On a Friday morning in late February, I stepped into a television studio to watch the premiere of a pilot.
Damien Graham, the City of Raleigh's communications director, had invited the media to the humble offices of the municipally funded Raleigh Television Network to see the start of a program he'd been pushing since his first days on the job last June. Members of the city council, Graham told me two weeks earlier, had immediately approached him about boosting the network's output, of making it a centralized beacon for stories of the community's creativity.
One early idea: draft local musicians to perform on a live music show, much like Austin City Limits or NPR's Tiny Desk Concert, and turn the concept into a local custom. Explicitly, the broadcast would give one band per month free publicity and a professionally captured performance that could then be shared for promotion and booking. Implicitly, the series, since dubbed Oak City Sessions, would give Raleigh some cachet, showing that the sleepy Southern capital's recent great awakening depended heavily on local arts. In early February, before even seeing the pilot, the council unanimously approved $25,000 for the first season of Oak City Sessions.
"There's a general excitement about the things we can be sharing with the city," Graham had said, admitting excitement wasn't necessarily the first word that came to mind with the network he inherited. "Through interesting video content, ramping up social media, and providing a behind-the-scenes peek, we can describe some of the personalities powering our city in a compelling way."
So, that morning, three writers watched the first episode of Oak City Sessions (set to debut on Raleigh Television Network and YouTube March 11) in the quiet and in the dark. Shot in October in the City of Raleigh Museum, the pilot featured Season & Snare, a pleasant chamber pop duo that had invited several friends to join along onstage. The taping's audience clapped along on command and even sang a bit. When the band finished its half-dozen songs, the members diligently answered two questions about what made Raleigh great—a tight-knit scene, walks around lakes, its "little big city" feeling. The segment was warm and fuzzy enough to be a blanket.
Oak City Sessions isn't an original idea; several private groups, and even the students at N.C. State's WKNC-FM, have operated similar setups with varying success during the last decade. But it is an important and valuable concept, because it shows that the city not only acknowledges the existence of its citizens' art but also its value. That is, the presence of Oak City Sessions means there are enough good bands in Raleigh alone to sustain the program, so long as council members sustain its funding. I, for one, hope it lasts a very long time.
The program seems part and parcel, too, of a recent sequence of young-folks branding initiatives by the city and its allies. There's Eleanor Hawthorne, the city's twenty-six-year-old social media manager, and branded "Musician Loading Only" signs in front of downtown rock clubs. The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau launched its online music calendar, "The Most Music," in early 2015, while the Downtown Raleigh Alliance followed with its mobile app—"your personal guide to having a great time downtown"—exactly a year later.
But amid needlessly, endlessly contentious debates about patio seating and downtown volume, public park usage and food truck parking, these moves have started to feel merely gestural. They're like lip service to a bunch of people the city likes having around for credibility but in which it's only willing to invest so much capital. Share your own bikes, kids.
Bluegrass excepted, the most prominent musical uses of Raleigh City Plaza, from Oak City 7 to Hopscotch, don't receive substantial city support. A decade of talk about renting or leasing unused city spaces for rehearsals or even house-show-like concerts has produced nothing. Late last year, I connected a popular local band with the city officials who manage Meymandi Concert Hall and Memorial Auditorium, spaces that sit fallow for many days a year. The band wanted to play there, but the expenses were too high. The administration didn't seem interested in cutting them a hometown deal. The group took its business elsewhere.
Band parking spaces are nice, and overdue, but, in the absence of an environment of support, they run the risk of turning into mere tokens. Tragically, it sometimes seems that Raleigh is attempting to build a city different from the one it is branding. When I ask Season & Snare singer Autumn Rose Brand—ostensibly, a model citizen when it comes to the city's idea of local creativity—how many musicians she knows who live downtown, she can readily name only one.
On the way out of the Raleigh Television Network studios that morning, three city employees—one for every journalist who had watched the entire episode—asked if we wanted to take anything with us. Just outside the door, plastic bottles of Coca-Cola cooled in a neon pink bucket of ice, untouched. Tall bottles of water stood at attention, and two-dozen glazed doughnuts lay in neat little rows. The crowd, it seemed, had been smaller and certainly better nourished than the organizers had expected.
Someone took a bottle of water, so, to be polite, I surveyed the sugar-heavy spread. I reached for a green plastic cup, emblazoned with the city's oak tree insignia and stuffed with a white pen, a green chip clip that read "City of Raleigh," and a matching @-shaped paperclip that sported the city's web address.
For an event based so much around image, and for an idea clinging so fast to a concept of cool, the branded plastic cup felt like the perfect takeaway. Stepping back outside, I hoped, over time, it wouldn't be the only one.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Projection Screen"