West Allis - West Allis residents who tried to tune in programs on Time Warner Cable public access channel this Labor Day weekend saw only a black screen instead.
The Community Media Center that has provided public access programming to West Allis residents for more than 30 years on cable channel 14 went dark at the end of last week.
Money was the reason why.
Locally, community public access on local cable started in 1981. Funding for the equipment and studio needed to produce local programming primarily came from fees the city could collect from the cable provider.
That changed in 2011. The state Legislature no longer requires cable television providers to fund public access television, although it must still fund government access and educational access used by cities and schools to cablecast programs and information.
Without the necessary funding, volunteers and the station's program director last week moved the station's equipment out of the studio that had been home at 72nd Street and Greenfield Avenue. It went to a climate-controlled storage facility, where it will remain until the Community Media Center board of directors decides which nonprofit agency should get it, said Bob Schram, board president.
The city's offer - with restrictions
The media center, commonly known as Channel 14, could have survived in a different form under an idea that came from City Administrator Paul Ziehler.
Asked by the mayor and an alderman to brainstorm ideas to keep the center going, Ziehler found that the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District has space for a studio where local programming could be producted. He coupled that with a plan for the city to provide a part-time program director to operate the station.
However, the idea came with strings. Because programming would originate on school property, there could be no religious programming and there would be requirements if political shows are cablecast, Ziehler was informed by Superintendent Kurt Wachholz.
"Because some programs might be offensive, religious and extreme programs would have to be limited," Ziehler said, who was told the schools had to have some oversight.
Out of tune with mission
Those conditions were enough for the media center membership, on a 17-13 vote last week, to turn down the offer.
Any restrictions would have been unacceptable, based on the station's mission statement, Schram said.
The Channel 14 mission was intended to be a catalyst for the exchange of ideas - regardless of religion, race, gender or anything else, Schram said. Agreeing to any restrictions opens the door to more.
"It's a slippery slope" once a media provider lets authorities tell it what not to run, Schram said, adding "We'd rather die with dignity than sell out."
Indeed, the station started in collaboration with the city, then in 1990 broke away to have more programming freedom, said Craig Mueller, Channel 14 director of programming, who has been with the station for 13 years.
"I feel this is one of the best models of public access television in the country," Mueller said, who estimated that perhaps a third of the programs could not be aired under the schools' restrictions, including a Catholic theology show that Schram produces.
Lost hope and frustration
The four-vote margin that ultimately decided the issue didn't sit well with a least one Community Media Center official.
Sharon Rhode, who resigned as board president after the vote to reject the city's idea, said there were strong feelings that Channel 14 should have explored Ziehler's idea.
"The city has gone way out of its way for us," Rhode said. "We totally turned our back on them."
She said she resigned because "I didn't want to be a part of dissolving this."
Rhode said she was frustrated because, even though the membership had a week's notice of the meeting, some supporters of the city's offer couldn't attend.
"We could have out-voted them," Rhode said.
Some had hoped that a new home could be found in New Berlin. But that won't happen because what Channel 14 needs is money in addition to the space New Berlin offered.
From West Allis' standpoint, it isn't necessarily a done deal.
The options are many, Ziehler said. A new organization could step forward, Channel 14 membership might change its mind, or the city might even run the station.
"It will be interesting to see if anything changes," Ziehler said.