The City of Denver has positioned itself to cut ties with Open Media Foundation, the nonprofit that has operated local public-access television for twelve years.
The longstanding contract between the city and the operator, which runs the cable channels and a radio station under the name Denver Open Media, will expire on December 18, and city officials are creating what they describe as a community-oriented model of public access, replacing Open Media Foundation — which has forged deep ties to arts, government, media and music organizations throughout the city and has built a thriving media center in a rented facility — with a "Community Media Access Coordinator."
The city will fill the position in the next few months and plans to relocate equipment from Open Media Foundation's current studios at 700 Kalamath Street to a new studio, possibly in the City and County Building, where the new hire will be allowed to work.
These changes will give Denver Media Services, the city agency that oversees public, educational and government channels in Denver, greater control over cable access, the city maintains.
The hire will manage and guide community content creators, develop operational policies for the channels, oversee a community media access center that the city plans to open at 21st and Arapahoe in the next few years, maintain equipment, manage archives, prepare and submit reports to the city, fundraise, run an internship program and create a media education training program.
"As a full-time, committed position of 40 hours per week with an anticipated term of five years, the Community Media Access Coordinator (the Coordinator) will establish a community-oriented model to offer programs that empower individuals and nonprofit organizations to create video and media projects that speak to the local community, facilitate community partnerships, and diversify the media landscape," the position description states.
After Denver Open Media community members took umbrage with the job description's language, the city decided to allow organizations to apply with their own proposals, mapping out the future of Denver Open Media, as long as one person would be responsible for the work. The deadline for proposals is today, October 19, and several candidates, including Open Media Foundation and its cable-access wing, Denver Open Media, plan to apply. And Open Media Foundation is still a viable candidate, depending on what the group proposes, says Julie Martinez, director of Denver Media Services.
Whatever happens, Martinez says, Denver's public-access channels won't go dark after the city ends its current contract with Open Media Foundation.
Denver Media Services' move to bring the management of cable access in-house troubles Open Media Foundation founder and director Tony Shawcross, his staff and the community media producers who have been making content at Denver Open Media. They have written letters, called the mayor and city council, and have tried to convince Martinez and other city brass in public meetings to let Denver Open Media continue its work. And they've pleaded with the city to back off of its plan to transfer the work fulfilled by an agency onto one person and move the studio at 700 Kalamath Street into a city building. They worry that vital educational and production resources from Open Media Foundation will be lost in the transition.
In 2008, Denver Open Media was awarded a prestigious $380,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and has been long recognized by peers as a media innovator, resuscitating cable access from near death with relevant and diverse programming and community-based media productions.
The team at the nonprofit runs a thriving business that offers media production, classes, web development, branding campaigns and strategic communications work and has brought in revenue that ultimately funds cable access and media education, says Shawcross.
So why break ties with the group?
“Look to the 2016 audit,” says Martinez.
Back in 2016, Denver Auditor Timothy O’Brien’s office wrote a damning report accusing Denver Media Services of failing to manage public, educational and government access funds properly; ensure in a timely fashion that Comcast, the cable subscriber that helps fund public-access media, paid the correct amount of money owed to the city; document maintenance costs; track equipment purchases; and have a system in place to ensure that the contract with the city is properly managed and followed by Open Media Foundation. The audit is not a hit on Denver Open Media as much as the city department that oversees it.
Still, in the wake of the audit, Denver Media Services raised various concerns with Denver Open Media. Two big ones: The nonprofit is housed in a privately owned facility on a short-term lease, putting the television-production equipment the city owns at risk, and the group has failed to provide requested documentation to prove that it's financially sustainable and operationally sound, raising concerns that city resources are in the hands of an organization whose future is not guaranteed, says Martinez.
“Transparency has been lacking,” she adds.
Shawcross notes that the biggest issue the audit brought up was that Martinez's agency couldn't document what Open Media Foundation was doing, and in response to the audit, she started reducing the group's capital expenditures.
Jenny Schiavone, the chief marketing officer for Denver Marketing and Media Services, denies that claim. "As part of their service agreement with the city, OMF guaranteed they could cover their own operating expenses, which are not allowable under PEG rules. When OMF began requesting operational support for facility rental, web personnel and Internet service payments, the city had to deny those requests, not capital expenditures."
Tensions have developed between Martinez and Shawcross and have led Denver Media Services and Open Media Foundation to a mediation process with a professional mediator contracted by the city to discuss how resources are being distributed, allocated and reported, and how the two entities are communicating, says Shawcross.
Martinez hopes that Open Media Foundation will include in its proposal documentation that delves into the organization's finances and operational structure, and that it will demonstrate that Open Media Foundation is positioned to take care of the city's assets. If the group does not provide those materials, Open Media Foundation will be out of the running.
Denver Open Media is funded mostly by cable subscriptions in Denver, which grew between 2015 and 2017. But it's a trend Martinez says the city can't rely on as more TV viewers turn to streaming services. She says that's why the city has cut Denver Open Media's budget in recent years.
But Shawcross argues that recent budget cuts have less to do with the state of cable subscriptions in Denver and more to do with Martinez’s personal priorities to allocate greater funds to Channel 8, the government-access station that she oversees.
The city firmly denies this. "OMF’s essential PEG fund requests have continuously been approved and fulfilled and are not going into Channel 8’s budget," says Schiavone.
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Open Media Foundation will propose to the city that the organization part ways with Denver Open Media, which will become its own nonprofit led by current station director Ann Theis — and possibly be re-branded. If the proposal is accepted, Denver Open Media would continue to run the cable-access channels.
Breaking ties would take Shawcross out of the picture and alleviate the tension that has developed between him and Denver Media Services that led to mediation, he says. Open Media Foundation would continue to support Denver Open Media financially until the city’s new facilities are constructed and public access can find a permanent home.
"Our biggest goal is making sure that community members that rely on public access don't have that voice taken away from them," says Shawcross.
Correction: This story misidentified the address for the site of the future community media center.