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GrassRoots’ must-see egalitarian TV

Chad Abraham
GrassRoots TV allows any resident to film a show, like this boy using one of the community television cameras in the 1970s. (Contributed photo)
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Venereal diseases, a soap opera, occasional drug use.It’s a sampling of what GrassRoots TV was airing in its early days some 35 years ago. The station’s first show was broadcast into Aspen living rooms from another living room in the Smuggler trailer park.Every Wednesday, David Wright would move out the furniture from his trailer to make way for a stage. Wright was the technological wizard who helped make the broadcasts happen.Hippies, ski bums and other local riffraff would gather for poetry readings, plays and other artistic endeavors. They would occasionally smoke a joint on live television. Legend has it that a young intern once bared her chest before a video camera that usually recorded nothing but Aspen Mountain, just to see if anyone was watching.GrassRoots TV, the nation’s first community access television station, celebrated its 35th year Thursday night with “The Grassies,” an awards show for producers. And more anniversary events and fundraisers are being planned for the coming year.Changing with the timesIf the shows seem more tame these days – less grass on Grass, for instance – it is only because Aspen itself has settled down a bit, GrassRoots Executive Director John Masters said.The station’s original ethos has remained the same: absolute egalitarianism. “Grass-Roots offers everyone in the community not only a forum but also the opportunity to learn to create his or her own programs,” wrote the station’s founder, John Smith, several decades ago. (The name was hyphenated back then.) “No view is excluded. No issue is avoided. No experiment is condemned.”Smith, who was a communications professor at UCLA, saw an opportunity in mandates the federal government handed down in the 1970s. Federal regulations required cable operators to support community access channels dedicated to public, educational and governmental programming, which in many cases led to distinctive public service programming, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.”Cable companies had absolutely no interest or any reason, besides the law, to provide public access,” Masters said. “So they’d find a closet somewhere and put a camera in there.”

It was thus possible to air virtually anything any resident wanted. GrassRoots still follows that thinking.”If you have a video, I don’t care what the content is,” Masters said. “You bring in your vacation to Bali and you want to show everybody your vacation to Bali, that’s fine with me.”Such video must be somewhat viewable from a technical standpoint, but the station’s staff makes no judgments about quality, other than a hope that it has some community value.The city of Aspen, Pitkin County and the town of Snowmass Village govern GrassRoots and act as the cable franchising authority.The number of shows has doubled in the past four years, and GrassRoots also became a 24-hour station in that time, station manager Corby Anderson said. And the staff also videotapes countless land-use meetings and other governmental minutiae.Barriers behind the scenesGrassRoots reflects the more proactive and experimental aspects of the community as the station tries to lower the barriers to media access, Masters said.And that includes psychological impediments. One of the staff’s current goals is to make people feel more comfortable in front of a video camera.”The higher the quality, the more networkish it looks, there’s more of a barrier there,” he said. “Whereas if you have it more loose – ‘It’s just GrassRoots’ – it helps people come on television and use the medium. We want to be careful about not making it too glossy.”The staff also tries to keep the financial barriers to a show as low as possible through grants, donations and other forms of public support.”We have the same fees for everyone,” Masters said. “I’m not interested in how much money you have. If you have nothing, we do have GrassRoots grants that’ll help you get started.”

Roots of GrassRootsSmith, his wife, Katy, and Wright, along with dedicated staff members such as Pat Bingham, saw the potential in community television and decided to create GrassRoots. They approached Canyon Cable, which was run by former Aspen Times Editor and Publisher Bil Dunaway.”They ran a cable feed up to David Wright’s trailer and then ran the signal … back out,” Masters said.John Smith had his own camera, a primitive Sony Porta-Pak, and they cobbled together other equipment “literally out of Dumpsters at the cable company and the stereo store.”And voilà: Aspen had its own station. And its own soap opera.Screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn, who wrote “The Longest Yard, penned episodes of “The Edge of Aspen.” The show starred local thespians and other Aspenites such as County Commissioner Mick Ireland.”They shot it all around town, [and] they had sets, also. And all kinds of different people did cameos,” Masters said.The show, like all good soaps, ranged between goofy and serious drama. It concerned a hippie chick who moved to Aspen and then became the wealthiest person in town.Other shows included “The VD Special,” “The Ute Indians” and “The Rage of Age,” about dissipating sexuality related to aging.A lot of the original tapes from GrassRoots’ early days are at the Aspen Historical Society. The tapes are not in good shape, Masters said.”Who knows if they’re viewable,” he said. “If they are, they can only go through a machine once, so they need to be preserved. It’s going to take a professional. [It’s] a white-glove situation.”

Looking toward the futureNew programs this year include Theatre Aspen’s game show-like program called “Theater, Anyone?” and “Progressive Business,” an interview show.GrassRoots’ signal extends to the Ranch at Roaring Fork, between Catherine Store and Carbondale, but it could eventually reach Carbondale.”I fully expect that certainly by next year we’ll be on the cable in Carbondale,” Masters said.GrassRoots is working with community radio station KDNK and other organizations on plans for a new state-of-the-art media facility in the town. Masters and many others believe the digital revolution will soon demolish the walls between TV, radio and the Internet.The goal is for it to be the best community television facility in the world.Masters said GrassRoots needs a new facility because the Aspen studio is under great pressure.”It’s just wearing out the facility, physically wearing out the building,” he said.It is a hard concept to believe: Anyone in the community can drop by, pitch a one-time show or series and leave with a camera and instructions on how to use it. But that, in essence, is GrassRoots TV.”You can’t come up with something that’s too weird, Masters said. “So please try.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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