"We have to permit those that we disagree with to have freedom of speech so that we can still have our freedom of speech."
-- J. Wendell Runion, International Baptist Outreach Missions Inc.
Fears of pornography and depictions of alternative lifestyles appear to be key issues driving the local debate about public-access TV.
Public-access advocates have tried to assuage fears about potentially offensive content (see "Sex and the County," Feb. 11 Xpress, and "Not in My Living Room," Feb. 25).
In at least two other North Carolina cities, however, religious shows rival any other brand of programming for air time.
The medium's potential as an electronic pulpit hasn't been lost on the local faith community, either -- which could help explain why Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings haven't been packed with angry pastors decrying the idea.
Color me ... inspirational
An institutional shade of green -- which indicates religious programming -- dominates the current online program guide for ACCESS 21, Charlotte's public-access TV station (run by a local nonprofit).
These shows include Victory Revival Hour, Ambassadors for Jesus and Mind of Christ. There are also slots for such non-Christian offerings as What is Islam? and Unarius (described as "past-life therapy and the nature of progressive spiritual evolution").
All told, religious shows have accounted for about 54 percent of ACCESS 21's programming during the first quarter of this year, reports Executive Director/CEO John Petrie. That actually marks a decline from August 2002, when Petrie took charge of the station. At that time, he notes, religious programming constituted a full 66 percent of the station's offerings -- a figure that shrank only because more secular shows were added, not because religious shows were cut.
As Petrie sees it, of the 102 shows slated to run on ACCESS 21 beginning in April, only two push the envelope enough to be considered as adult programming. And even those, he insists, haven't shown anything that qualifies as obscenity. A peek at the program guide suggests that he's talking about a pair of late-night shows: Vizzari Alive & Outrageous (described as "original parody, satire & bizzare humor"), and Z-Axis (improvisational comedy skits, local music and alternative local culture -- which promotes itself on its own Web site as "kinda like Blue Velvet, only much, much worse").
Raleigh, meanwhile, boasts two public-access outlets -- the Community Television channel (devoted to entertainment and information) and the Hope and Unity Network (set aside for "inspirational programming for all faiths," according to an online programming schedule). The city of Raleigh operates both, plus a government channel.
Raleigh's twin channels provide parallel universes of local programming diversity. Wake County couch potatoes, for example, can choose to spend their Friday nights watching Perils for Pedestrians, followed by Speak Up ... Speak Out on the Community Television channel -- or surf on over to Discovery in Prophecy, followed by Muslim TV on the Hope and Unity Network. Analysis reveals that religious programming accounts for about 42 percent of the total air time on the two channels, though the Hope and Unity network seems to have plenty of unclaimed slots.
And in St. Paul, Minn., two of the three public-access channels are set aside for religious programming, notes Executive Director Wally Bowen of the Mountain Area Information Network, an ardent advocate of public-access TV. And while more prosperous churches can afford to pay local cable companies to run their programming, that may not hold true for smaller operations. Although public-access programming fees vary by community, at least one outlet (in Grand Rapids, Mich.,) lets program producers earn "TV dollars" (through volunteer work) that are then redeemable for production and air time, Bowen says.
"If you're a small church or a preacher just starting out, you're pretty much shut out unless you can pay the piper, pay the cable company," Bowen observes.
Although the nonprofit Alliance for Community Media (a national membership organization) couldn't come up with precise statistics, Executive Director Bunnie Riedel reports that there's "tons" of religious programming appearing on public-access channels across the country.
"Remember that religious programmers have the same First Amendment rights as anyone," notes Riedel. "We welcome religious programmers with open arms in the same way we welcome atheistic programming, or programming about the latest Red Cross blood drive, or programming by veterans and seniors. It has been my experience that religious groups are fairly well organized, and they understand the value of creating programming and putting it on public access."
Religious shows aside, if opponents kill public-access TV before it's born, local farmers, crafters and even fly fishermen will also be excluded, notes Bowen.
"I just don't think they're seeing the bigger picture of ... how public access can create alternatives to the smut and widen the choices for local viewers that are more wholesome choices," he argues.
Love thy First Amendment
J. Wendell Runion is no stranger to religious broadcasting. As president/director of International Baptist Outreach Missions Inc. -- which owns the Asheville-based AM radio station WKJV (aka "The King's Radio") -- he oversees an enterprise that broadcasts sermons and Southern-gospel music round the clock.
Runion, the former pastor of east Asheville's Parkway Baptist Church, notes that AM radio station WWNC used to broadcast his sermons weekly -- until the radio station priced the preacher out by raising its rates. And back before Charter Communications began charging a fee to run programs on Channel 10, Runion says he appeared there three times a week.
Yet Runion doesn't think either the city or the county should be involved in public-access TV, because he believes the fees paid by cable subscribers constitute a tax -- and he doesn't want his tax dollars supporting the project (see sidebar, "Tax or Fee?").
"I just wish our City Council and county commissioners would just keep their fingers out of things they don't need to be in," declares Runion.
At the same time, the self-described "very conservative" minister says he's taken no active role in opposing public-access TV. In fact, when project opponents called to solicit his participation -- on the premise that "false religions" might be aired -- he wasn't interested.
"I'm not going to say, 'Keep any group off,'" observes Runion. "That would be stupid.
"Freedom of speech is a constitutionally guaranteed right, and we live in America, and that's one of the ills we have to put up with ... so that we maintain our freedoms. We have to permit those that we disagree with to have freedom of speech so that we can still have our freedom of speech."
Across town at the Merrimon Avenue Baptist Church, the Rev. Jim Russell admits that he's not familiar with all the issues surrounding public-access TV. Yet he seems intrigued by what it might have to offer.
The Merrimon Avenue Baptist Church -- whose Web site proclaims it to be "one of the most evangelistic churches" in the Southern Baptist Convention -- now pays to have its worship services shown on Charter's Channel 10. (Because Russell has satellite TV at home, however, he's never actually seen his own church's cable show.)
"There's a lot of good that could come from making [public-access TV] available to churches," muses Russell. "I am interested in it and interested in what it will be and what the possibilities are. Asheville's such an interesting place; there's so many different groups and different ideas and world views floating around."
Meanwhile, John Petrie of Charlotte's ACCESS 21 says he'd be happy to share his perspective with any Asheville City Council member or Buncombe County commissioner who's concerned about public-access programming. Petrie says he gets perhaps a dozen complaints a year -- and they're just as likely to be about the political views aired on the channel as about anything else.
"Politicians tend to be real shaky about this, and they have no reason to be," Petrie observes.