For the past 25 years, Pittsburgh Community Television has been giving city residents and nonprofits low-cost training in media production -- and has ensured the public has a voice on cable TV. The North Side-based organization will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Oct. 20 (see Short List on page 41). Among the highlights of its history: Pop star Christina Aguilera performed on the station at the age of 11, and one show, Paul Eugene Fitness, once appeared in a Polish television commercial. John Patterson is the station's executive director.
Technology is a huge factor in media production today. Where do you see PCTV going in light of such changes?
Becoming more of a community media center, not so much focused just on television but all forms of media, including radio -- there's a possibility of more community radio in Pittsburgh -- the Internet and social media. We want to be teaching people how to responsibly use all of those mediums. We see TV and video as the foundation of what we do, but it's not going to be the only thing we do. … We don't really see ourselves as just a television station.
Now anyone can whip out their phone, shoot a video and post it on the Internet in seconds. How do you keep public access relevant when technology can make everyone a producer?
You do it by providing a cohesive center for local programming. I think that's what we do that the YouTubes of the world can't do as well. We're not just a television station: We're a community center where people can come and learn about the technology. … There's something to be said about taking a class, being around other people that are doing it, and also focusing on local issues. The other thing I think is that [technologies like] YouTube, while it is a big thing, it really leaves a lot people out. … We provide a place where it levels the playing field for people who don't have the tools. They can get them here and don't have to be left out of the experience.
Free speech is such a hot-button issue in society. How does public access preserve free speech?
There are so many examples of people wanting to say things in certain ways and in certain media, [and] it will get pulled out because it's too controversial or offend an advertiser. PCTV, I think, is very liberal in its ability to let a variety of voices be heard. Years ago … there were some white supremacists who came in, wanted to do some programming. [They] walked in the door and saw half the staff was African American, and said, "You're not going to let us on." And it was like, "As long as you meet the guidelines, you can get it on." We're not taking a position to say, "Hey, we agree with it."
I really think people are afraid of free speech in this country, which is ironic. People want to shout each other down and don't want to let each other speak. It's really rare to have a venue like PCTV to come in and speak your mind.
Why do you think people are afraid?
It has to do with a conflict of values. What we have going on in this country, and perhaps it's always been this way, but it's about whose values are going to be dominant, whether from the right or left. I think the whole strategy in some ways is that, despite the fact we have free speech in this country, is to just drown out or discredit someone who has a different view of yours. I understand that it's human nature. At PCTV, we're like Switzerland -- we take the neutral view.