Hiding in Plain Sight

To find truly progressive media outlets, try looking beneath the radar.

Thanks to the GOP's impressive voting-booth performance earlier this month, most election-night television newscasts in Colorado and beyond looked as pro-Republican as the party's own TV commercials. But in the intervening weeks, conservative mainstays have continued to complain that the media in general is liberal to the core. Take pundit Robert Novak, whose November 18 apearance at Northwestern University found him sharing a common observation. According to the Daily Northwestern, Novak said, "People often ask me if the press is biased, and I often answer with a question: 'Is the Pope Catholic?' I'm a token."

Likewise, attempts to suggest that the journalism industry is tilting rightward have been hooted down by the Republican faithful. In the November 18 issue of Time, reporter Josh Tyrangiel wrote that Democrats must come to grips with "a new reality: conservative bias in the media" exemplified by the popular Fox News channel. When responding to this contention on his KOA talk show last week, Mike Rosen didn't waste much energy arguing that Fox News is as objective as it claims -- a wise decision, given that the Washington Post's Bob Woodward had just revealed in his new book, Bush at War, that after 9/11, Fox News chief Roger Ailes sent President George W. a memo filled with political advice. But Rosen said that Fox News's partiality was statistically insignificant, since Time and virtually every other major journalistic outlet slant in the opposite direction. Last month in this space, he included the Denver Post among those regularly committing such sins ("What's Left?," October 3).

True or not, Rosen's argument misses an important point: If mainstream media operations lean one way or the other, they don't lean very far. Instead, they tend to be cautious, doing their best not to offend viewers, listeners or readers of varied political persuasions, and they seldom overtly challenge the status quo. In this sense, even networks and publications that sometimes give off the occasional scent of liberalism are essentially conservative.

Public service: Shannon Service anchoring from Free Speech TV's Boulder studio.
Public service: Shannon Service anchoring from Free Speech TV's Boulder studio.

As for genuinely progressive media, it still exists, as demonstrated by a pair of Colorado ventures -- Free Speech TV, based in Boulder, and Thin Air, a monthly radio program based in Telluride. But consumers need patience, persistence and a willingness to venture off the most thoroughly beaten paths in order to find these offerings. Thin Air can be heard on only a handful of old-school public-radio signals, like Boulder's KGNU (the next broadcast is scheduled at 4 p.m. Monday, December 2), while Free Speech TV is available exclusively to Dish Network subscribers -- a group that includes a mere handful of FSTV employees. But Elsa E'der, FSTV's program acquisitions manager (she's among the Dish-challenged), says most people she hears from feel that seeking out the channel is worth the trouble.

"We do get attacks," E'der acknowledges. "But 99 percent of the viewer comments are positive. Folks feel like they're crazy until they hear something that echoes their values, and many people tell us that after finding us, they don't feel so alone."

Adds Jon Kovash, the man behind Thin Air, "We don't do things the way everyone else does, but the listeners I hear from get what we're doing right away. We don't have to go around explaining what we do. They just get it."

Despite the loyalty of their followings, both enterprises have spent years struggling in relative obscurity. Free Speech TV's roots stretch back the late '80s, when FSTV president John Schwartz -- a founder of Channel 12, the more adventurous of Denver's two public-TV stations -- lined up grants to fund a program with a forward-looking title: The 90's. The show was an eccentric collage of elements, only some of which were political. For every exposé such as "On Our Own Land," about the damage inflicted by strip-mining, there were wacky, largely apolitical segments. An example of the latter was a testimonial by crooner Pat Boone, who claimed that God had saved him from bankruptcy by delivering a buyer for a failing basketball team he owned.

The willful eclecticism of The 90's was widely available for a time. In 1990, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) paid $350,000 toward the next season's $650,000 production costs in exchange for the exclusive right to run the program in prime time. On top of that, United Cable and seven other regional systems owned by John Malone's Tele-Communications Inc., or TCI, devoted an entire channel to the concept. But PBS dropped The 90's after two seasons, and in 1992, United Cable informed Schwartz that it would soon be eliminating the channels. Schwartz responded by suing TCI in Arapahoe County District Court and eventually won a judgment in his favor. TCI's response to this ruling, Schwartz says, "was to tell us, 'We're delighted to continue leasing to you -- but at astronomical rates you can't possibly pay.'" To fight this tactic, Schwartz lodged a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, but the FCC offered no relief. The channel lost its leases with TCI in October 1995.

By then, however, Free Speech TV was already up and running; it was birthed earlier that year "to provide programming for other people's channels," Schwartz says. FSTV's original distribution system was primitive, to say the least; for the most part, the service mailed videotapes to stations, which were often encouraged to ship the tapes to other links in the chain after they were finished with them. But the approach kept FSTV alive until 2000, when it applied for and received a place on Dish in accordance with a law requiring satellite providers to set aside 4 percent of their spectrum for public-interest broadcasting. The Dish deal not only gave FSTV a regular programming outlet, but it also served as a magnet for grants, donations and funding of all sorts. At present, FSTV has an annual budget of $1.8 million and a staff that includes eighteen interns, countless volunteers and the equivalent of twenty full-time staffers, many of whom have been hired in the past year.

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