A Report from the CAN TV 40th Anniversary Gala

Posted by Mitchell - December 2, 2023 (entry 761)

I owe my political awakening to cable public access television. As I've mentioned before, I happened to see a program of a radical political persuasion that spoke to me, and that, I don't exaggerate, changed my life. That, I think, is the potential and the power of public access television (and what I feel is the comparative disappointment of the PBS-model of public broadcasting). I feel like I owe a big debt of gratitude to public access television, and which is why I've joined in struggles to protect cable public access television, in Chicago and elsewhere, lo these many years, some of which I chronicled in last month's Chicago Media Action newsletter.

Among public access channels, I'm most familiar with CAN TV, Chicago's fleet of public access cable television channels, since I spent most of my adult life in Chicago, and I fought with CAN TV, appeared on CAN TV, and helped produce shows for CAN TV.

Fortunately, there are still some programs of a radical political character, such as Live From The Heartland -- adapted from a radio show of the same name even though the Heartland Cafe for which the show was named and was based no longer exists -- and the venerable Democracy Now! -- which still airs daily on CAN TV channel 19 and which CMA served as a nonprofit sponsor so that the show could appear on CAN TV.

I'm also on the CAN TV mailing list, and if you consider the contents of an email from CAN TV dated November 20, 2023, it's of a striking character to help serve the underserved. The features include:

  • A documentary special from the Marginalized series, "Transgender in Chicago"
  • An interview with Channyn Parker with the Brave Space Alliance, "a social services and advocacy network for trans and gender-nonconforming people on the South Side of Chicago"
  • "Manifold: Divinity", described as "an exploration of Black and Queer Identity"
  • An episode of "Brothers Talking: Unpacking Toxic Masculinity"

And indeed this year marks the 40th anniversary since CAN TV, which the station celebrated in two ways: First, at the CAN TV studios in the Illinois Medical District on August 3, 2023, CAN TV organized a celebration which basically amounted to a community potluck -- people could bring meals and snacks to share, it was free and open to attend, and there was a band that provided live music.

Second, last month, on November 17, 2023, CAN TV continued its anniversary celebration with an Anniversary Gala at The Geraghty, a "sophisticated event space" on Chicago's south side. I attended both anniversary celebrations, but to attend the CAN TV Anniversary gala I paid a $350 ticket. I paid my ticket because I felt like I wanted to give back to CAN TV, and besides how often does a 40th anniversary of anything come around?

I was assigned to Table #1 of the twenty-five tables for the gala in the main presentation hall, complete with a (vegan!) dinner. Fun fact: Of the seven people at my table, I was the only white person. The requested attire was "creative chic", but amounted to formal ballroom attire -- tuxedos and ballgowns were common. The work staff at The Geraghty, who seemed to number in the dozens, were professionally dressed.

As I would learn in the the days leading up to the gala, what follows struck me as, how should I put this, potentially worrisome. At the gala, I was assigned an auction paddle, number #299, for an auction to take place during the gala. I could bid on assorted goodies, for as much as $5,000 a pop. Some of the items up for bid echoed the "sponsorship opportunities" for the gala that were posted on the website. (I took a screengrab of the prices for future incriminating evidence posterity.)

The "opportunities" ranked in support tiers starting at $7,500 and going up to $50,000. What really irked me about this list was that some of the items up for bid included things that were previously low-cost or free: being acknowledged as "underwriters" on first run-episodes of current CAN TV programs, and 30-second engagement promotionals. This could run counter to the longstanding policy that CAN TV wouldn't charge for programming: they made broadcast time, both programming and 30-to-60 second promotionals, available for people where time was available.

I dare say that many of the activists who availed themselves of CAN TV for promotional work in the past couldn't afford half of the fee I paid for a single evening's ticket. And what's more is that CAN TV used to pride themselves on being able to do a lot with a shoestring budget. Barbara Popovic, longtime former Executive Director of CAN TV, did boast at the 2003 Midwest Forum on Media Ownership that the cost of the budget of CAN TV to fill five channels over the course of a year would pay for a single 30-second ad on the Super Bowl (which cost just over $2 million dollars in 2003 dollars, nearly $3 million in 2023 dollars).

That's not to say that CAN TV couldn't or wouldn't take money: CAN TV was and is a 501c3 nonprofit which can accept charitable donations. Nor is that to say that CAN TV wouldn't sell services: they did, and still do, offer certification and training classes for a fee, but at very low cost. But offering the underwriting of airtime at four or five figures? I can't help but think and fear that this might portend worse.

As I mentioned last month, CAN TV staff fought and succeeded to form a staff union, but as chronicled in a South Side Weekly article published earlier this year (which I also mentioned last month and which you should read and is very much worth your time), there has been a concerted effort to break the union.

One commenter to the South Side Weekly story referred to this spate of recent developments as "turning our public station into Darrius and Friends", a reference to CAN TV's current Executive Directory, Darrious Hillman, whose weekly signature show airs in prime time on Tuesday evenings. Many of the longstanding shows on CAN TV of a radical character, particularly on issues of class and economics -- like Labor Beat, Chicago Independent Television, and the weekly program of the Gay Liberation Network -- have all stopped production for various reasons unrelated to the these changes.

But I fear that CAN TV is becoming, maybe already is, a forum increasingly hostile to radical ideas. The South Side Weekly article I mentioned above began with a story about a CAN TV show called The Elders which was critical about CAN TV, called "CAN TV Has Changed". As the article notes, after multiple episodes of complaints about CAN TV were aired, CAN TV shut down The Elders.

What's happening/happpened to CAN TV is a shame but also an irony: During what I will boldly refer to as the "neoliberalism era" (roughly 1980 to 2020), CAN TV had been a forum for activist and out-of-the-mainstream ideas seeking where they couldn't get on commercial TV or on PBS (believe me, we tried). Now with neoliberalism on shakier ground, CAN TV is now apparently being morphed into a more neoliberal-friendly media outlet.

This change is not inevitable; it can be reversed and CAN TV can be restored to the potential that it once was and can be again. CAN TV is connected to the local Chicago government; I could mention this to my alder and to the city. We could open hearings to investigate further, possibly force Darrious Hilmon to testify publicly for these and other actions. Just to offer a couple of suggestions; adding to this list and implementing these and other ideas is an exercise I leave to the reader.

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