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May 26, 2011

Thinking Local

I believe I’ve written before about how lucky I feel to have grown up in a pre-cable, VHF/UHF era where “local affiliate” seemed like something more relevant than just the people complaining what time Jay Leno is on and deciding whether Days of Our Lives airs at 1:00 or 3:00. In my hazy memory it denotes those local or regional personalities who seemed so Big Time; the too-bright lighting and low quality video that exposed how chintzy television sets actually are and how much makeup and hair styling is required to (try and) make people look good; the idiosyncratic collection of airtime filler collected from various licensing deals over the decades (and which gave me my early and defining film history education). I would guess that this was how viewers in the southeast would have experienced Turner Broadcasting (WTBS) in its early days, but, and I don’t know if this true or just the aging curmudgeon in me, but the channel’s shift to a major national presence through cable seems like a profound shift to a certain flattening of localness. I enjoyed CHiPS and Beastmaster as much as anyone, but, irony, kitsch, and nostalgia are the amour fou of cultural consumption and the sub-prime mortgages of cultural capital — intense, ostentatious, and absolutely unsustainable.

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Admittedly, I have to cop to a degree of disingenuousness here. It’s difficult to make an argument for “localness” when, in fact, the areas where I grew up were far from urban centers and depended much more on extended regional networks. This meant that my early television exposure was as much from Portland as it was from Northern California, which means my points of reference are as equally Ramblin’ Rod

as they are Cal Worthington (and his dog, Spot)

One exception to this was the radio. The town where I spent most of my childhood was at the bottom of one of a series of deep vallies in the region, enclosed by major mountain ranges to the east and west and a smaller groups of mountains, hills, and bluffs to the north and south. At that time most transmitters were not powerful enough to reach our little divot, so we had two local radio stations — the Top 40 AM station and the FM news and radio station. Eventually we caught up to the times and the two swapped frequencies, but it took the influence of New Country and Rush Limbaugh to set things right.

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Okay, okay. More disingenuity and exceptions. (Question: Is the unreliable narrator a reliable narrative device if the narrator keeps admitting to unreliability?) There were other regional radio and more local television stations that reached the communities where I lived. Those, of course, would be public broadcasting stations: KSYS Medford (now rebranded as SOPTV Southern Oregon Public Television), KSOR and KSRS radio (now rebranded as part of Jefferson Public Radio), and any other number of public radio stations from distant translators I could tune in on clear, starry nights (as long as I wasn’t listening to the Trail Blazers game).

At that time I don’t think I really understood the organizational and distribution structure of PBS, NPR, and PRI, so it’s difficult to recall the exact division between what was locally produced and what was national. My memories are much more impressionistic along those lines. I remember the wooden Big Bird cutout they used during pledge week on which they taped feathers with donor names and which, even to a six-year-old, looked pretty moth-eaten. I recall getting huffy when All Things Considered or Prairie Home Companion came on because it interrupted the classical music. I remember the satisfaction of seeing the names of businesses I knew or my doctor among the list of funders in the donor bumpers.

This was something different than Ramblin’ Rod or good ol’ Cal. Even though in TV psychology terms I felt like I “knew” them, it was a distant knowledge. They were far-flung entities I could imagine meeting but couldn’t imagine ever getting the chance to do so. Even if I had gotten the chance, I know now that it would have been a depressing let down, all polyester, faded paint, and desperation. But public media was something different. It was just there, dependable. The people involved were the people I saw at the mall, the parents of schoolmates, the people who did things because, well, that was part of living in a community.

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I’ll give you a minute to wipe the treacle from your computer screen. It was not my intention to get all Mayberry here — I did after all gather all my truck and humped it to New York City when I got the chance — but one of the great lessons of living in New York is just how scalable “local” is. Yes, WNET is a major producer of national PBS programming, but that doesn’t subsume their local commitment. For a number of years in the 1970s and 80s, they produced TV Lab, a program which gave space to video artists like Nam June Paik and Bill Viola and to experimental documentaries and dramatic features.

The lower east side of my hometown was an RV park at the County Fairgrounds, but if it had been a thriving arts community maybe we would have had similar programming. But even beyond NET are things like NYC TV and Radio that air programs about and for local neighborhoods, music, and cultural groups, or the long tradition of public access television now supported by the Manhattan Neighborhood Network

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As a jaded New Yorker I am contracted to at least act like I disdain my small time roots (though, really, people get locked into neighborhood mentalities here that are just as isolated as growing up in rural areas). However, local is not small. Local is an area one defines through geography and accessibility and the individual urge to expand those definitions. Local television and radio, especially as expressed through public media and public broadcasting, bring us a look at the world while bringing us a connection to our neighbors. And this is why we work to preserve such content, to recall and reenforce those memories and those connections.

Joshua Ranger

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