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Cable Station WYOU Will Keep City Funding -- For Now

WYOU will live for at least another year.

Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has reversed his decision to scrap funding for community access TV station WYOU, which has been on the air for more than three decades.

"WYOU is one of those creative, quirky things that makes Madison Madison," Cieslewicz said Wednesday. "It's weird -- in the kind of way that makes you smile and often makes you think."

Unfortunately, the mayor continued, "we're in for a period of fiscal austerity and that combined with the uncertainty of cable fee funding in the wake of the new cable TV law makes it unlikely that we can continue supporting WYOU from the city level."

Charter Communications is dropping its local cable franchise agreement with Madison in favor of a statewide franchise allowed under a recent change in state law regulating cable TV providers. All financing for public, educational and government channels, or PEG channels, is set to end by February 2011.

In addition, Charter has moved Madison's PEG channels to the digital tier, reducing viewership to only those who can afford and want Charter's digital service.

WYOU broadcasts on "4 no more," said the stations's interim director, Guy Swansboro, who also serves as vice chairman of WYOU's board of directors. Since Sept. 30, the station has been on analog channel 95 and Charter digital channel 991.

In February, it will only be found on digital channel 991. At midnight on Feb. 17, all major TV stations in the country will stop broadcasting analog signals and switch to digital.

Charter provided more than $400,000 annually in PEG access fees for the city's two community broadcast stations: WYOU and Madison City Channel, which broadcasts city government meetings.

Currently, under a three-year agreement, Charter charges 63 cents per subscriber each month for the PEG channels. The fee provided $272,000 to City Channel this year -- nearly half its revenue -- and $139,000 to WYOU, about 80 percent of its revenue.

Cieslewicz wanted to give the nearly $140,000 designated for WYOU to City Channel, which broadcasts government meetings and civic events. This would spare the city from having to use property tax dollars to help supplement funds for City Channel.

After a recent meeting with WYOU's board of directors, Cieslewicz called the station and said he would leave WYOU's budget alone for 2009, but warned that the station would only get half its current allocation the following year.

By 2010, WYOU hopes to be more self-sufficient, Swansboro said. The station is in the process of hiring a new executive director. The former director, Charles Uphoff, was fired in April.

The station will also do more outreach to let the public know its mission and explain its importance to the community.

"City Channel is the channel that uses actual tax dollars and not WYOU," Swansboro said. People need to start asking questions like, "Why is the government channel more important than the people's channel?"

Swansboro said Cieslewicz didn't know much about WYOU when they met.

"He didn't know that we taught classes. He didn't know that we had children's groups in here. He didn't even know that the executive director had been fired in April. I think he found out that he can't count on his people to give him information, at least about WYOU," Swansboro said.

Cieslewicz said he was happy to learn that the WYOU board is already planning for a day without PEG access fee support.

"I was very pleased that the board and I could agree on a phase-out of city cable fee backing and that WYOU -- like WORT on radio -- is likely to live on with broader community support," the mayor said.

The station is closing in on hiring a new executive director, and that could happen as soon as Monday, said one WYOU employee.

Swansboro didn't want to disclose the candidate's name, but said the woman comes from the music industry, and was instrumental in the early development and marketing of bands like the Police, U2 and REM.

"She has worked in marketing, but not for any tax-exempt organizations. She definitely has experience in trying to sell weird products, which I suppose WYOU is," Swansboro said.

The station's potpourri of programming for October includes a Hindu cultural hour, a segment on iPod repair, "Cooking with Bob," which focuses on whatever Bob Swokowski is grilling, music from the Capitol City Band and Amy Goodman's nationally syndicated news hour, "Democracy Now!"

Robert Lughai, WYOU's education director and program coordinator, said he is thrilled that the station doesn't have to close up shop.

"We've been around since 1974. There's been a long legacy of independent producers and people just from the community who have come through the doors and have produced either one-time programs, documentaries, or had regular television shows, and that would have ended," Lughai said.

Traditionally, public access TV hasn't had to make money because it's been a service to the community, Lughai pointed out.

"Anyone in the community who wanted to have a voice, who wanted to put something on the air, they could do it. So our focus was, and still is, service -- being here to help them get their ideas onto video and on the air. Our focus was not like a business such as to make money. We had PEG funding to do that," he said.

The station has looked into streaming online. But YouTube has its limitations, Lughai said.

YouTube only allows a maximum of 10 minutes, and WYOU has television shows that are half an hour, an hour or two hours long.

People don't realize that the station at 609 E. Washington Ave. -- between Pizza Extreme and the Madison Chamber of Commerce -- functions as an education center, Lughai said.

Staff members teach people how to use digital cameras and how to do editing on nonlinear editing software. At a university, a student would pay thousands of dollars to learn how to edit, Lughai said. "Or you can come here and become a member for $40 and we will get you editing."

Plus, the station offers summer youth groups where kids learn to make television shows. The station lets community members use its professional cameras and green screen studio.

"Every day there is some independent producer, which is just someone who lives in the community, coming in and editing or filming or using our studio," Lughai said. "There's just a lot going on here that most of the community isn't aware of, which is a shame. Our goal is to get the word out more that we are here and we are here to help."

John Foust, president of the Wisconsin Association of PEG Access Channels, called WYOU one of Wisconsin's top public access channels and said he hopes Cieslewicz will reconsider his decision to cut its funding for 2010.

"It's one of the largest public access channels that we have. No doubt WYOU needs more guidance. It would certainly benefit from professional management and things can be reconsidered but I would not want it to disappear," Foust said.

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