Feb 9 2011

Opinion: Should KCOM Be Revived?

Commentary on the history and future of KCOM:

As heated public meetings concerning Blair Park/Moraga Canyon continue, and diverse cultural activities, such as the Lunar Year Celebration occur around town – not to mention the revving-up of various City committees, the vitality and commitment within our local television station, KCOM, in covering these events remains the same: plodding and non-committal.  In fact, while there is a dedicated core group of viewers who do watch KCOM’s coverage of select City and school events, many Piedmonters eschew the station’s limited programming – and some have no idea a local television station even exists.  And yet the stated purpose of KCOM, on its website, indicates a far broader goal of the station:

“KCOM-TV, Channel 27, is a government/education access station located in City Hall. Our purpose is to educate and inform the residents of Piedmont about their local government and its services and to enhance community life by providing programs, which focus on local, social, cultural and historic events.” City of Piedmont website  (1)

Reflecting on the station’s purpose, it’s fair to say that the live broadcast and streamed Internet coverage of select government meetings (2) – especially the standing-room-only events, like the undergrounding contretemps, and controversial plans to develop sports fields and aquatic centers, serve the community well.  It’s also fair to say that the station’s educational and cultural programming represent very little of the diverse activities, interests and achievements within Piedmont.  In considering ways to enhance – even enliven – KCOM’s educational and cultural shows, it’s interesting to look at how the station began and its early programming and community outreach efforts in considering if the station should be re-invigorated.

Legal Underpinnings of Local Programming:

KCOM’s story begins with the 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act, which was sponsored by Senator Barry Goldwater (3).  With the growing popularity of cable broadcast, Congress amended the Communications Act of 1934, establishing far-reaching policy changes regarding station ownership, channel usage, franchise provisions, subscriber rates, as well as jurisdictional boundaries regulating cable television systems (4).  Essentially, the 1984 Cable Act allowed a cable television company to act as the sole provider of fee-based broadcast services within a community in exchange for 5% of revenues and a select number of local television stations.  Municipalities, like Piedmont, gained a welcome source of revenue, and Piedmonters had access to viewing, as well as producing television programs on their own station.  While the majority of cable access stations were designated as PEG stations, for Public, Educational and Government Television, Piedmont opted for EG stations, or Educational and Government Television.

David Berger, Piedmont’s City Administrator in 1984, explained that he made this choice, “Because the City’s administrative staff at the time consisted of me, a secretary/deputy City clerk, finance director and part-time account clerk. We lacked the in-house capability and financial resources to take advantage of all the cable access channels available.”  However, Berger understood how a local cable station could assist in communicating government information effectively citywide and enriching the community with cultural and educational programs.

Marietta Blessent, the current Administrative Assistant for Public Works, worked under Berger and added that, “Under the Cable Act, TCI or Oakland Cable, offered Piedmont dedicated channels and some production equipment.”  The government access channel was designated to “address local City programming needs, such as City Council meetings, election information, emergency announcements and other events.  The educational channel was to be run by the high school.  It was called KPHS.”  Thus, in 1984, Piedmont obtained two cable television stations that held the promise of disseminating information on key issues of the day quickly and efficiently, as well as cover news concerning our schools, cultural organizations, historical societies, clubs, and feature notable locals with something to say.

The Early Years – Building a Studio

David Berger’s plan was to “find volunteers in the community who would be able and willing to initiate the station and handle cable programming.”  He recalls turning to, “Police officer, Bob Costa, who owned a security system business, which is probably why I dimly recall ‘volunteering’ him to hook up the equipment provided by the cable company and install cabling in the City Hall basement room that we dedicated as a studio, of sorts.”

Former Piedmont Police Chief John Moilan (retired in June ’04) continues the narrative, stating that, “Officer Costa started working with the school and City to make the station much better.  In fact, he and some high school kids physically constructed the studio in the basement of City Hall after it was remodeled in 1984.  The area had been used for storage and an office for Carl Kunney, who was then the Finance Director for the City.  Costa did most of the work on his own time.  The equipment costs were minimal, because most of the equipment was donated by the cable company.  Officer Costa produced crime prevention programs and also did a program called “Piedmont News” with Anne Chandler.  Anne worked as a reporter for The Piedmonter, and would review the Police Department’s logs and did a crime statistic column in the paper.”

Chandler, a long time Piedmont resident, adds that, “After a series of home invasion robberies in which elderly people living alone were assaulted and robbed, the police saw KCOM as a new vehicle for educating the community about crime prevention.  Officer Costa put crime statistics on a Readerboard along with school announcements.  The Fire and Police departments created public service spots and these, along with the Readerboard, ran 24 hours a day.”

