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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.

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.

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.

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."

Although this methodology is relatively inexpensive, Thin Air remains a shoestring operation. Kovash gets money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Program Fund and private donors such as former Beirut hostage Tom Sutherland, whose largesse helped Greeley's KUNC remain independent ("Going Public," February 21). But his proposal to produce new episodes of Thin Air on a weekly, rather than monthly, basis, remains out of reach. "We're not there yet," he says.

In this respect, FSTV is more fortunate. It currently has the financial wherewithal to invest a six-figure sum in a satellite "bus" that will allow the channel to broadcast live from hot spots around the country. But buying satellite time is expensive, and so is paying so many employees. "It's risky to do this," anchor Service admits. "We're in a period of huge growth when we're in a recession, and our country is at war with the whole world. So it's a bold move, but it's also an important one. With what the media's like today, Americans especially need Free Speech TV more than ever."

Conservatives who feel the media is already liberal enough would undoubtedly disagree. But FSTV's E'der thinks there's value in a station that openly acknowledges its opinions rather than pretending to be completely evenhanded.

"In a way, the whole fair-and-balanced argument has been co-opted to attack a diversity of voices," she says. "And if that can be demystified, maybe folks won't be so freaked by what we do. We're hopefully a part of a democratic media system -- and we should be."

Christmas in November: Each year's pre-Christmas push seems to come a bit earlier than the last one; it won't be long before retailers of every stripe dispense with the pretense and leave their December decorations up permanently. This trend seems to extend to Denver radio stations, too. Specifically, easy-listening KOSI has completely redesigned its Web site, www.KOSI101.com, to evoke a Yuletide mood and began playing wall-to-wall holiday music way back on November 15. The jingle bells will keep ringing until December 26.

On the surface, this seems like a desperation move intended to bring attention to a faltering station -- but KOSI doesn't fit that description. In the summer Arbitron ratings book, the outlet placed an impressive second overall among listeners ages twelve and above, behind only KBCO. So why on earth is the outlet tossing out its entire playlist and getting Santa-centric well over a month before the big day?

"It's an idea I've seen stations like KOSI around the country do," says program director Mark Edwards, who joined KOSI on November 1 following stints in Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. "Some of them have done it for a long time, but a whole lot of them did it last year, and it was wildly successful. With the world being the way it is and people wanting to concentrate more on family and the good feelings of the season, we thought it would be good to do it here, especially since KOSI's always done Christmas music. We wanted to get it on the air before anyone else did and see what the listeners' response is."

Thus far, Edwards concedes, the feedback has been mixed. "It's been about fifty-fifty," he says. "The downside of this, for a big station like KOSI, is that listeners have been listening to it for a long time, and not everyone's ready for Christmas yet. And any kind of change can be unnerving to a listener: changing air personalities, a musical shift, whatever. But a lot of people really like it, especially since most of the artists we're playing -- Whitney Houston, Elton John, Kenny G -- are artists we play anyway. And I think that number will grow. This year, Thanksgiving is about as late as it can be, and after that, it's only a little over three weeks until Christmas. It won't be long before everyone is in the Christmas spirit."

Scrooges out there should consider that a warning.

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