Hiding in Plain Sight

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

The FSTV teammates who zip around the firm's offices, located in a nondescript Boulder business park, would not be mistaken for employees at other TV stations. Not only are they younger, by and large, and dressed more idiosyncratically, but they're as outward-looking and idealistic as many of their broadcast brethren are self-centered and cynical. They also sport backgrounds that seldom include journalism school. Typical is Shannon Service, FSTV's principal anchor as well as a producer and writer, who is the network's most recognizable face.

"I was one of those people who rappelled off buildings and climbed cranes to drop political banners," Service says. "But then I realized it was ridiculous to dangle off buildings to tell people about things they should be hearing about in the news -- and that got me to wondering what TV news is covering. If they're not covering environmental disasters and economic threats that are hurting people on a daily basis, then what are they covering?"

To find out, Service, who was among the primary organizers of the massive 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, signed up with Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a group dedicated to putting underperforming news deliverers on notice. In 2001, RMMW petitioned the Federal Trade Commission "to declare advertisements promoting Denver's local TV 'news' programs as false and deceptive," since such shows spent the majority of their airtime "depicting weather, sports, mayhem and fluff," not news.

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

Service's Media Watch gig brought her to the attention of FSTV, which hired her on a freelance basis to helm ambitious coverage of a planned protest against an International Monetary Fund gathering scheduled for late September 2001 in Washington, D.C. But when 9/11 led to the event's cancellation, Service was recruited to report alternative news and opinion in the aftermath of the terrorist strikes -- a short-term gig that wound up lasting two months. Afterward, FSTV offered her a permanent position, which she opted for over Rocky Mountain Media Watch because "I want to be someone to create alternative solutions instead of only criticizing the mainstream."

To this end, FSTV is combining forces with national activist groups, including ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), to produce programming that inspires greater political and community involvement among its viewers. Its main in-house production is Mobile-Eyes, a series of sprawling, two-day events intended to counter popular wisdom about topics such as Palestine, sustainable development, the rights of indigenous peoples and, on November 23 and 24, the reasons anti-war protesters believe that military intervention in Iraq and beyond is both unnecessary and anti-humanist.

A heavy diet, to be sure, but one that true believers like production director John Bertucci see as infinitely more nutritious than typical television fare. Bertucci, who spent over a decade working in European TV and film before coming to FSTV, describes most mainstream media as "toxic and obsessed with celebrity culture. If you haven't been interviewed by People magazine or interviewed by Charlie Rose, you don't count. But by focusing on activists and activism, we celebrate grassroots democracy and personal growth in a different way than, say, telling people who Julia Roberts had dinner with last night."

Thin Air operates on a smaller scale than today's FSTV (its primary distributor remains the U.S. Postal Service), but their philosophy is much the same. The program specializes in shining a light on regular Joes and Janes who are doing something to improve their communities; a June report about Paonia, Colorado, residents upset about methane emissions from nearby coal beds is typical. In addition, the program isn't afraid to counter popular wisdom with facts gathered on the front lines, as was the case with Thin Air's impressive coverage of last summer's wildfires.

"When Bill Owens said all of Colorado was on fire, all these marketers came out with, 'There's no problem, no health risk,'" recalls Thin Air's Kovash. "But we're out in the sticks where all the smoke was, and we hunted down all the warnings to prove that there was a big risk. So we were kind of sympathetic with Governor Bill."

For the most part, of course, Thin Air fights the powers that be. "We have a pretty progressive agenda," Kovash notes. "We put an emphasis on community building and good old populist notions about things like social justice and environmentalism -- all the things that are just taken for granted."

Kovash has been on this mission since at least 1987, when he became news director for KOTO, Telluride's community radio station. Three years later, in the Western Slope community of Delta, Kovash and a number of other representatives from signals in the region got together to discuss how they might share resources and support each other's activities. The result of this discussion was the High Country Community Radio Coalition (HCCRC), a loose alliance of sixteen stations in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah that broadcast, support and frequently contribute to Thin Air. Each month's program consists of pieces assembled by far-flung correspondents who know their stuff.

"We don't use people who just blow into town for a day and do a quick take on what this place is," Kovash says. "We use people who live there, and we let them tell the stories their way. When you send a story to National Public Radio, they insist that you send them all the elements so they can mix them together to get their standard uniformity, whereas I get finished pieces, down to the last sound effect. Some of them are a bit unorthodox, but that usually makes them better."

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