Community Media Center’s Marion Ware on the Media Center’s TV interview set as the camera rolls.
Written By Barbara Pash
Carroll County’s Community Media Center is housed in a sleek modern building in Westminster. Beyond the reception desk, down a corridor lined with historic photos of Carroll County, is an up-to-the-moment professional recording and editing studio: a sophisticated operation that reports on and records the life of the community.
“Our role is to give Carroll County a way to see itself as a community,” said Marion Ware, the center’s executive director for the past 14 years. “We give voice to individuals and groups. We offer specific, relevant information.”
Over the years, Ware has seen the center’s broadcast activity grow from a single channel operating out of the basement of the Carroll County Career and Technology Center to five channels in its own home at 1301 Washington Road.
Ware is careful with terminology. To the uninitiated, the non-profit Community Media Center seems like a public television station. Actually, she said, the correct term is PEG television, a very different model from public TV and broadcasters like Maryland Public Broadcasting.
PEG stands for public access, education and government. The Community Media Center is relatively unusual because it offers all three types of programming. As far as Ware knows, Montgomery and Arundel counties in Maryland and Fairfax County, Va., do the same, but in the immediate vicinity, Baltimore City and Baltimore County have only education and government programming on their PEG stations.
PEG TV dates back to the late 1960s, when disenchantment with the commercial broadcasting system gave rise to an alternative TV organization. In 1972, according to the Wikipedia, the FCC required all cable systems in the top 100 U.S. television markets to provide three access-channels, one each for educational, local government and public use. In effect, it sought to bring information directly to the public without going through a media filter. Now, federal law requires cable companies to provide local governments with funding for PEG TV in return for the use of the air waves. The Community Media Center’s annual budget of $800,000 is funded by Comcast, the local cable provider.
Before the center was officially founded in 2003, the Carroll County government operated a single public access channel, and other entities, like the local community college, operated their own.
Then a couple of things happened. Local participants wanted to expand the television offerings and felt there was a demand for TV production training. Carroll County also wanted an independent board that would run the whole operation, the usual arrangement around the country.
A year later, the center relocated from the basement into its own building. It has a staff of 10 and a core group of about 50 volunteers. Memberships are available for individuals and institutions. The center offers workshops for the public as well as training and internships for high school and college students.
The center’s heart, though, are the five channels it runs. They are: 18 (Community College of Carroll County), 19 (public access), 21 (Carroll County Board of Education), 23 (county municipalities) and 24 (Carroll County government).
At the request of organizers and municipalities, the center’s production staff records events like parades, ground-breakings and 4H fairs in the county for the public access channel. In addition, county residents can create their own shows, and center staffers are happy to demonstrate how. Via remote control, the other channels carry “live feeds” of events such as lectures at the community college, meetings of the board of education, proceedings of eight town councils, and the hearings of Carroll County agencies.
Thanks to the Community Media Center, Nicky Ratliff has become a minor celebrity in Carroll County. “The emphasis is on minor,” said Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County.
People recognize her in stores. She has been introduced to their dogs. Recently, a man in a pick-up truck gave her a thumbs-up and yelled, “Keep up the good work, Nicky” as he drove by. And all because Ratliff hosts a TV show that features pets for adoption and, for a non-profit with a limited budget, keeps the Humane Society’s name in front of the public.
“The Center’s a phenomenal place,” said Ratliff, who serves as vice chair of the its board. “Most communities in the country don’t have anything like what we have here.”
John Foertschbeck, a retired IT professional, volunteers for the center’s History Project. Begun in 2008, the program documents the history of Carroll County through personal interviews. So far, through outreach in senior centers, libraries and other places, Foertschbeck is part of a group of History Project volunteers who have interviewed more than 255 local people. After training in interview techniques, Foertschbeck, a history buff who lives in Woodbine, has interviewed 30 himself.
“They talk about how things were when they grew up,” he said. “It’s fascinating.”
The History Project represents a key aspect of the Community Media Center’s future direction and the changing role of PEG TV. The key words are involvement and interaction.
Because of the economic realities of commercial TV, you will not see the local oral history project on those channels. But it now accounts for one-fourth of the center’s staff time, is available on the Web site, www.CarrollHistory.org, and is archived at Carroll County public libraries and the Carroll County Genealogy Society.
Other center initiatives include an updated Web site, www.carrollmedia.org, and an interactive Web portal, www.OurCarroll.com, where local citizens can list their community events.
Ware talks about the upcoming 2010 elections and a fall candidates’ forum hosted by the League of Women. The candidates will have an opportunity to express their views and, she emphasizes, will be followed by a live Web chat and an interactive question-and-answer period.
Over the years, said Ware, the Community Media Center’s role has evolved. “The focus used to be, Ômake TV matter.’ Now, it is Ômake the community matter,’” she said. “Any time you get people involved in the community, the community benefits.”