For the past quarter-century, Missoula Community Access Television has provided a forum for diverse viewpoints, gavel-to-gavel coverage of government meetings and training for ordinary citizens to create their own television programs.
It will be celebrating their 25th anniversary with an open house from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the studios at 500 N. Higgins Ave. There will be beer and wine, soft drinks and food from Bravo Catering and general manager Joel Baird will interview volunteers, producers and board members from MCAT's colorful past during a live broadcast of the event on Charter Cable Channel 189.
MCAT will also be showing segments from its 6,000-title vault of local videos – many on VHS tapes – from over the years, which includes highlights from City Council chambers in the early 1990s, the Roxy Theater fire and a public hearing on the riots during the Hells Angels' visit in 2000.
Live entertainment will be provided Way Cool Music and Asaph Adonai on piano.
MCAT formed in 1989 when a group of citizens persuaded the city of Missoula to sign a franchise agreement with the local cable provider – which has gone through numerous ownership changes and is now Charter – to fund the creation of a local public television station.
Baird started as a member of MCAT's board of directors that same year. He eventually decided he wanted to become an employee and film City Council meetings because “it paid $8 an hour, and that was a big deal.”
Over the years, he has been able to hire one other full-time employee – media assistance grant supervisor Ron Scholl – and nine other part-time employees.
MCAT has also provided equipment rentals, and channel time and training to allow people to broadcast their own ideas and shows.
“In that sense, we were the precursor to YouTube,” Baird explained. “Someone walks in and says ‘I want to make a TV show.’ We will give you channel time, training and equipment. We will give you a TV show. We’re working to help you. We’re content neutral. We don’t even want to know what it’s about. We don’t care.”
Lee Banville, a journalism professor at the University of Montana who spent 13 years at PBS' "NewsHour," said community access television still provides a critical role despite the explosion of ways people can now consume information.
"In a lot of ways, both public television and community access television face the same problem of how you define yourself when anybody can get a webcam and point it at themselves and 'broadcast,' even though it’s really not broadcasting," Banville said. "What MCAT did so well is bring new voices into the media landscape. The trick is it's not hard to do anymore. It will be a real challenge to transition to still unlocking this power of giving a voice to people who don’t have a voice, and who are you supplying it to? It's a huge challenge. The service they provide is critical, even though it isn’t as technologically difficult now. And so that’s not to say there isn’t value."
Banville said MCAT must re-evaluate the role it plays in the community.
"A lot of what they do is relevant," Banville said. "Even though it’s not exciting. They document government meetings. Those are things peope are not doing with webcams. Social media isn’t going to naturally fill that role. And I think that’s the thing that would be at risk if they were not there at these meetings. People only go when they're interested, but MCAT’s been there all along. That’s a role other media outlets don't fill."
MCAT has hosted everything from Baha’i devotees having discussions about the end of the world to a spikey-haired punk-rock Christian to a cyclist documenting what it’s like to ride the streets of Missoula with a GoPro. It also provided comprehensive coverage of the condemnation trail involving the city’s water system this year, part of the 1,200 annual hours it is contractually obligated to give the city in services.
Because Charter uses public property such as alleys to place its utility lines, the company pays the city about $700,000 per year in rental fees. Of that, $500,000 goes to MCAT every year. Baird said that because the amount of funding depends on the number of cable subscribers in Missoula, MCAT faces an uncertain future because fewer people are paying for it.
“Cable television is like telephone booths of the 21st century,” he said.
Eventually, Baird has dreams of MCAT moving into the Missoula Public Library when it gets a new building and switching the station's funding source to a bond measure.
“We have a parks and trails bond, and that will cost a taxpayer $38 a year for a homeowner with a property valued at $200,000,” Baird explained. “It would only take $2 per year to completely fund MCAT. Think about it: You could fund democracy for $2 a year.”
Baird said MCAT is supposed to serve three areas: public, education and government. To that end, MCAT provided an artist-in-the-schools program throughout 1990s, and Baird said thousands of local high school students were introduced to media classes years before the Media Arts program was established at the University of Montana.
In the early 2000s, MCAT expanded its coverage of local government, eventually taping nearly every city meeting and adding coverage of the county commission in 2005. MCAT also offers production services to nonprofit, civic, religious and spiritual groups, and provides 12 hours of staff time to groups that want to make a program. To date, MCAT has donated more than $1 million of in-kind services to 500 groups in the area.
Baird has hosted a local public affairs talk show for the past 15 years and has interviewed more than 800 guests on his two programs, "What's Up Missoula" and "Missoula Live." In fact, he was busy Monday interviewing an animal control officer about leash laws now that the weather has warmed up.
MCAT also recently partnered with Missoula County Public Schools to help establish a Media Academy at Sentinel High School.
For more information, visit mcat.org.