If hearing the words “community access television” brings up images of “Wayne’s World” or watching a recording of a city commission meeting at 3 a.m. on a sleepless night, then it’s time to take another look.
Public Media Network, Kalamazoo’s com-munity access media platform, with its five cable channels, a mobile app and livestream content available online, has become a source of important community information, from its broadcasts of governmental meetings of local cities, townships and school districts to its volunteer-generated programming on topics from education to the arts.
Matt Schuster, executive director of PMN since 2017, aims to expand that role by making the nonprofit media platform a critical conduit for telling community stories that might not be heard otherwise.
“One of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand today’s media ecosystem and the negative impact of what’s occurring in a lot of it, especially in social media, and creating awareness and understanding of the vital nature of having a community platform that collects a variety of voices together in one place,” says Schuster. “Rather than relying on what’s being fed to you by social media algorithms, we provide a forum for you to hear from your neighbors and other people that you may not normally come across, with many viewpoints and ideas, resources and information aggregated together in one place.”
“What community access media can do is what I fell in love with.”
Do people know what Public Media Network is?
If they remember us as a community access center, which was our first name here, then they think, “Oh yeah, those cable channels with some weird local programming” but don’t get what we’re really about: democratizing the media system and giving people the chance to express their own voices. Our true mission is about amplifying voices that have been underrepresented or not authentically represented in media. You can effect social change and get people involved and taking action as a result of learning what’s going on and building common understanding in the community. The best way we learn about each other is through conversation, and media plays a vital role. That’s really what community access is about.
How has technology changed the concept of community access?
Back in the day, we were the one cable TV channel that people could get on their TV, but now with phones and YouTube and Facebook and everything else, we’ve expanded as well. We have five cable channels we program 24 hours a day seven days a week. They’re also available online on our website, so people can see the livestreams of all the programming. We’re also available over providers like Roku, Apple TV and Fire TV. We have an app that people can download for free to watch all the programming. We have mobile apps so people can watch on their smartphones.
Just this year we rolled out closed captioning on all of our programming for people who may not be able to hear or people who just enjoy watching closed captioning. One fun thing that does is it allows viewers of a government meeting or a program to be able to search the closed-caption transcripts, so if they know somebody talked about X topic or they wanted to find a word that somebody said, rather than having to watch the whole program through for it, they can search the term and it’ll highlight it in the closed-caption transcripts, which they can then click on to take them to that part of the video recording.
In addition to technology, what else has changed about PMN?
One major shift we’ve made is to intentionally engage with people in communities that are traditionally underrepresented, to support and co-create programs with these community members. The amount of journalism produced locally has declined over the years, and the heart of journalism is gathering information to help people understand things and tell stories. With the changes in the local media system, we’ve looked for areas where we can further democratize the media and help people tell their stories, using our technology and media for community storytelling. With that as a basis, we’ve launched new journalism initiatives based in citizen journalism, training community members on how to tell stories and how to cover local government. We have documentary training programs focused on the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community to teach them how to tell the stories that are important to them.
How does PMN define success?
We actually make a conscious effort not to base a lot of metrics on viewership. Instead, it’s similar to a library in some respects, where we are providing a public service to the community, and do people want it? We listen to community input and feedback. We are also starting to undertake an information needs assessment with members in the community where we are surveying people about what they feel is missing in local media, where they get their information, and how they share information with others, to try to get a snapshot of how things have changed in the community and where we and other media organizations may best be able to serve those needs.
What has been your favorite accomplishment at PMN so far?
The launch of some of the newer initiatives working with BIPOC communities, working side by side training people directly how to tell their stories and seeing what comes from their building confidence in their voices and that people want to hear what they have to say.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity