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CABLE READY <br> A NEW ERA FOR BUFFALO'S PUBLIC-ACCESS TV STATION

Wanted: Average Buffalonians with axes to grind, poetry to read, art to display, sermons to deliver, social services to offer and more; to help run fledgling public-access television station. Must first be willing to help untangle messy equipment and messier reputation. Expect low to no pay, but high rewards from total creative freedom.

If Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources were to take out a newspaper ad for the public-access operation -- Channel 18 on Adelphia cable -- it was handed a month ago, that's what it might look like.

Who actually would answer it is what Squeaky Wheel staffers are eager to find out. And soon.

Buffalo's 20-year-old public-access cable channel is about to get back on its feet -- after two troubled years and enough change and turmoil to make the place sound like a network-worthy soap opera.

"This place really kind of disintegrated from the inside out," says Robbie Butler, Squeaky Wheel's executive director of a year. "It was a real meltdown. Our job now is to get out there and let people in South Buffalo, on the East Side, in North Buffalo and on the West Side know that they have this service as a right. This is their TV station."

It always was, of course.

"Channel 18's taproot, if you will, goes all the way back to Sunship Communications, which started on the East Side in the 1970s and '80s," recalls Tony Conrad, a professor of video and music theory at the University at Buffalo's department of media study, a Squeaky Wheel board member and also a longtime board member of the station.

Under Sunship's reign, Conrad says, the channel not only aired explorations of African-American film but was "very, very active" in championing cultural causes all over the city.

Thanks to the deregulation movement of the 1980s, and the federal Telecommunications Act passed then, a percentage of a cable company's franchise profits must be handed back over to the city in which it operates, to fund public-access television channel by and for the people.

But then there came what, in TV parlance, would be your basic program interruption on a massive scale:

The building that housed Sunship exploded in a natural gas detonation. The station was forced to regroup, move and start again.

Built up from almost nothing in 1992, Channel 18 -- managed and operated by B-CAM, as it was known -- began offering TV production workshops and a community studio. It lent cameras and production equipment to anyone who had been trained, and who had an idea he wanted to get out to the community -- no matter how far afield that idea might have struck viewers.

While no one locally has ever pushed the envelope as far as access channels in some cities, the local lineup was at times eye-popping.

Fathers' rights, religion, music videos from India, independent documentaries, animation -- all of it found its way onto Channel 18 at one point or another. So did "Snap Judgments," in 1991.

A movie review show featuring reviewers who hadn't seen the films they discussed, "Snap Judgments" became cult-fave viewing on Friday night.

"It grew out of our regular Sunday breakfasts when we'd talk about what movies we wanted to see," says Ron Ehmke, who hosted the show with Richard Wicka, a Buffalo cable-access veteran who frequently broadcasts from his own basement. "We'd start talking about the stars, the poster for the film, the director's other work and so on."

Eventually they lugged a camera along to the diner and shot video of themselves as they ate and passed judgment on never-seen films, pausing to greet such guests as performance artist Holly Hughes and Mayor Masiello.

Its crowning moment: when director Hal Hartley got word of the show and sent letters and homemade videos to Ehmke and Wicka. Eventually their correspondence -- interspersed with shots of the hosts' heads posed near polo-pony dung heaps -- became an integral part of the final season.

Try that, network TV.

"You can thank the Supreme Court for that," says Butler. "It consistently has ruled to give broad First Amendment protections to what's considered allowable on public access."

What the nine justices couldn't seem to offer, though, was protection for the operation from the turmoil that nearly destroyed it two years ago.

In July 1997, serious problems erupted at BCTV, the new name for the operator of Channel 18 following B-CAM.

Director Michelle Howard -- hired in 1996 when original executive director Sharon Mooney left to run public-access cable in Los Angeles -- was fired amid allegations she had forged checks involving federal money intended for schoolchildren.

In the year that followed, a seemingly unending series of blows fell on the station like punches on an already-dazed boxer.

Howard was discovered to have a prior conviction for forgery and grand larceny.

An audit began of BCTV, revealing that Howard may have "misappropriated" up to $46,000 of the station's money.

Talk began of finding a new cable-access operator.

Deeply in debt, BCTV was evicted from its LaSalle Avenue headquarters. The IRS threatened an investigation and an end to the operation's not-for-profit status.

Then, a double whammy:

The discovery that even after being fired, Howard had continued to authorize paychecks for herself. And the sudden firing of Bernadine J. Kennedy, a board member who had blown the whistle on Howard.

Charges of racism invaded the Common Council's search for new providers. And as 1997 gave way to 1998, there was still no new provider. "That whole place was a festering wound," reflects Butler.

Slowly, Channel 18 rocked back into place. In August 1998, Howard, who had been indicted on felony grand larceny charges, was ordered by Erie County Judge John V. Rogowski to spend the next 90 days at a state drug treatment center and eventually repay the $36,693.72 she stole to feed her drug habit.

In October, work was poised to begin on the Apollo Theatre, 1346 Jefferson Ave. This long-awaited project would convert the old theater into a home for the public-access station under its new leadership.

Costing nearly $3 million, this telecommunications center will include an 8,000-square-foot television space, smaller interactive studios, educational and office space, all of it capped by a front featuring three large windows including one that will allow viewers to peep through, much like NBC's "Today" show at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. It is reportedly slightly ahead of schedule and may open in November.

Then, on St. Patrick's Day of this year, the city announced it had found its new operator for the TV station: the long-respected Squeaky Wheel/Buffalo Media Resources, which Butler says had put together "exhaustive" plans, aware that the city would not be fooled again into hiring bad management.

A stand-alone not-for-profit corporation, Buffalo Neighborhood Network, was created by Squeaky Wheel to contract with the city. BNN will be the official manager of Channel 18 public access.

The overall plan can be broken down into three parts for easy understanding:

Part 1 requires going over to the station's current home, the Langston Hughes Institute, and wading through what Butler says is an incredible nest of wires, cables and equipment simply left lying around.

Part 2 means trying to figure out how, on a budget of $140,000, they will fund salaries, equipment, office supplies, benefits, insurance, security and advertising. "A lot of days, I'm sure we'll be bringing in paper towels ourselves," she laughs.

And Part 3 is to encourage all Buffalonians to get involved. One aspect that has Butler and BNN excited is the prospect of doing live shows from the Jefferson Avenue facility.

"Be part of the plan," she urges. "This exists for you. I'd like to see more educational outreach, more call-in shows, shows by teens, by seniors. Talk. Arts. Music. If you want to learn, we can show you how."

Ehmke says he is too busy at Righteous Babe Records to return to the fun and challenge of public-access television. But like many in the arts community, he's happy Squeaky Wheel will be running the place for the next five years.

"In a lot of ways, Squeaky Wheel was at the birth of cable access years ago. They're right for this."

He thinks that at this point, public access has the capability to excite people the way publishing one's own 'zine or Web site does.

"The downside is, you tend to be doing this for a very tiny audience, which can frustrate you and wear you down after a while."

But the good side, chortles Ehmke, who once wore a bra on his show for a reason that escapes him now, "is that you can say whatever you want."

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