"I understand that we live in a diverse community today. But why do we need to allow diversity that is foreign to us?"
-- Pastor Jerry Young, Trinity Baptist Church
At 4 p.m., the fear in the room was already so thick you could almost taste it.
But many of those attending the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' May 11 meeting seemed less concerned about the ins and outs of local politics than about a profound moral struggle that's been raging in the community for several months now.
Men and women, many of them wearing their Sunday best, waited patiently for a turn to speak their minds during the public-comment portion of the meeting. Some looked over the speeches they'd prepared, with words like "smut," "pornography," "Satanists" and "homosexuality" underlined or highlighted in yellow.
All told, at least 50 people were in the audience; some wore homemade stickers positioned right above their hearts. The stickers bore the letters "PATV," circled and struck through in red. And many of the people wearing them clearly feared that if the commissioners voted to take the next step in creating a local public-access television station, their children's welfare -- and perhaps their very souls -- would be at risk.
The immediate issue was whether to authorize the county manager to negotiate a management agreement for URTV, the proposed public-access channel. The new station would give almost anyone in the community access to a television studio, video recording equipment, and -- most importantly -- the eyes of local cable-television viewers.
And despite the multiple reassurances offered by station planners that safeguards would be in place to prevent material legally considered obscene from airing, the subject appears to be as controversial today as it was when the issue first began drawing public notice this winter.
One by one, about 19 citizens -- seeming more or less equally divided between opponents and supporters of the project -- approached the lectern. Ironwood Media Group owner Kurt Mann implored the commissioners to consider the economic growth such a station could help foster. Buncombe County, said Mann, lost out on millions of dollars on films like Cold Mountain (which wound up being filmed in Eastern Europe) and on television programs like the proposed Salsaman cooking show he helped to create. Both projects failed, he maintained, because of a lack of confidence in the local media infrastructure.
Other station proponents spoke about how URTV could provide support for community projects and showcase the area's diversity.
To some, however, that very diversity is a cause for concern.
"I understand that we live in a diverse community today," said Pastor Jerry Young of Trinity Baptist Church. "But why do we need to allow diversity that is foreign to us?" And though he acknowledged that the station would bring benefits to the community, Young also raised the specter of children being exposed to obscenity.
Many other speakers seemed to share Young's concerns. Under federal law, everyone in the community must have access to such stations and be free to say whatever they want. Religions other than Christianity could have airtime if someone in the community went to the trouble of producing a show about them. So could any other group.
Other speakers maintained that local government is overstepping its bounds, and that the PEG fee that appears on county residents' cable-TV bills is really a disguised tax. County resident Don Yelton, who's running for a seat on the board of commissioners, asserted that the process of creating the station has not been sufficiently democratic and that both the commissioners and Buncombe County would be financially liable for any obscenity lawsuits the station's content might provoke.
But most of those speaking against the public-access station based their arguments on moral issues.
Conservative activist David Swanson predicted that PATV would become a haven for so-called "snuff shows" and "pornography."
Swanson concluded his discourse by saying, "I understand that Mr. Mark Goldstein, who might be the general manager of our local URTV, publishes an openly communist newsletter."
"That's me, and that's not true," Goldstein announced from the crowd. The two men argued briefly until Chairman Nathan Ramsey intervened to re-establish order.
"I hadn't planned to speak, but it isn't every day that I'm called a communist in public," said Goldstein after his name had been added to the list of speakers to give him a chance to respond to the charge. "In reference to the earlier statement, I'm not a nasty red. I am the director of an organization called the Fund for Investigative Reporting that promotes free speech -- which must have been confused by [Swanson] with communism. I think that the gentleman made the point for us, because without public comment, I wouldn't have been able to defend [myself against] that remark."
The public hearing lasted about an hour; then the commissioners weighed in briefly. After a few minutes discussion, during which Ramsey voiced opposition to the proposal because of insufficient county-government representation on the board that would make decisions about program content, the commissioners voted 4-1 to authorize the county manager to negotiate an agreement for managing URTV, with only Ramsey dissenting.
After that, all the folks who'd come to speak their minds on others' right to speak theirs on TV quickly left the room, enabling the commissioners to get on with the remainder of the day's business.
The commissioners also:
• acknowledged local winners of this year's Excellence in Public Service Awards;
• designated May 8-15 as Strive Not to Drive Week and May as Older Americans Month;
• unanimously passed Limestone Township's proposed rezoning;
• unanimously approved an application for state funding for the Rural Operating Assistance Program;
• heard a report from Susan Ward of the nonprofit group Children First on the results of its Parent Focus Groups on Mental Health;
• heard a report from the nonprofit Handmade in America on the economic impact of downtown Asheville's "creative economy."
[Steve Shanafelt writes regularly for Xpress.]