‘We’re in the access business’ | AspenTimes.com

‘We’re in the access business’

Charles Agar
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” GrassRoots TV has been reinventing itself since 1971. It is one of the first and longest surviving community-access television stations in the U.S.

Aspen’s plucky Channel 12 provides free public access to cable TV and hosted some 750 locally produced programs this year.

The station has weathered everything from near collapse ” when the staff walked out of the studio with the cameras running ” to a recent controversy over a Holocaust denial film.

GrassRoots TV Executive Director John Masters said the station perseveres by sticking to principles of unfettered public access.

The nonprofit has tripled its budget since Masters, a 25-year TV veteran, took over in 2001. Today the station follows a “entrepreneurial model,” earning the bulk of its $570,000 revenues from user fees.

The station reported $409,000 in revenues and $383,000 in expenses on its 2005 tax forms.

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“We’re in the access business,” Masters said. “You don’t have to know anything about television to make a TV show.”

Residents hire GrassRoots TV staff to produce, shoot and edit shows for a nominal fee (from $125 per hour).

While a long way from the “cringe TV” of those early days at the station, today GrassRoots TV makes up for low production values with good content, Master said.

The station receives no state or federal funding.

City of Aspen officials have a three-year agreement to make annual payments from a cable franchise fee ” around $75,000 each year ” and recently donated $15,000 for capital improvements.

Pitkin County also has a three-year agreement and funds GrassRoots TV through the Healthy Community Fund to the tune of $25,000 in 2007, and promises $20,000 in 2008, and $15,000 in 2009.

Snowmass Village contributes regularly, and donated $20,500 this year.

Since 2003, when Channel 12 became too crowded with political meeting coverage, GrassRoots TV has managed CGTV Channel 11, covering local government board meetings.

Comcast, the local cable provider, donated $175,000 in 1998 as part of a franchising agreement. The company will contribute $15,000 annually for the next five years for equipment upkeep, Masters said.

More than 40 percent of revenues, however, come from end user fees to rent studio space and hire staff for everything from editing to remote event shoots. User fees topped $230,000 in 2007.

Other revenue sources include individual contributions (the station recently received an anonymous $125,000 gift) as well as station underwriting (just over $50,000) and annual fundraisers such as the Aspen Poker Championship and the Free Range Open Golf Tournament.

A direct mailing campaign in 2007 fell flat, Masters said.

GrassRoots TV has an unpaid board and employs four full-time staff and two part-time employees, as well as a full-time intern. Salaries make up over 50 percent of the budget.

Masters said while “pass-through” nonprofits that raise money for individuals in need can keep staff costs low, GrassRoots TV is “like a factory,” and by necessity staff salaries make up a higher percentage of the budget.

“My entire staff is underpaid,” Masters said.

Other expenses include purchase, upkeep and repair of equipment, and studio improvements.

GrassRoots TV hired the Carbondale PR firm Promotional Concepts (Master’s wife, Maura, is on staff) and paid for marketing and advertising in the amount of $12,500 in 2007.

Racing ever-changing technology and community demand, GrassRoots TV officials hope to raise $2 million in coming years for new digital equipment and a massive remodel of their Red Brick building studio.

“The community expects an enormous amount from their community TV station,” Masters said.

GrassRoots TV uses standard definition cameras today, but a recent federal ruling mandates that all TV must be digital by 2011, Masters said.

Masters hopes to create a state-of-the-art high definition TV studio while maintaining a community feel. “It needs to be dog-friendly,” he said.

And as television and the Internet merge in coming years, Masters envisions GrassRoots TV as a place where people can generate their own digital moving images that can be played on the Internet, over the airwaves or called up as video-on-demand.

Masters said the $2 million capital campaign will also establish an endowment to ensure the station will carry on “no matter what happens there is open-access to media.”