Frank DeSorbo, producer of Veterans Next Door, voices disappointment that his show may be cancelled in Bethlehem Photo by Ali Hibbs / Spotlight News
BETHLEHEM — During the monthly meeting of the Bethlehem Public Library Board of Trustees on Monday, Aug. 21, Library Director Geoff Kirkpatrick proposed making changes to the free BCN-TV programming that appears on channel 18 for Charter/Spectrum customers and channel 28 for Verizon FiOS customers. Ideally, he said he would like to eliminate the public access programming for those channels altogether.
No decisions were made that evening, but board members listened to Kirkpatrick’s proposal and then to comments made by several community members, as well as Town Supervisor John Clarkson and Bethlehem Central School District Chief Financial Officer Judi Kehoe.
Under Kirkpatrick’s proposal, which he would like to begin implementing as early as this fall, the channels would still air town government and school district programming, but independently produced public access programs would no longer be viewable on cable television. While program producers would still be able to use library equipment to create their various programs — which include religious programming, outreach and educational shows, hyperlocal interest programs, informative broadcasts and more — for distribution online, those programs would no longer appear on the cable channels provided for PEG (Public, Education and Government) programming purposes in Bethlehem.
Community members who spoke at the meeting — most of whom represented programs that would no longer be hosted on the cable channels under the proposed plan — voiced concerns about the loss of an established community resource and about population segments, primarily the elderly, who may not have the same access to online media and represent a large portion of BCN-TV viewership.
According to Kirkpatrick, the proposal was motivated by challenges currently facing the library’s production department — located just inside the building’s main entrance, in two small rooms that house the actual studio and an office/workspace for studio staff.
The limited space is one reason he cited for making changes. Another was the resignation of a part-time studio employee, leaving only one full-time studio manager. Rather than replace that employee, which would still leave the studio understaffed, he has suggested implementing a certification program — similar to the 3D printer certification program — that would train library users to operate the available equipment themselves, and allow them to digitally publish their content anywhere online.
“Training classes to educate people about using software and hardware is right in the wheelhouse of the library,” said Kirkpatrick. “Increasing technology literacy is a core mission.”
Meanwhile, the cable connections, cable-casting equipment and staff office would be moved to another location within the library. The connections and equipment would still be used to broadcast content sent to the library from the town and school district, as well as a community bulletin board produced by the library, on the cable network channels.
Kirkpatrick also cited a lack of funding for maintenance and operation of the equipment necessary to maintain current studio services. While the library currently receives PEG funding (a small fraction of subscriber fees paid to the town as a result of franchise contracts negotiated with cable service providers, $22,000 to $24,000 annually, that is apportioned between the library, school district and town to cover equipment costs for the production and delivery of programming), Kirkpatrick said it is not enough to update “critically outdated equipment,” nor is it available to use for the maintenance of that equipment, the staff personnel to run it or the utilities to keep it running. He also stated that the “equipment and software support needs are outside the expertise and scope of the IT department to maintain appropriately.”
Marc Gronich, a board member at Alliance for Community Media NY and the vice-chair of the Albany PEG Oversight Board, spoke at the meeting. “I don’t think you’ve worked hard enough,” he said, “and I don’t think that you have worked collaboratively with your neighbors here in Colonie, Guilderland and Albany to figure out whether we can have synergy of services.
“Before you go ahead and cut the cord here,” said Gronich, “you should really try a little harder to save this Bethlehem cable network TV station. This is worth it.”
Joyce Tompkins, of Glenmont, stood up to oppose the discontinuing of public access programs, saying that many residents stay updated via that channel and, moreover, the religious programming is an important consideration for elderly residents who may be less mobile.
Frank DeSorbo, producer of the program ‘Veterans Next Door,’ said he didn’t understand how the board passed a budget in mid-May, presumably with funds to continue the program, and is now considering eschewing the part-time position altogether, as well as passing up the PEG funding that will be lost if the board votes to implement Kirkpatrick’s proposal. (They would still get a nominal amount for cable-casting and to produce the community bulletin board.)
“There is a longer term financial issue,” Kirkpatrick told Spotlight News in an email. “Capital costs are fixed expenses. Staff costs are ongoing and ever increasing. New York State has enacted a levy limit on government entities like the library. The board directed me to examine every staff vacancy as they became available. If the workload created by the service is greater than the current staffing levels can meet, those services require a) greater resources b) efficiencies c) decrease in workload.”
Supervisor Clarkson stood up and, sympathizing with the board for their difficult job of balancing progress with preservation and limited resources, said that the town would be willing to help if the library needs any assistance going forward. That help, however, is unlikely to extend to taking over the public access production, according to Town Comptroller Michael Cohen, who said the costs would likely be prohibitive.
BCSD’s Judi Kehoe spoke as well. Noting that the school district produces its own programming, mostly school board meetings, that it regularly posts online, she said that she knew some district residents still go to BCN-TV for that information, although she was unsure how many. She asked that the library board do some research to understand how many people still rely on the channel before making any irreversible decisions.
“We regularly evaluate the services of the library to ensure that they are bringing the greatest benefit to the largest number of people,” said Kirkpatrick. “Everything is a compromise and no service that the library offers receives all the resources that could be used to provide the service.”