In the early days of cable television, Mankato’s public access system was a valuable way for regular citizens to access a powerful medium.
The idea of free and open access to a powerful system that would disseminate any and all ideas — serious, quirky or just entertaining — to all who care to watch offered a public square forum in a new era of communications. People responded with shows on everything from atheism and politics to music and hobbies.
But as Internet technology and sites such as YouTube grew, allowing people to more easily share what’s on their minds, the local public access channel’s content declined. Today public access is largely relegated to showing taped local government meetings and listings of community events.
The decline of public access is a nationwide phenomena, driven not only by advances in other technologies but also by political pressures from the cable and telephone industry to reduce the amount of funding they are required to provide for public access. The group Free Press, a media access advocacy organization, reports that public access systems across the country are faltering or have closed down.
Public access remains an important concept that deserves to be preserved. While anyone can post something to YouTube, having access to a group of local citizens on a local cable system offers a unique opportunity for people to influence and inform their neighbors.
That’s why moves by the cities of Mankato and North Mankato are exciting. The cities are leaning toward turning much of the oversight of and funding for the Mankato area access channels to the Bethany Lutheran College communications and media arts program. The students and faculty have a strong track record of producing interesting, high quality video programming.
Providing the public access funds to a group of creative and energetic students and faculty, in partnership with the cities, could bring a new era of local public access. Already discussed is broadcasting local meetings live. And Bethany would be able to produce local historical pieces, document community events and give the studio space and technical assistance to local residents who want to produce shows.
While Bethany is a private, Lutheran college, the tentative agreement has in place good safeguards to prevent any type of censorship and to protect Bethany from having to directly be involved in any taping of topics that would directly conflict with their religious mission.
We hope the proposal moves forward and look forward to again seeing interest and participation in the local public access system.