and then they get all kinds of little benefits that are part of that. If they need to use any one of our three major groups of equipment, so either studio equipment or production equipment or editing equipment, then the membership is $150. If they need to use everything, the unlimited membership is $225 for a year. And then training is usually about a hundred bucks for a two day class to get certified on whatever it is you need.
Do you have to be certified in order to be a member?
You only have to get certified to use the equipment that you want to use. So if you're just a member using your own equipment and you just need to know how to use the kiosk, that's all part of a free orientation. But if you want to use our edit systems, you'll have to take the class to learn how to use it, or test out of the class.
And then they just have to sign up.
Keep your eyes peeled for the flicker of the station images coming on. In the time being, check out deproduction.org and denverevolution.org and by all means, give them a shout NOW if you've got some extra cash that's burning a hole in your pocket!