AMHERST – One of the nation’s longest-running local cable television stations, Amherst Media, hopes to break ground on its own state-of-the-art facility in coming months, and supporters will hold a fundraising celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29 at the Amherst Woman’s Club to raise funds. (Details and ticket information are here.)
The “Raise Your Voice” Capital Campaign’s goal is to build Amherst Media a home of its own, from which to further promote free speech, disseminate information, and build the community, said Demetria Shabazz, president of Amherst Media’s board.
Shabazz said that Amherst Media, now in its 42nd year, was among the first public access cable television stations established in the 1970s. Hundreds of stations were launched nationwide following a 1972 Federal Communications Commission ruling, which required cable companies to offer public access channels in major markets, for public, educational, and local government use. Amherst Media is one of the longest-running and most active public access stations to result.
“It’s very special, what we have here in Amherst,” said Shabazz, who is a lecturer in the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Amherst Media, which is incorporated as Amherst Community Television Inc., and was known in the past as ACTV, runs programs on Channels 12, 15, and 17.
Once doing business from a house in downtown Amherst, the station has leased the 246 College Street location since 1991. It now pays Eversource upwards of $20,000 a year in rent. The utility has asked Amherst Media to find a new site, and the non-profit plans to build on land it purchased in 2013 at the corner of Main and Gray Streets. The new location will put Amherst Media close to downtown again, and to Amherst Regional Middle School and High School.
Three-hundred seventy shows were produced by or for Amherst Media last year, including by local government agencies, station staff, and members of the public. Popular programs include “Democracy Now,” “Going Deeper,” “Voices from Our Schools,” and “Difficult Dialogues.”
“The Amherst Media cable channel is where we find out what’s really happening in our town. There is no comparable resource,” stated Amherst resident Lisa Fontes.
Amherst Media also broadcasts programs originating from across the nation and abroad, while an all-Spanish language program block is offered on Thursday and Sunday evenings. (A broadcast schedule is here.)
In 2017, Amherst Media had total revenues of $360,000, including $324,000 paid by Comcast through the federal mandate requiring it to support local programming. Comcast has roughly 7,000 subscribers in the Amherst area.
Amherst Media, which is also supported in part by workshop and member fees, employs four people full-time, and has 15 to 25 student interns per semester, from UMass, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College and Hampshire College. Interns earn credit while learning about journalism, media production, and electronic archiving. Executive Director Jim Lescault said that during his 11 years with the station, Amherst Media has hired seven former interns.
The existing facility on College Street has about 4,000 square feet of space. The new building would also have 4,000 square feet initially, with the potential for an additional 2,000 square feet on the second floor.
Amherst Media will need a total of $850,000 for the new technology center, and plans to combine capital contributions and mortgage funding, Lescault said.
Last year, the Rotary Club of Amherst threw its weight behind Amherst Media, providing $25,000 in matching capital campaign funds.
A dispute between Amherst Media and developer Gerald Guidera over alleged encroachments onto the Gray Street site, including a retaining wall, trench drain, and granite curb, has wound up in the courts. Lescault said that lawyers for Amherst Media and Guidera are in negotiation over steps to remediate the problems.
In the meantime, plans for the new facility are going forward. The new facility would enable Amherst Media to increase programming, expand local reporting and offer more community events. It plans to add after-school programs, and multimedia production workshops for youth and adults.
“Our vision is to create a new resource for the Amherst community that could be a hub for government transparency, community media, and meaningful civic dialogue,” Lescault stated.
Besides the capital campaign, Amherst Media’s overall need for financial support from the community has grown in recent years. Shabazz noted that many people no longer watch cable programs through their televisions, and instead stream content on their computers. As a result, cable companies count fewer people as cable subscribers, and there are major questions about the future of funding for stations like Amherst Media. Lescault said he also does not rule out the possibility of legislative changes that could weaken the public access mandate on cable companies.
Last year, following an arduous process, the Town of Amherst negotiated a 10-year renewal of its cable franchise contract with Comcast.
At the Sept. 29 fundraiser, the public can donate for engraved tiles that will be mounted in new building’s entryway, for $100 or $250, depending on the tile’s size.
“At a moment in our history when basic principles of democracy and free speech are under attack, an independent media center … must continue to thrive,” stated Amherst attorney John C. Bonifaz.
Donations to Amherst Media can be made at amherstmedia.org/donate.