When he wasn't working in his office at The Peoples Channel, Chad Johnston spent the better part of his summer at the legislature battling a bill that overhauled the state's cable franchise laws. Waiting patiently for his chance to address the Revenue Laws Study Committee, Johnston was in the uncomfortable position of wearing a tie, something he's been doing more of while fighting for the cause of public access to media—whether it's public-access TV stations, broadband Internet, or any other analog or digital forms of media.
It's been a busy year for media activists: the net neutrality legislation in Congress, further consolidation in the telecom industry and the announcement by the Federal Communications Commission that it will reconsider rules governing the ownership of mass media outlets. Johnston has worked to stay on top of state and federal legislation and translate its potential impact to the local community. He helped organize a hearing in Asheville in June that attracted two FCC commissioners and hundreds of citizens from across North Carolina. And he's been working with citizens and town officials in Chapel Hill on plans for a municipal broadband network.
And all that is in addition to his day job as director of The Peoples Channel.
"It's been almost exhausting watching him," says Sindhu Zagoren, a UNC graduate student in communications who is on the board of The Peoples Channel. "He's been working 80-plus hours a week since he took this job." Working on legislation isn't part of his job description, but Zagoren says the board is grateful that he's doing it. "He'll take the time to explain what's going on and how that's going to impact the channel. He's very good at translating between the macro and the micro."
The Peoples Channel was founded in 1998 as one of Chapel Hill's PEG (public access, education and government) channels, as established by the town's cable franchise agreement with Time Warner. Johnston was hired as its director in July 2004 and is one of two full-time staff members.
"The initial mission of The Peoples Channel is really just to teach people how to make their own TV shows," Johnston explains, "to provide them with the equipment, resources and help along the way to do that on a first-come, first-served, First Amendment basis."
After studying media and communications at Antioch College with a focus on social justice, Johnston worked for a handful of public-access stations in Ohio and Oregon before spending several months in Argentina. The social movements he observed there galvanized his sense of social mission. "I came back and I just wanted to be as effective an activist as possible. I thought that public access was probably where I could be most effective."
Most public-access TV stations offer airtime and training with camera and video-editing equipment. But Johnston came to TPC with a mission to keep that station relevant. "I'm immersed in media ownership, media policy and media literacy and technology, so I realized TV as we know it was sort of going to die, and if we didn't evolve as an organization, we were going to be dead in the water."
He has worked to make TPC a community media center, with Internet access and training, low-cost courses in animation and programs such as Final Cut Pro, in addition to TV time. For instance, the producers of Radio Palante, a Spanish-language program on the Carrboro community radio station WCOM, edit their interviews and public service announcements at TPC's media lab.
Zagoren says Johnston's approach is "very much about giving back to other people and operating in their space, letting this channel and this office be their space for learning. He's the facilitator."
"I don't feel like it's me that's actually making the change," Johnston says, "it's the community and it's the people that are feeling empowered to raise their voice or to say something or to think about media in a different way. It's so cool to watch that happen."
The Video Choice Act passed the North Carolina legislature this summer, but not without significant changes. "We discovered early on that the bill was really, really complicated," Johnston says, "so I hyper-focused on public education and government access. We would have lost all our funding, we would have lost channel capacity and we saved those things."
"I'd never lobbied or done this sort of work at the state level," he says. "It's definitely daunting to see $1,000-suit lobbyists convening with the vast majority of committee members before and after meetings. You don't feel like you have much power." But the efforts of Johnston, Raleigh cable administrator Mike Williams and several groups brought the issues at stake to public attention.
"We just lucked out that we had enough committed folks to make phone calls and show up to these meetings, to show why this was important and why citizens and local governments really cared about it and needed it. And that had a huge impact when they were drafting it, to have that room packed not just by lobbyists or Astroturf groups but by citizens.
"It's still really complicated and there will probably never be a new PEG channel in the state," he adds, "but we at least saved what we had. It was a lot better than a lot of other states had done."
Johnston was fighting for more than his job. He was fighting to keep public access alive as technology converges. Despite the potential of broadband technology to offer more public access, the telecom industry sees an opportunity to slink out of prior commitments of spectrum space and revenue to the public. Johnston is determined to hang on to the space that was set aside in 1984, when public-access TV was established.
As a member of the national board of the Alliance for Community Media, Johnston is trying to update the culture of public-access television. "One of the things that brought me back to public access was that there's not a whole lot of young people involved in this field," he says.
What's the new public access? It ultimately has something to do with Internet access, Johnston says, and the training to use it effectively.
When Chapel Hill began pursuing the idea of a municipal wireless broadband system, Johnston worked with fellow media activist Brian Russell and approached Chapel Hill Town Councilwoman Laurin Easthom, a proponent of the idea, about presenting ideas to the council.
"Chad was very proactive in wanting to provide any assistance or information he could," Easthom says. "I've just been very impressed. He cares very much about citizen involvement in the community and he's highly effective at being able to reach out to people." She says the council plans to draw on his experience as they move forward with the broadband plan.
Johnston says he hopes other community activists will take advantage of The Peoples Channel. "Whatever issue you're working on, be it the environment, fair wages, whatever, media has to be just above that," he says. "Nobody's going to know about your issue or your struggles or your voice until you have access to the media."