Future uncertain for Denver service that runs public-access media for thousands

The city says it's working on a "transition" plan away from its contract with the Open Media Foundation. The details of the plan aren't yet known. (Photo by Alex Burness for The Colorado Independent)

Next month Denver will shake up its public-access resource for media production and training.

What that shake-up looks like, and the next location of the service — which allows for more than 2,000 citizen- and nonprofit-produced shows and podcasts a year to be broadcast over local channels — aren’t yet clear.

What is clear: The city’s contract with Denver’s Open Media Foundation, which runs public access, expires Dec. 19 and is not being renewed.

The city is working on a “transition” plan away from Open Media and toward an as-yet unknown solution that Jenny Schiavone, the city’s marketing director, said will ensure the existing level of service for public-access clients — something Open Media’s director, Tony Shawcross, doubts is possible, at this point.

“We are working on an interim transition plan so we can make sure we’re not disrupting services to the community,” Schiavone said. “We’re putting in every stopgap that we can.”

Schiavone said she did not know yet where the services would be housed as of Dec. 20. There is some chance, she said, that those services would go dark for a time.

“I’m not anticipating that at this point, but we still have a little ways to go before I can say solidly that we won’t have any dark period,” she said.

Schiavone said the city hopes to release the transition plan next week.

Eventually, public-access production is expected to move to Rocky Mountain PBS’s planned headquarters at 21st and Arapahoe streets in downtown Denver. That facility is slated to open in 2020, and the city is purchasing about 4,500 square feet of space there.

Shawcross said he’s concerned that by uprooting now, the city will diminish the level of service to the public, even as it vows not to.

“While I think they can support ongoing scheduling and broadcasting of the channels, that’s not all that’s important to our members,” he said, questioning the city’s capacity to offer the same quality of studios, training, equipment and professional expertise ”to provide a voice for traditionally marginalized and underserved communities.”

In issuing a request for proposals for future open-access providers in the fall, the city indicated that the public access office would be reduced to a single staffer. Open Media currently has four full-time staffers assigned to public access, and they’ve warned repeatedly that with less staff the public will see worse service.

The deadline for those requested proposals passed in October, and the city says it did not receive enough proposals and will be issuing another request this week, in the hopes of finding a future contractor. Open Media responded to the original request from the city and later submitted a request to extend its current contract, Shawcross said, “so we could ensure a smooth transition to whatever the city has in mind, in a way that doesn’t harm the hundreds of individuals and nonprofits that rely on us.

“They rejected that proposal,” he added.

Denver long has anticipated the need for changes in public-access media services, Schiavone has said, in part because public access receives funding from fees paid by cable subscribers, who are increasingly terminating their cable contracts.

Those subscription fees benefit not only public access, but also Channel 22, operated by Denver Public Schools and Emily Griffith Technical College, and Channel 8, a government channel operated by the city. The city oversees allocation of the fees to the three sources, and Shawcross believes that having the director of Channel 8 control the distribution of that funding presents a “conflict of interest” and prohibits true accountability regarding fair allocation of funds. He also believes that the apparent divorce between his organization and Denver shows the city is consolidating its power over public media, which will lead to restricted access.

Schiavone has denied the suggestion that the city is trying to seize power over this entity.

“We’re not trying to take control of the operation,” she said in October, while the first request for proposals was still pending. “We don’t today, and won’t in this new model, either.”

Alex covers state and local politics with a focus on criminal justice and immigration. He is a D.C. native who's lived in Illinois, Chile and now Denver.