What do a gay church, an exercise instructor in her 90s and a group called Atheist Viewpoint have in common?
They all appear on The People's Channel, Chapel Hill's public access cable channel.
The People's Channel is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide the means and promote the opportunity for area citizens to exercise free speech. With a wide selection of noncommercial programming and citizens' "soapbox programming," Channel 8 beams out diverse, and sometimes controversial, selections.
"There is no censorship," Bob Gwyn, president of the People's Channel Board of Directors, said. "We do not preview the programs. We depend on producers to guarantee the content, and there's only one series we have to put on after midnight."
The People's Channel is available to anyone living in Orange or Chatham counties. At its studios on South Elliot Road, the People's Channel offers free instructional training classes and use of production equipment and studio operating equipment.
Chapel Hill has this community resource, Gwyn said, thanks to the forethought of certain town members.
"In 1998, a group of people here were dissatisfied with the public access channel and decided to form a nonprofit corporation," Gwyn said. "We did a lot of talking to the Town Board and the Cable Advisory Board."
The Cable Act stipulates that a cable company must provide at least one public access channel if a government franchise asks for it. In the 1998 franchise with Time Warner, the town of Chapel Hill requested not only a public access channel, but a government channel (Channel 18) and a channel for University use (Channel 4).
"By the spring of 1998, (The People's Channel) organized a board, rented space, and built a studio, control room and editing suites," Gwyn said.
The Board of Directors of The People's Channel reflects the multiplicity of talents represented in Orange County. Gwyn himself is a retired UNC professor of communication studies, whose area of special interest has been community media.
"We have a dedicated board," he said. "It's a volunteer board, and we have a medical doctor, a native Chapel Hill newspaperman and even a documentary filmmaker who has won an Academy Award for his documentary."
This dedication extends to the producers of programming. The People's Channel Studios are open from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. most nights so that people can put together their programming after work.
"Some folks have a message they want to get out," Gwyn said. "Others just like to get on TV. These are folks who feel a responsibility to discuss matters."
One program, called "People's Soapbox," allows anyone to get on TV and say anything they want for 10 minutes. Many programs have educational content, such as "Perils for Pedestrians," or a program called "In Praise
of Age" that is produced by the Senior Center. The People's Channel has also broadcasted movies for the blind.
"We're hoping to expand to less-served populations. We would love to get a news broadcast in Spanish," Gwyn said. "This is a community service. We're trying to use this means of communication to bring people together."
The People's Channel is not limited strictly to educational or informational programming, however. One series titled "Continuous Train Wreck" is a variety show that features various bands and comics. For one stunt, the show's producer took a video camera and rode across North Carolina from the mountains to the sea.
And all of this is available for the mere 69 cents per month that Time Warner charges each subscriber. Although the channel isn't available on the University's cable system, Gwyn emphasized the availability of the resource to students interested in working on shows.
"We're very interested in getting University students involved."
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