George Stoney, Public Access TV Pioneer
Saturday, August 04, 2012 - 09:27 AM
In the fun house mirror of pop culture, public access television’s image has warped from high-minded community journalism to Wayne’s World-style parody. But in the 1970s, it was the social media of its time, empowering a generation of citizen reporters.
George Stoney was a major figure in those early days of public access. A documentary filmmaker, he is often credited as the father of the public access television movement, and envisioned public access to the airwaves as one small step towards public action in society. Stoney died July 12 at 96.
Stoney’s best-known film, 1953’s All My Babies, champions African-American midwives as a crucial part of the local medical system. He cast and staged the film, a technique sometimes controversial in documentaries, but which Stoney believed freed him to represent his subjects as they would represent themselves. In 2002, All My Babies was inducted into the National Film Registry.
Among Stoney’s many fans is Deirdre Boyle, Associate Professor in The School of Media Studies at The New School for Public Engagement in New York City. Professor Boyle told me what made Stoney’s students like a host of Johnny Appleseeds, and why public access TV still matters in the digital age.
In the late 1960s, Stoney and collaborators at the National Film Board of Canada were early adopters of an exciting new medium - videotape. When Stoney co-founded New York University’s Alternate Media Center soon after, he brought his portable video kits with him.
Deirdre Boyle on George Stoney
DEIRDRE BOYLE: NYU hired him because they were having problems with these uppity students, who were involved in social activism - complaining about the war, complaining about the university - and they thought that someone like George who had a track record now dealing with oppositional parties successfully would be a good addition. Little did they know the kind of trouble George would get up to with his students, who handed Portapaks out - not only to each other - but to people in the community.
One of the best films, or videos I should say, that I remember from this period was a documentary that was made with people on a rent strike in the East Village. And they took their video tape, and they took it to housing court, and they had evidence of all of the violations that the landlord had never remedied. And suddenly, they had power. And this was just the beginning of what was possible when people who were not trained professionals, but had this easy to use, new equipment, could speak up for themselves.
AMY DIPIERRO: Even though people were documenting their lives, perhaps they could show these videos in a court of law, they had no way to broadcast their work. And that’s where George had the idea that public access cable could be a programming medium in and of itself. How did he go about convincing the powers that be - most importantly, perhaps, the FCC - that they should back his big idea about public access?
DEIRDRE BOYLE: George’s idea was not to have cable be only a programmer of community-made media, [but] that the cable channels themselves should provide the technology, the access to the studios. Then, there was another level of access, which was getting it out to viewers. But this idea that the cable companies that acquired franchises owed something back to the community, whose airwaves - or cables, I should say - were being acquired. And that became the argument that was used, first in New York state, but also as it sort of traveled around the country, as these experiments began to show the possibility of using cable for something more than just bringing in distant signals of entertainment programming.
AMY DIPIERRO: And how did it travel across the country?
DEIRDRE BOYLE: George was a bit like, and the Alternate Media Center, were a bit like Johnny Appleseed. They sent student interns to these various cable franchises and helped the people establish these community access centers in cable systems. And for a time, when the FCC mandated this - it was only a short time - but there was this extraordinary flourishing of what was needed at the time, time of tremendous social change, and also, this idea that the media should not only deliver to the people, but be the voice of the people themselves.
AMY DIPIERRO: Why was it such [an] important step for people in these communities to get behind a camera or on a television screen?
DEIRDRE BOYLE: I think a lot of people have the misconception that they all wanted to be Desperate Housewives, that this was somehow a kind of narcissistic display fantasy life. I think many of the people who were drawn to working in both facilitating community access video, and also the people who were signing up for classes and making tapes, felt that there were needs that weren’t being met in their community.
AMY DIPIERRO: Do you see public access TV as a possible forerunner to what we see as citizen media, citizen journalists today?
DEIRDRE BOYLE: I think video and public access was the social media of its age, and it really laid a foundation for what we have today. Long before there was YouTube, there was public access. Long before smartphones, there was portable video. And the same impulses were there at that time that we see much more widespread, and much more accessible today. This kind of impulse has been around for a long time and has sought out the available media at that time. And there were people, like George Stoney, who were able to help make it happen in a way that would have a legacy and endurance.
AMY DIPIERRO: Do you think that public access continues to be relevant today - or did the medium never really matter, and it was always just about people getting out their message?
DEIRDRE BOYLE: Broadcasting, the world of television and cable, have changed so dramatically that the significance of it may have been eclipsed by all the attention and the possibilities that new media afford. I still watch television, and I’m very glad that there’s something called public access on it. But I also use my iPhone, and occasionally look at YouTube, and certainly am interested in the latest ways of getting messages of social change out. Public access has become one of many forms now, but it was a very important one in its day.
AMY DIPIERRO: Thank you so much for coming by.
DEIRDRE BOYLE: My pleasure, Amy.
A memorial service for George Stoney will be held August 6 at the Abrons Arts Center in New York.