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GrassRoots TV hits 50 years of ‘bottom up’ broadcasting

GrassRoots TV station manager Jeremy Isenhart works behind the scenes on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at their studio in Aspen. (Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

If you ask GrassRoots TV Executive Director John Masters why the 50th anniversary of GrassRoots TV is important, he will tell you it isn’t.

“That’s our day to day feeling about it. It’s just another moment. It’s another day, it’s another year,” he said.

However, GrassRoots TV is an important organization in Aspen. It is one of the few expressions of the early 1970s left, Masters said.



“The ’70s was a time of experimentation and people, the community, were in enormous amounts of change. There was a nexus there, of a lot of young people trying to get away from it all,” Masters said.

A Sony Portapak made all the difference. Founder John Smith was a media professor at UCLA years prior to starting GrassRoots TV in 1972. Because he was in Los Angeles, he was able to buy a Sony Portapak and bring it to Aspen.




“The idea that a single person, particularly an amateur, could make video was revolutionary. Before that, you had to be a professional in the business. You had to work in a facility that had all the equipment,” Masters said.

Smith, along with fellow co-founders David Wright and Eleanor Bingham, created The GrassRoots Network as the nation’s first not-for-profit community-determined media network. The network started out broadcasting from Wright’s mobile home in the Smuggler Trailer Park on a channel donated to them by Bil Dunaway.

Reid Haughey, left, and former Aspen city councilwoman Ann Mullins, center, help moderate a discussion with Adam Frisch, a candidate for Congress, on Oct. 26, 2022, at the GrassRoots TV station in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Dunaway, who had bought The Aspen Times in 1956 and owned the paper for nearly 38 years, gave Smith his first reporting job five years before Smith founded GrassRoots.

GrassRoots has broadcast everything from “The Edge of Ajax,” a community-written soap opera, to city council meetings. Recently, Grassroots broadcast “Squirm Night” for Pitkin County and Snowmass candidates. According to their website, they were the first media in the nation to “videotape, cablecast and broadcast county commissioner, city council and state legislature meetings.” Community volunteers simply showed up to meetings with cameras and started broadcasting.

GrassRoots is funded by community sponsors and through grants from Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and the town of Snowmass Village. They broadcast over the Pitkin County translator system. Pitkin County owns the license and covers the cost of broadcasting.

According to Masters, GrassRoots is the opposite of all other media because it works from the bottom up, hence the “grassroots.”

GrassRoots TV station manager Jeremy Isenhart works behind the scenes on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at their studio in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“What the organization is and what content that we put out is entirely determined by members of the community. It’s not top down. There is no publisher or editor making decisions as to what is important. I don’t know what’s important. It’s up to the community to decide what’s important,” he said.

GrassRoots has not strayed from their mission of being a bottom up broadcast. Masters said you can almost consider their broadcast a form of reality television because everything they broadcast is absolutely real.

“Our goal is to help create and sustain a strong and interconnected community where neighbors know each other and understand each other,” Masters said.

In 1978, Smith left to start a farm in Oregon, and GrassRoots lost is direction. The board and staff quit, and there was not enough interest to replace the federal funding. They left a camera locked on a sign that read, “If anybody wants to run this thing, the door’s open.”

Eventually, a group of citizens led by micro-processing pioneer and amateur photographer Nick DeWolf formed a working board. They worked to redevelop GrassRoots in minimalist form with no video-programming other than DeWolf’s personal slide show.

GrassRoots TV station manager Jeremy Isenhart helps Ann Mullins with her mic as Adam Frisch waits his turn on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at their studio in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

After a few more years of “limping along,” GrassRoots went off the air again in 1998. In 1999, a board led by Jim True was formed to save and redevelop Grassroots. Pitkin County committed $150,000 in funds from a new franchise agreement with AT&T Cable to purchase new production equipment. Masters was hired in 2001 “with direction to run GrassRoots with a professional staff serving an amateur clientele using modern business practices while staying true to the founding vision,” the website states.

Since 2001, GrassRoots has continued to serve the community with bottom up coverage. Citizen initiated production has tripled and revenues have grown and stabilized.

Masters remembers a conversation he had with a woman at a community event years ago.

“I was introduced as the executive director of GrassRoots TV,” he said. “The person I was introduced to said, ‘Oh GrassRoots. GrassRoots reminds me of one of those old dive bars in Aspen that isn’t there anymore.'”

Reid Haughey, left, and former Aspen city councilwoman Ann Mullins, center, help moderate a discussion with Adam Frisch, a candidate for Congress, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at the GrassRoots TV station in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Masters took that as a compliment, and the woman meant it to be one.

“That just goes to the point. It’s what the GrassRoots idea is. I’m glad we’re here to be able to continue that communal idea,” he said.

Against all odds, Grassroots has remained an integral part of Aspen, Snowmass and Basalt. The new age of media where news is consumed on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram or countless other social media sites has actually benefited Grassroots.

“YouTube looks like a threat. Oh, now I can just put a video on Youtube. Who needs GrassRoots?” Masters said. “But actually, it’s this awesome tool, particularly when Google bought YouTube and all of the sudden you had Google Analytics backing up YouTube.”

GrassRoots TV station manager Jeremy Isenhart works behind the scenes on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at their studio in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Before Google Analytics, they had no way to know how many people were watching. According to Masters, GrassRoots Community Network on Youtube had over 500,000 unique views in the past year. They have 16,000 YouTube subscribers, nearly the same number of cable subscriptions they reach.

Thanks to social media and the internet, GrassRoots is no longer reliant on cable to share their message with the community.

“We’re like the bumblebee. Bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly, their wings aren’t big enough for them to fly, yet they do. We’re like that. We just keep plugging away at it,” Masters said.

Within the “old dive bar” studio there are thousands of archived tapes that Masters hopes will be sorted through in the future. Aspen values their community history, and there is no better place to find it than deep in the archived footage at Grassroots TV, he said.

“Everyone who’s come through here has had an effect on why GrassRoots is here after 50 years,” he said.

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