Jul 1 1996

And End-Run Around the Giants

New technologies provide ways to avoid the media monopoly

Make your own media!

I’m what they call a “media critic”—I teach a course called Politics of Media as a journalism professor at the State University of New York’s College at Old Westbury, and criticize media plen­ty, especially in the pages of Extra!. My focus is on concentration of media ownership, especially its impact on cov­erage of the environment and nuclear power. My work has documented the leverage of corporate pol­luters on media, and the owner­ship of much of network TV by the world’s biggest nuclear manufac­turers: General Electric and West­inghouse.

But at the same time, I’ve been telling students for years that the de­velopment of new media technolo­gies—from affordable yet superb quality video cameras and editing systems, to the proliferation of cable TV, video cassettes, satellites and oth­er new ways to get information out—could mean media revolution. Com­puterized desktop publishing, the Internet and World Wide Web, the fax, plus standbys like the photocopi­er and audio cassette, also mean the so-called “new information highway” has the potential to be a new infor­mation freeway.

Soon, I said, there should be ways to do an end-run around the stranglehold of corporate giants over media—includ­ing the most important and powerful media form: TV.

That day is here. And I’m up to my neck in it. And you can be, too.

It began at the Conference for a Nu­clear-Free 1990s, a 1991 gathering in Washington, D.C. organized by the Nu­clear Information and Resource Service, Greenpeace and the Safe Energy Com­munication Council. For months before, I had been trying to figure out how I could do a video documentary on the push to revive commercial nuclear power being led by the Bush adminis­tration and Congress (then and now in the nuclear industry’s pocket).

At the gather­ing were some of the most articu­late voices oppos­ing nuclear pow­er—Ralph Nader, Amory Lovins, Dr. Alice Stewart, etc. If I could just get the technical help and video equipment, I’d be able to interview them for a video documentary on the new nuclear push without the cost of popping around the country.

But this was hard to come by. I had been a nightly TV news anchor for five years, and I called contacts: Yeah, they’d do it… for several thousand dollars for elaborate equipment, travel, hotels, etc.

So there I was, on a Saturday night, listening to Nader holding forth beauti­fully on the dangers of nukes and the push that was happening (and still is) to resurrect nuclear power—and fuming because it was exactly what I wanted to capture on videotape.

Then I spotted a guy with a video camera shooting the presentation, someone who looked like he knew ex­actly what he was doing. A friend came over and mentioned that she thought the guy at the camera and I might work together: He was a top-of-the-line cameraperson who was leaving his full-time job at NBC because of General Electric’s takeover there. This guy’s got politics, got a conscience, she said.

The speeches over, I went over to the fellow, Steve Jambeck, and intro­duced myself. He had seen a videotape of an environmental cable TV docu­mentary I had done earlier in the year, explained how he was leaving GE’s NBC, and said we should work togeth­er. He said he didn’t know much about working in front of the camera; I said I didn’t know much about working in back of the camera. He asked: When did I want to start? I said immediately. It was 11 p.m., yet he said great. So we took his camera and lights into a near­by room, dragged anti-nukers out of a late-night party, and taped interviews until four in the morning.

That was the beginning of our first documentary, The Push to Revive Nu­clear Power—and the start of Envi­roVideo, which has now made well over 100 programs. We formed the company to circumvent mainstream media, to disseminate information on critical environmental issues not other­wise getting out through the medium most people now favor for news: tele­vision.

It’s been five years now, and things have come along well. Our weekly Enviro Close-Up interview show, which I host, is syndicated on cable TV around the nation. We’ve been able to get out material that you’ll never see on GE’s NBC  or Westinghouse’s CBS—or on Disney’s ABC or Murdoch’s Fox, for that matter: programs on food irradia­tion, on giant strides in solar and wind power, on environmental racism, on the deployment of nuclear technology in space.

We’ve interviewed Nobel laureates George Wald and Henry Kendall about the grave threat posed by pollution to the future of humanity, and Dr. Vladimir Chemousenko, the physicist in charge of the Chernobyl clean-up, about why the death toll from the acci­dent will surpass 1 million people. Our documentaries Three Mile Island Revis­ited and Nukes in Space: The Nu­clearization and Weaponization of the Heavens received top awards at Houston’s WorldFest, the world’s largest film festival.

We distribute videos through a free catalog, headed with our slogan—”TOO HOT FOR TV!”—and the sub-heading: “Media Designed to Empower People.” At no great cost, we set up an 800 num­ber (1-800-ECO-TV46) through which people can get the catalog and videos. (We’re also on the World Wide Web: http://home.earthlink.net/~envi­rovideo/.)

In the catalog we advise media ac­tivists that “many of these programs are designed for cable TV” and suggest that they take them to “your local cable company and ask that they be aired.” (Most cable companies have an obliga­tion to play tapes provided by the pub­lic.) We fax out a cable TV release form—gratis, and with thanks. The idea, of course; Get the info out.

And we’ve had international reach. We get orders all the time from over­seas, and part of Nukes in Space was televised on the BBC.

Our material is being aired on Cali­fornia-based Planet Central TV, the new alternative cable TV network being built by Jay Levin (earlier the founder of a highly successful alternative print vehicle, the LA Weekly). Jay got our The Push to Revive Nuclear Power off of satellite after it was released in 1992. “That’s the best shoestring production I’ve seen,” he told us.

And that’s the amazing bottom line of TV production today. It can be done cheaply. We now have one of Sony’s new digital cameras—at $4,000—and it’s the equivalent of the 575,000 Betacams I used when I did commercial TV. Previ­ously, we worked in Hi-8. The Hi-8 camera with which Steve shot The Push to Revive Nuclear Power cost $2,400.

And not only can high-quality TV media now be made inexpensively, it can be distributed widely. We’ve aired our material on satellite for $350 a half­hour—that’s all it takes to reach a quar­ter of the globe.

One big disappointment: progressive foundations. We’ve been told over and over again when seeking grants that “we don’t fund media,” and instead on­ly support “grassroots organizing.” But this is grassroots organizing in the glob­al village, I say. (Conservative funders today understand the power and reach of media far better than most progres­sive foundations.)

The bad news: Bigger and bigger companies are seeking to own more and more of TV. The good news: The systems of distribution are exploding outward, out of control, in my judgment, of those interests who seek to capture it.

The EnviroVideo experience is one that other progressive activists can replicate–whether your area is women’s rights, the labor struggle, you name it.

Make your own media!