After two years, the high school and City government channel merged.  Marietta Blessent recalls that, “By 1986, Officer Costa ran the station.”  While memories as to why the two channels merged vary, it became apparent that managing a television station and creating content required a lot of ongoing effort.  Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate the high school couldn’t have found ways to integrate the station into its curriculum, because the community lost vital access to our teens’ perspectives and fresh ideas.  Moreover, the Cable Act of 1984 allows for, “educational channels to be associated with a specific school, school district or even private organization contracted to operate the access station for the City.”  It further provides that “programming can range from student, or parent-produced media” (5), indicating the high school could have utilized support from other City organizations.  Former Police Chief Moilan adds that, “there was concern that Officer Costa’s time was being used at KCOM, although most of the time used was off-duty, it was apparent the station had to be run by someone else.”  And then a newcomer moved to town.

KCOM Becomes a Television Station

“I don’t remember the circumstances,” begins Berger, “but about this time a local resident named Polly Reich came into City Hall inquiring about our local cable TV government channel.  I believe she recently had moved to Piedmont; previously worked in the television production business; was interested in helping start up our government channel; and accepted my offer to do so strictly on a voluntary basis.”   Berger introduced Polly Rich (now spelled as ‘Rich’) to the City Council in 1987, and she was approved as the new volunteer manager.

Polly Rich details her tenure, “I actually ran KCOM for 3 years – from 1987 to 1990, taking it over from the Police Department.  Bob Costa basically handed the keys over to me.  I did my own research on what a government station was meant to do.  My mission was to make it into a legitimate educational and government station, to represent what both the City and school functions were offering.  I actually gave it its call letters: COM for commitment to community.  Prior to this it was called Channel 13.”

Berger adds, “Polly established a cable TV production class with the Piedmont High School and Adult School, which created a pool of volunteers to help her with government channel programming, editing, operations, etc.”  With this pool of locally trained volunteers, they helped Rich “produce Birdcalling with behind the scenes interviews, and film the July 4th parade with commentary.  We could follow local stories, covering both sides,” Rich remembers.

Within her first year of expanding KCOM’s programming, engaging community volunteers, and growing the station’s viewership, Rich’s volunteer hours mushroomed into a part-time job. Berger recalls, “Polly came to me with a proposal that she be compensated for her efforts.  I regrettably had to pass on her request due to lack of budgeted resources; but, I believe that the newly-elected Mayor Susan Hill had a special interest in keeping the government channel going, and championed getting some funds budgeted to pay for programming.”

To support the growing station, Piedmont’s new Administrator, Geoff Grote, established a KCOM Advisory Board in 1988.  The Board was to assist in procuring content for the station, further community outreach, including polling viewers on their most-watched shows, and engage in raising funds for local productions.  A KCOM Program Log dating from 1985 – 1990, which was provided by Kenya Davis – the current station manager, details not only a huge increase of shows produced once Rich took the helm, but also reveals a breadth of programming, including election coverage by the League of Women Voters, PHS sports, concerts, graduations, programs by EBMUD and The Library of Congress, and in-house shows such as “Community Questions & Answers,” featuring host Marilyn Abrams interviewing a range of notable locals on key topics of the day providing evidence that a station manager with producing experience supported by trained community volunteers and an active Advisory Board could create programming reflective of a community’s diverse interests, needs and values – all within a modest budget.

A New Decade

Polly Rich left the station in 1990, having created an organization that produced local programming, attracted wide community participation, and had begun raising funds for its costs.  Marietta Blessent continues the narrative, recalling that she “took over as a part-time manager getting paid minimum wage.”  Separate letters written by Grote and Rich in the summer of 1990 thank the KCOM volunteers for their efforts and support Blessent’s abilities to manage the station, having been trained under Rich.  Serving as station manager from 1990 – 1997, Blassent describes the weekly operations that included, “filming City meetings, such as the City Council, Planning Commission, and Recreation Commission.  Gray Cathrall got the high school students to film sports games and these were broadcast along with Bird Calling and school shows.”

Reviewing old KCOM materials supplied by Davis, as well as clippings from The Piedmonter and Montclarion, dating from Blassent’s stewardship, it’s clear that community interest and involvement in the station continued to grow.  The Advisory Board actively publicized the station by hosting Open Houses for an eager public to visit the tiny facility, as well as held fund-raisers and coordinated production training with the High School, Middle School, Adult School and Laney College.  The efforts paid off, as evidenced by program logs full of monthly film shoots covering government, educational and cultural activities citywide.  Looking back over the ten-year span from 1987 – 1997, it’s astounding how much activity went on.  This era could be characterized as KCOM’s heyday.

As one noted Piedmont resident (who insisted on anonymity) kept reminding me to “look for the money” in unraveling this story, so too Blessent moved on from her minimum wage position at the station to her current full time job at Piedmont Public Works.  Toney Savage managed the station briefly in 1998, but in the documents Davis provided, the only trace of Savage’s tenure is a list of her part-time hours to Geoff Grote.

The Internet Age

In 1999, then City Clerk, Ann Swift, took over managing the station – in addition to her many other administrative duties – and KCOM’s programming and place in the community changed radically.  Productions were cut back, the Advisory Board dismantled, and community outreach and volunteer programs ended.  In fairness to Swift’s tenure, she oversaw so many City functions as City Clerk that she probably ran KCOM as expediently as possible.  That and the fact that the City – and State – experienced extreme uncertainty in the economy, and that Swift had no experience running a station, nor a film production background – all contributed to questionable equipment purchases, production costs and programming choices made from inexperience and in a vacuum within City Hall.

However, Swift was a tireless worker and dedicated to supporting Piedmont’s government.  In an extensive interview about KCOM’s history with Swift, Davis, and John Tulloch, Interim City Clerk, what became apparent was Swift’s commitment to the station “disseminating government and school board information effectively citywide.”  Under her watch, “the installation of television cameras in the Council Chambers has allowed for live broadcast of all meetings held there, such as the City Council, School Board, and other groups.  Additionally, these meetings are recorded and streamed on the Net for all Piedmonters to access.”  Swift added that when certain meetings are held in larger venues to support bigger crowds, Davis and a few freelance techs set up broadcast equipment in the new site, providing uninterrupted live TV coverage – something that does not occur in many small municipalities.  Instituting live broadcast and streaming capabilities of government meetings at KCOM signify key contributions by Swift.

However, educational and cultural programming, which comprise the other half of our education/government access station, have declined to a handful of programs repeated like clockwork throughout the calendar year.  While Swift cited financial constraints, stating, “A budget of $180,000, which includes Davis’ salary and free-lance contractors, and about $80,000 in operating expenses – including repairs and supplies, doesn’t leave a lot left over for producing new shows.”  While $180,000 is not a lot of money to operate a small educational/government station, there are other ways to utilize this budget.

Can KCOM be revived?

There are dozens of federal, state and county agencies that produce quality educational and historical programs for low fees, or no fee to government stations, and should be considered for broadcast in Piedmont.  There are also budding student filmmakers walking past our houses to school daily, who are creating animated and live-action films, as well as thoughtful documentaries, waiting to be showcased to the community.  Then there are the award-winning film producers who would willingly share their work on our station. Lastly, there’s the lifeblood of Piedmont: our corps of uber-volunteers linked to all kinds of creative endeavors and primed to assist in revitalizing KCOM, including re-instituting an Advisory Board.  And in a recent meeting with Tulloch and Davis, regarding making some changes in the station, they cautiously, but cordially listened to these ideas and seem to be considering them. 

But making changes and re-invigorating KCOM requires all of our input.  Your comments, ideas and energy are most welcome and necessary to realize this effort.

Denise Bostrom

1.  http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/kcom/index.shtml

2. http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/video/

3.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_Cable_Franchise_Policy_and_Communications_Act

4.  http://www.fcc.gov/mb/facts/csgen.html

5.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public-access_television#The_1984_Cable_Act

(This letter expresses the personal opinions of the author. All statements made are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.)

5 Responses to “Opinion: Should KCOM Be Revived?”

  1. what is the dollar amt. C. of Piedmont receives from Comcast for the franchise?

    How much of that franchise fee goes to KCOM?

  2. I totally agree that KCOM is something we shouldn’t give up. It has been underutilized and could be, as Denise suggests, so much more of an asset for our community. Along with those opportunities, there are also opportunities to fund it from the public that benefits from it, like KQED.

  3. Pat,

    This is a key question and I have yet to get a direct answer from City Hall or KCOM.


  4. I think a threshold question about KCOM that has to be answered first is what is the extent of programming that can be run on this station. As I understand it, KCOM is a government access channel as opposed to a community access channel and that limits the type of programs that can appear on the station. I think Piedmont would benefit by expanding the programs that appear on the station and would like to see greater community access to programming decisions and station operation. I think the franchise agreement is up in 2012 so now is a great time to start thinking about changes to KCOM.

  5. Hi Garrett,

    KCOM is an EG Cable Access station: Educational and Government access, as opposed to a PEG Station: Public, Educational and Government access. It states so on the City Website. And when I interviewed Dave Berger, (Piedmont’s City Administrator in 1984 who negotiated the lease with TCI Cable for the access stations) regarding the choice of PEG or EG stations, Berger couldn’t remember the exact reasons why the city chose EG over PEG, but he speculated that it had to do with a lack of manpower in City Hall, as the primary reason.

    And I agree there are many many opportunities to add quality programs to the line-up of shows on KCOM. This is where a KCOM Advisory Board could assist in broadening the programming to reach more of the community. In fact, I’d love to discuss this issue at greater length with you. May I email you?


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