NEWS- Wayne's (new) world: New public access fees brings ire

Richard Berman has produced Community Focus on public access TV for 11 years. But now a policy change that requires producers to pay a $25 membership fee plus additional training fees has him ready to quit his volunteer job.

"It's not public, it's not accessible," grouses Berman, who was an NBC audio engineer for 36 years.

Charlottesville, which has a franchise agreement with Adelphia Cable, says the membership fees and training classes are necessary to keep Wayne's World wannabes from breaking the new equipment it just purchased. And, says city communications director Ric Barrick, "It's the best way we deal with a shortfall from the county."

Albemarle County, by contrast, doesn't contribute to the public access facilities, and County spokesperson Lee Catlin says, "We have never gotten a funding request for a public access channel. If we did, we'd have to look closely at the number of houses that receive cable and the cost-benefit compared to other ways we're trying to get information out that has a broader reach."

She notes that about 30 percent of Albemarle households have cable from Adelphia. "How many are actually spending significant time watching public access?" she asks. "At this point, it doesn't seem to be a compelling number."

And, she points out that the county does not bring in revenue from cable as the city does. For the privilege of a franchise with Charlottesville, Adelphia Cable coughs up 25 cents per customer each month for public access television.

The city just used that money to buy new equipment, which is why producers must now pay $25– groups like churches pay $50– to join the P.A. club and pay for training on the new equipment.

"I don't feel like $25 a year is unreasonable," says Barrick. Nor does he believe classes to learn how to operate the new equipment are unreasonable. "Things don't operate the way they used to. If you want to use the new equipment, you have to take the classes."

That policy has veteran producers like Berman steamed. He claims it costs nearly $500 to take all the classes, a number Barrick disputes, saying it's not a requirement to take all the classes. He calls the $80 director's class the most important.

But Berman, who paid $175 for training several years ago, is unmollified and ready to quit. "They're obviating the purpose of public access." he says. "All of a sudden, it's become very expensive to be a volunteer at public access."

And Berman's departure could mean the demise of Community Focus, which he produced for eight years with former delegate Mitch Van Yahres, and for the past three for state Senator Creigh Deeds.

 "I can't afford to hire staff," if the volunteer producers quit, says Deeds. "It seems to me they're throwing up more barriers to public access, and that's not a good thing."

It turns out that Deeds is a public access aficionado. "It's the kind of stuff I watch at 3am sitting in a hotel room," he says. (He recommends the Richmond City Council meetings as "some of the highest entertainment around.")

Apparently he's not alone. "I'm surprised at the number of people who stopped me on the street and said they saw that show," he relates of his gig with Berman. 

Deeds praises public access as an opportunity for young people to be exposed to vocational opportunities. "I don't think it's obsolete," he says.

And for insomniacs, it's the best way to check out local comedy, yoga, and church services.

Former NBC senior audio engineer and long-time public access volunteer Richard Berman dislikes the membership fee. "It's become a business," he grouses.